The Crux of Rural Development

The last two days, I’ve seen two really interesting sets of maps that really highlight the importance of geography and population density when it comes to development in Latin America.

The first is two maps of Brazil that the Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute retweeted comparing Brazil’s Human Development Index scores by what appears to be municipality in 1991 and 2010.

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The most striking thing is the huge leap forward Brazil has made in terms of quality of life in two decades. Nearly everywhere there has been a substantial improvement in their HDI scores, with much of the country (especially when accounting for population) now living in areas with “high” HDI scores. The second thing that jumps out is the tremendous regional differences that still exist. Some of this is explainable by geography; many of the lowest scoring regions are in Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest, where transport is difficult and therefore access to many important services. Much of this can be explained by population density. Comparing these maps with a map of Brazil’s population density shows that the green areas are almost all in the most densely populated parts of the country, which also happen to be its most economically dynamic. The exception to this is the Northeast, which has been persistently poorer and less developed than Brazil’s south, even in its large cities.

The other piece is an extended article from Venezuelan news website Prodavinci (in Spanish) examining the demographics of illiteracy across the country. Essentially, Venezuela has a literacy rate of roughly 95 percent, yet only five states and the Federal District of Caracas have a literacy rate at or above that level. The author breaks down the 2011 Census data at various levels down to parroquia (roughly akin to a county) to show how the inequality is geographically distributed. At that level, one can see clearly that cities and towns have much higher literacy rates while rural areas have lower ones, with the most geographically isolated being the most illiterate.

The upshot of these is that it illustrates the big quandary of rural development: it’s really hard. Because populations are more spread out in rural areas it is harder and more expensive to provide educational and health services. Similarly, cities are almost by definition more economically dynamic and richer than rural areas thanks to the benefits denser population allows in terms of specialization and economies of scale. Combine this with brain drain from rural to urban area and policy makers are left trying to provide expensive services to areas that are economically static where many of those who become educated leave for the cities, exacerbating the problem. None of this is unique to these countries or even Latin America as a whole—though the physical vastness of Latin America relative to its population doesn’t help—a few weeks ago there was some furor in the United States over a study that showed that many rural counties in the US have life expectancies lower than in many third world countries.

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