Latin America and the Caribbean has a difficult puzzle to solve. Growing national income is feeding demands for more and better government services. At the same time, because many governments increased expenditure during the years of the commodity boom and now face less favorable external conditions, they will need to adjust. In a context of external headwinds there is pressure to look to domestic sources of growth. What can be done to make ends meet?
Our new flagship report, Better Spending for Better Lives, argues that the key lies in doing more with less, and reallocating spending without shortchanging the future. Nothing indicates the region can’t make that leap. But governments will have to carry out much needed reforms that ensure smarter and more efficient spending while explaining their actions to their citizens. Greater efficiency would have many benefits. Among other things, it could create a virtuous circle by convincing citizens that they can trust their governments to invest their taxes well over the long haul rather than squandering them in waste and corruption.
More capital spending needed
One of the big losers when it comes to public expenditure has been capital spending, a key ingredient for growth. Much of the increase in public expenditure during the years of the commodity boom went towards current expenditure, not capital expenditure. Moreover, in times of fiscal consolidation, the brunt of adjustment went into capital expenditure cuts, even though capital expenditure’s impact on output—it’s multiplier effect—is much greater than that of current expenditure. Private investment, another key driver of growth, also is affected, as private investors are loath to sink their money in places with low capital spending where they may find inferior roads and ports.
This problem of expenditure allocation becomes evident when looking at the numbers: between 1980 and 2018, current spending per capita in Latin America and the Caribbean rose by 72%—an increase in line with the rest of the world. But capital expenditure per capita in real terms remained stagnant. Indeed, as a share of overall spending, it declined significantly—more than that of any other developed or developing area of the world.
Investing in children and the future
Another way not to shortchange the future is by investing in children, the pillar of human capital accumulation and growth. Yet, when examining how much the region spends on children vis-à-vis the elderly, some startling figures emerge: on average, the region spends $4,000 dollars on each pensioner but only $1,000 on each child. This calls for a better balance in how the region spends on the present versus the future.
If adjustment is needed, there are various sources of inefficiency that can be tackled for substantial savings. This is where the “doing more with less” comes into play. Taking three key components of public expenditure, namely the wage bill, transfers and public procurement, the report finds that, on average, the region could save as much as 4.4% of GDP if those expenditures were made efficiently. Wage differentials between the public and private sector—particularly for low-skilled workers—are on average close to 25%, meaning that a worker in the public sector earns one quarter more than his or her counterpart in the private sector. Moreover, several transfers, including cash transfers and non-contributory pensions—which in principle should go to the poor—end up in the hands of those who are not poor. These leakages should be avoided. Yet another issue is that of public procurement: as much as 17% of acquisitions could be the result of either improper pricing or corruption.
With this type of performance, it is no surprise that citizens have little trust in government. Yet our report goes further, by analyzing what type of expenditure citizens demand when trust in government is low. A key finding is that with little trust, citizens prefer transfers over more profitable long-term expenditures like education or infrastructure that may or may not materialize. In this sense, the old saying “better a bird in hand than two in the bush” largely applies.
The importance of democratic institutions in this effort is crucial. Most people in the region live in well-established democracies. But legislative institutions tend to be weak, providing few incentives for members of congress to build a career. And this leads to an inability to think long term and forge inter-temporal negotiations that can be key to supporting long-term expenditures. Thus, both on the demand and the supply side of expenditure, transfers win over human and physical capital accumulation, or put another way, the present wins over the future.
Greater efficiency to break a vicious cycle
Greater efficiency in spending is the only way to break this vicious cycle. Governments need to be able to do more, with less or the same amount of resources. They must show that they can deliver better services, and, in the process, earn trust in their ability to make long-term investments that will improve citizen welfare. This will require changes, ranging from new fiscal rules that protect capital investment to transformations in political institutions that favor long-term progress over short-term interests. It also may involve creating mechanisms to allow citizens to better monitor government spending. Ultimately, there are no alternatives. If Latin America and the Caribbean is to break out of its productivity slump and achieve the standards of living of more developed countries, it needs to do more with less, increase capital spending and set its eyes on the future.
Our flagship publication Better Spending for Better Lives will be launched in Washington, DC on October 16. Join us in person or via live stream.