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Economist uses Jewish principles in fight against Latin poverty
JTA / August 15, 2004

By Larry Luxner

WASHINGTON — It's easy to pick out Bernardo Kliksberg from among the 1,400 or so staffers working at the Washington-based Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

He's the only one wearing a kipa.

Kliksberg, 64, is chief of the bank's Inter-American Initiative on Social Capital, Ethics and Development. And his Orthodox Jewish faith has given him an unusual air of respectability in an organization dominated by Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Catholics and Protestants.

"As the manager of a very important program that deals with ethics and development, I bring to the IDB a Jewish approach, because the Jews have always put a priority on how to apply ethics to economic issues," he said.

The Argentine-born Kliksberg, interviewed in his fourth-floor office at IDB headquarters, is fluent in English, Spanish, Hebrew, Yiddish and Portuguese.

He's been with the IDB for 10 years, having been appointed to his current job by the bank's chief, Enrique Iglesias, the former president of Uruguay. Before that, the economist spent 25 years heading a United Nations anti-poverty program in Latin America.

Since its founding in 1959, the IDB — the principal source of multilateral financing for economic, social and institutional development projects in Latin America and the Caribbean — has loaned over $106 billion toward projects valued at over $263 billion. The bank has 46 member countries including Israel.

"At the bank, we are trying to sensitize the leadership of Latin America to develop economic policies with a human face — an economy for everyone, not just the elite," he told JTA.

The Initiative on Social Capital, Ethics and Development is partially funded by the Norwegian government. Its board is comprised of leaders as diverse as former Chilean President Patricio Aylwin; Ruth Cardoso, president of Brazil's Comunidade Solidária; Cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, the archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the New York-based World Jewish Congress (WJC).

"The initiative's mission is to act as a catalyst in promoting the areas of ethics, development and social capital in governments, political parties, trade unions, universities, religious communities, NGOs and organizations working for the collective well-being of societies throughout the region," said Kliksberg, noting that one of his chief goals is to "promote the analysis and discussion of ethical challenges and dilemmas, and ensure that chief decision-makers take them into account."

Besides being a top IDB official, Kliksberg is also president of the board of advisors of AMIA, Argentina's largest Jewish organization. In addition, he's a noted academic, having written 33 books on social issues, poverty and economic development.

His latest book is a 122-page volume entitled "Social Justice: A Jewish Perspective," which draws on Jewish sources going as far back as Moses to argue against the grossly unfair distribution of wealth in Latin America — particularly in countries like Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Peru."Social Justice" is composed of eight theses with titles like "Judaism Believes Poverty Must be Eradicated," "Society Must Actively Solve Social Problems" and "Judaism Educates the Heart for Solidarity."

Kliksberg's book — which has already gone through four Spanish editions and one English edition — references a wide range of sources from Moses Maimonides and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson to UNICEF and the World Bank.

The WJC's Singer, who helped arrange funding to publish Kliksberg's treatise, said the book is a "must-read for all those who want to change the world, who do not accept it as it is, but dream of it as it ought to be."

In it, Kliksberg urges international financial institutions like the IMF as well as individual governments to adapt the principles of tzedaka, volunteerism and other mitzvot to seemingly intractable problems like income distribution inequality.

He pointed out that "the joint assets of the three richest people on the planet presently exceed the GNP of the 48 least developed countries as a whole. If each of the 200 wealthiest people made a yearly contribution of 1% of their assets, it would be possible to ensure access to primary education for all the children in the world."

Interestingly, Kliksberg's work has been cited by a number of Catholic leaders in Argentina, including Bishop Justo Laguna of Buenos Aires, who says "I have read this book four times. It has moved me. It calls us urgently to action."

On Sept. 5, Kliksberg will lead a world congress against poverty in Buenos Aires, with the participation of Caritas and other international Catholic organizations.

"The involvement of AMIA and other Jewish organizations in the general fight against poverty has greatly improved the community's image," he said. "The Jews are also suffering, and AMIA has done a lot to communicate this to the Argentine people."

Kliksberg said one of his biggest challenges is convincing American Jewish leaders that Argentina's 220,000 Jews still need outside assistance — despite a projected 10% growth in the country's GDP this year.

"Jewish communities in the United States have the impression that the situation has been overcome, that there's no more need for help," he said. "We're hearing from Jewish community leaders that Argentina is no longer on the endangered list. This is a very dangerous impression."

In fact, he said, at the end of 2003, poor people represented 48% of the total population of 36 million, down from 58% a year earlier. Poverty means earning less than $250 a month. Even so, "the great majority of the population earns less than $150 a month," he said, while unemployment and underemployment total 31%.

"Some 35,000 Argentine Jews survive thanks to the community's social safety network. Each day, AMIA feeds 4,000 people. Without this food, they wouldn't eat at all," he said. "There are also 2,000 homeless Jewish people and an increasing number of Jewish street children. This is unprecented in modern Jewish history."

He added: "At least 40,000 Argentines go through the garbage, and most of them were middle-class people just a few years ago. They were economically destroyed during the 1990s, during the Menem presidency."

Kliksberg isn't shy about criticizing Argentina's former president, Carlos Menem, who led the country for 10 years and is widely blamed for driving Argentina into the worst economic crisis in its history.

"Dollarization was a big mistake. In the case of Argentina, it was especially dramatic because Argentina lost its competitiveness and its potential to export," said Kliksberg, who is also an adviser to Alicia Kirchner, Argentina's new minister of social development and the sister of President Nestor Kirchner.

"Menem did very bad things to the Jews. He put many obstacles in the way of the AMIA investigation," he said in a reference to the still-unsolved 1994 car-bombing that killed 86 people and left over 300 injured. "I don't think Menem was personally involved, but for money he was ready to do anything. During the Menem administration, the elite was corrupt, and 95% of the Argentine population was against him."

In contrast, he says, "Kirchner is absolutely clean, and 85% of the population approves of him."

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