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REPORT #495 June 2002

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This study, Poverty Assessment Report - Belize, sought to understand the phenomenon of poverty in Belize both from primary and secondary data sources, and from the people themselves. The findings are based on three main sources: a national survey, community-level situational analyses and an analysis of key institutions and organisations. The objective was to arrive at measures to address both the immediate conditions of poverty and the underlying factors that lead to such poverty. The Terms of Reference can be summarised in the following five key questions:

Key Questions

1. What are the nature, extent, geographic concentration and severity of poverty in Belize?
2. What are the factors that contribute to poverty in Belize, that is: What economic and social policies and/or socio cultural issues generate, sustain, alleviate or reduce poverty?
3. What are the dynamic links between unemployment, poverty and conditions in the informal sector?
4. In the context of (2) and (3), how do Government Agencies, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), Community-Based Organisations (CBOs), and Grass-Roots Organisations (GROs) currently impact on poverty?
5. What actions these groups (Government Agencies, NGOs, CBOs, and GROs) and the people themselves can use to address the immediate conditions of poverty and its underlying causes?

Additionally, the study tackled a core task of training Belizeans in conducting assessments and undertaking project action such that the critical work of poverty reduction and socio-economic development can be sustained, on the withdrawal of the consultants.

Definition of poverty

Fundamental to all definitions of poverty is the notion of a deficiency of resources. One absolute measure of poverty seeks to establish a level below which households will not have the wherewithal to maintain a healthy existence. This is often referred to as the indigence line in that below this level, the members of the household are threatened with ill-health and even death. In other words, the indigence line establishes the minimum food requirements necessary for existence. Beyond the indigence line, there are absolute measures of poverty that include non-food elements deemed necessary for functioning in a society. These measures vary among researchers.


The present study utilised the approach employed by the World Bank, which imputes for non-food elements by taking the average spent by the poorest 40 percent of the population on these items. The sum of the values of the minimum food requirements and the non-food elements constitute the poverty line. The study also relied on expenditure data rather than on income in identifying the level of well-being in a household and among individuals.

The data for the assessment of poverty were derived from a national survey conducted by the Central Statistical Office (CSO) of Belize in mid-1995. The survey design was patterned after the Labour Force Survey that the CSO has been conducting on a biannual basis, since the early 1990s.

The community-level situational analyses yielded data on the perceptions and concerns of households in twelve poor communities chosen by a National Assessment Team (NAT) which collaborated with the consultants (Regional Technical Team) in the conduct of the exercise. Two communities were selected from each of the Districts of Belize and their selection was based on the knowledge of the NAT of the characteristics of communities across the country.


Poverty estimates

From the analysis of the data of the National Survey, 25.3 percent of households in Belize, and 33.0 percent of individuals were poor on the basis of their expenditure on food and non-food items. Moreover, 9.6 percent of households and 13.4 percent of individuals were considered to be extremely poor or indigent: their level of expenditure was not high enough to enable them to satisfy their basic food requirements. The level of poverty among the youth and elderly was 31.6 percent and 27.6 percent respectively, and 32.8 percent and 33.1 percent for male and female heads of households.


Urban residents had a lower poverty rate than rural residents, 20.6 percent and 42.5 percent respectively. Cayo and Toledo were the poorest Districts in the country. The percentage of the population indigent in Cayo and in Toledo was 19.7 and 47.2 percent respectively. Over half the rural population in Cayo and in Toledo was poor. In general, the majority of the poor reside in rural areas of the country.

The poor lived in large households and had fewer earners than the non-poor. While female heads of households were more likely to be poor than male heads of households, male heads were more dominant across the country and among the poor, except in the lowest quintile group in Belize District in which female heads outnumbered male heads.

The poorest quintile had more children, and over 45 percent of the poorest quintile was comprised of children under five. The heads of households were slightly older than the next poorest quintile. In respect of ethnicity, the Maya were the most heavily represented among the poor of the country, relative to their representation in the population. Immigrants from Central America were more heavily represented among the poor than were native Belizeans and areas of the country with a higher influx of such migrants had a larger percentage of poor (Arenal and Cow Pen).

Most of the poor depended on the Agriculture and Fishing Sector for their livelihood in Corozal, Orange Walk, Stann Creek and Toledo and to a lesser extent in Cayo. In the Belize District, the poor depended on a number of sectors, including Construction and Wholesale and Retail Activities. As workers, the poor displayed a high level of labour commitment in terms of the number of hours they were prepared to work. In Belize District and in Cayo, the poor experienced high levels of unemployment, and especially so, women in Belize District.

The poor were generally not well-educated and lacked technical and vocational skills. Moreover, their young people were less likely than the children of the non-poor to have had higher levels of education and to be involved in technical training. While subsidies in education were generally distributionally positive in a formal sense, the number of beneficiaries was not commensurate with those in need.

The poor were more likely to be afflicted with ailments especially in the South of the country, where a higher incidence of water borne diseases was evident.

As much as 40.6 percent of the lowest quintile owned the lands on which their homes were constructed. On the other hand squatting and 'other' forms of tenancy were the dominant forms of arrangements in Toledo and Stann Creek, and included 'permission to work', indicative of communal patterns characteristic of the Maya.

There was a high degree of home ownership, except in the Belize District. The poor were more likely to live in dwellings with walls of wood, and in Toledo, with thatch roofing and earthen floors.

Housing conditions of the poor displayed certain characteristics. There were more persons per bedroom than among the non-poor. Toilet facilities were of poor quality and, in Toledo, 41.2 percent had no toilet facilities whatsoever. Pit latrines remained the dominant form of toilet facility across the country, but only 7.4 percent had the ventilated pit latrine that has been promoted officially.

There was also an apparent lack of sensitivity or knowledge among sections of the population about the relationship between environmental sanitation and health. Electricity was used for lighting even by the poor, except in Toledo, where 63.4 percent of the population was still dependent on kerosene. The poor were more dependent on wood as a fuel for cooking than the non-poor.

In respect of household durables, there was a high incidence of ownership of radios, even among the poor. Even the poor in Belize District had a higher level of ownership of television sets than the better off in Toledo and Stann Creek: this is attributable, for the most part, to the problems of rural electrification.

While their water supply was generally no worse than the average for the country, there were major pockets of poor and even non-poor who were dependent on untreated supplies from rivers and streams. The situation in Stann Creek, Toledo and parts of Cayo was still very acute.

There was an absence of community organisation in many of the villages, which exacerbated poverty, since communities lacked the capacity to mobilise their own internal resources for their development.

Box 1: Poverty Estimates for Belize
Orange Walk
Belize District
Stann Creek
All Belize
Poor Households
Poor Population
Indigent Households
Indigent Population
Youth Population
Elderly Population
Female Population
Male Population
Male Heads
Female Heads

Box 2 : Poverty Profile-Belize
The annual Poverty Line and Indigence Line at the national level were estimated at $1,287.48 and $751.32 respectively. At the District level the Poverty Lines ranged from as low as $1,151.38 in Cayo to $1,428.49 in Belize District. The Indigence Lines ranged from $633.64 in Stann Creek to $1,013.82 in Toledo.
25.3 percent of households and 33.0 percent of the population were poor. The incidence of poverty was highest in the Toledo District where 47.6 and 57.6 percent of households and individuals respectively were poor.
9.6 percent of households and 13.4 percent of the population were indigent in that their expenditure was unable to cover their dietary requirements. The District of Toledo had the highest percentage of indigent households and individuals with 40.2 and 47.2 percent respectively.
23.6 percent of male heads and 30.5 percent of female heads were poor. Poverty among male heads was highest in Toledo (50.7%) and highest among female heads in Orange Walk (38.5%).
20.6 percent of the urban population and 42.5 percent of the rural population were poor.
The Poverty Gap for the country was 8.7 percent. In Toledo however, it was as high as 21.8 percent. The Poverty Gap was lowest in Stann Creek (4.9%).
The poor dominated the Agricultural and Fishing sector with 49.4 percent in the lowest quintile. Their participation in Agriculture and Fishing was particularly evident in Toledo and Stann Creek.
The lowest quintile had the highest number of children under age 14 or 17 years, per household. The figures were 3.2 and 3.7 for under 14 and 17 years respectively. On a national average the highest number of children per household was found in the Orange Walk District.
The three lowest quintiles spent 51.8, 49.3 and 46.8 percent respectively of their monthly expenditure on food.
The national labour force participation rate was 58.7 percent. At the District level it was highest in Belize District (65.0%) and lowest in Toledo (52.6%).The participation rate for males (87.4%) was almost three times the rate of females (30.3%).
76.3 percent of heads of households had achieved no higher than primary level education. In the lowest quintile Belize City had the highest percentage of heads of households with secondary level education. (16.7%). None of the heads in the lowest quintile in Orange Walk, Cayo and Stann Creek had secondary level education.
There was little evidence generated of subsidies to education. The number of beneficiaries from these subsidies was extremely small.
Births to teenage mothers in Belize is estimated at 20 percent. Family planning services are not adequately utilised by a large percentage of households in the poorer communities.
There was a general problem of solid waste management throughout Belize. Problems of drainage were especially evident in Belize District and St. Martin de Porres, specifically.
4.6 percent of all households had no toilet facilities. This problem was most acute in Toledo where in the two lowest quintiles 41.2 and 23.5 percent respectively had no toilet facilities.
On average, 65.8 percent of households owned land on which accommodation was located. Squatting was most evident in Toledo. Forty percent (40.6 %) of the lowest quintile owned land.
24 percent of the poorest quintile had access to public water. Rivers and streams were still a main source of water for 2.6 percent of the population. In Toledo 2.9 and 23.5 percent of the first and second quintiles respectively and in Stann Creek 9.1 percent and 16.7 percent respectively got water from this source.
Both the poor and non-poor lived in their own dwellings. Houses owned by the poor were however, in a very dilapidated condition. Dissatisfaction with housing conditions was stressed in the poor communities of Cow Pen, Flowers Bank, Hopkins and Santa Elena.


The poverty witnessed in Belize currently can be attributed to the following factors:

The historical underdevelopment especially of the South of the country. Deep-seated structural problems of transformation have kept the population of parts of the country locked in poverty for some considerable period. A subsistence economy, a traditional culture, and the absence of infrastructure have retarded the development of the South of the country.
The substantial influx of poor immigrants. Central American immigrants, who have no capital, are poorly educated, and lack skills, partly contribute to the increase in unemployment, under-employment, and poverty, especially in Cayo and Toledo. Belize, as a signatory of the CIREFCA Agreement, agreed to host Central American refugees. Moreover, given the level of poverty in neighbouring countries, Belize provides an irresistible allure to those seeking escape from economic and social deprivation. The porous borders offer no barrier, with the result that Belize has suffered an uncontrolled influx that has strained its social and other services.
The recent changes in the international economy have had an impact on the main foreign exchange earners. NAFTA and the emergence of keener competition in the Caribbean in export-processing are the most recent, but there are other imminent problems with the liberalisation of trade, the reduction of preferences, and the advances in technology, that erode the advantages of low wages as a factor in export-processing operations, all these factors have reduced or are reducing the competitiveness of Belize.
Deficiency in human resource development. Lack of training and educational upgrading has inhibited the development of skills in Belize, thereby constraining the flexibility of the work-force in adjusting to changes in the international economy by a shift of the industrial structure to new activities.
Difficulty in resolving macro-economic problems. Increased public debt in the recent past had not led to an expansion in productive infrastructure to encourage private investment, and to absorb unemployed and underemployed. Slow pace of tax reform resulted in missed opportunity to increase government revenue required for infrastructure expansion. Meanwhile, debt service led to reduction of employment and expenditure on and services in Education and Health, with a negative impact on the poor.

The above five factors are largely responsible for the existing poverty identified, but are compounded by a host of additional factors, the most critical of which are enumerated hereunder.

Poor income and employment generation in key productive sectors. Subsistence agricultural/milpa production, mainly in Toledo, kept farmers in a low level equilibrium trap, while, outside of bananas and citrus, commercial agriculture had not generated any major expansion of productive employment. Belize suffered reduced competitiveness in export-manufacturing vis a vis its neighbours. Tourism, while growing, did not display strong backward linkages to other sectors e.g. Domestic Craft Production, and Agriculture. In all these areas, there was an absence of credit and other supporting facilities that could be used by small and informal enterprises.
Rapid Population Growth. The absence of a population policy contributed to a lack of focus in dealing with the rapid population growth, immigration, and family planning.
The limitations of the existing safety-net because of the inadequacy of resources. The fiscal problems prevented the Government from providing a safety-net with the reach and the quantum to assist those who had succumbed to poverty.
Limitations in the physical infrastructure. Poor access roads constrained farm-to-market links for agriculture, which is the critical sector for the rural population. Lack of communications, absence of potable water, inadequate electricity supplies, inadequate facilities for human waste disposal, all contribute to major deficiency in the infrastructure which is necessary for poverty reduction.
Weaknesses in the social infrastructure. The high reproduction rate and dependency ratio strain the social services. High teenage pregnancy in Belize City, and lack of day-care and pre-school facilities prevent young females from participation in the labour market, and in training.
Gaps in the institutional infrastructure. There were weaknesses in the regulatory framework and governance over land use policy, physical planning, local government and community representation.
Poor community organisation. The absence of effective community organisation and integration robs many communities of the capacity to address their own problems.

Effectiveness of Existing Responses to the Poverty Situation

The Government of Belize has found it necessary to undertake stringent and unpopular measures to resolve its fiscal problems lest these contribute to a major balance-of-payment crisis. It has sought to effect this without a formal stabilisation/structural programme of the IFIs. Its broad brush expenditure reduction has, unfortunately, hurt some social services, and impaired the safety-net.

The expansion of the infrastructure is a key factor in the development of the south of the country where very high levels of poverty were identified. Under the supervision of the Ministry of Works there has been a substantial expansion of the infrastructure of the highway system especially in the south of the country. This has helped to bring many remote communities more into the mainstream of Belize society and economy. There is a shortage of funding for access roads, however.

The Ministry of Transport and Communications provides the regulatory framework for passenger transport by bus, which is the main form of internal communication. Its policy of controlling fares may have restricted operators to the routes with heavy passenger loads, to the disadvantage of more remote communities that have no service whatsoever, thus increasing their isolation.

The Belize Electricity Company provides electricity service to all Belize. The partial privatisation of the utility puts in doubt the likelihood of service to the remote communities in the south. Profitability indicators would not make their needs evident.

The requirement of agricultural diversification is recognised, and is taking place to a limited degree. Aguacate Rice Farmers, the Bee-keepers, and the Seeds of Change Project are good examples, but their efforts are subject to policy reversal in the absence of a structured diversification plan.

There is a range of services in support of the diversification thrust needed e.g. marketing, but the host of difficulties attendant on infrastructure bedevils the efforts of the Ministry of Agriculture given that many of the problems are beyond its control and require coordination with other Ministries. Many of these are similarly strapped for funds and cannot make commitments.

Land use is another area in which there has not been full clarity. In respect of land distribution, the Ministry of National Resources has the primary responsibility for this function and is assisted by an Inter-ministerial Committee, in this regard. There have been problems, however, with conflicts over boundaries in allocations.

The Fisheries Department, with limited resources of personnel and equipment, provides oversight over the Fishing Industry. It has provided some coherence to the sector, however, over-exploitation remains a problem. This industry has made a major contribution to income and employment growth in parts of the country. Some communities, especially in the south, lack the capacity to develop cooperatives which have been the successful industrial organisation for exploitation of the Belizean fisheries. The south has not been able to reduce its poverty through the industry.

The diversification of the economy is premised on the development of the manufacturing sector. The Ministry of Industry is attempting to encourage both domestic and foreign capital, and in collaboration with other organisations like NDFB, the Ministry is promoting the small scale sector. This should help small farmers and agricultural communities attempting to diversify into agro-processing.

Tourism/Eco-tourism has also been the focus of official attention. The Ministry of Tourism, the Belizean Tourism Industry Board, the Belize Hotel Association, and BEST are some of the agencies engaged in this area. Through them the country has created a definable tourism niche. Small establishments have benefited though not to the extent that is possible.

The Education and Training/Retraining System lies at the base of the capacity-building exercise required to upgrade the human resources of Belize. The Ministry of Education, with the collaboration of school boards, has been effective in providing basic primary level facilities across the country. However, remote communities have not been well served, with the result that largely poorer rural children are not receiving the kind of education that will allow them to escape their current poverty. While secondary education is subsidised by the Government, the private costs put it beyond the reach of many of the poor.

A major gap in the system relates to the provision for out-of-school youth and adult education. The fact that facilities are not well distributed geographically means that access is inequitable. More recently there has been established the Youth Enterprise Programme in the Department of Youth. The programme has a focus on the relatively deprived and should help the poor. In sum, however, the poorer youth have limited chances of recovering from failure in their earlier years in the formal system.

The Ministry of Health provides curative, preventive and promotional health services across the country. The cut in the allocation to Health and the preempting of 25 percent of the allocation by the Belize City Hospital have resulted in reduced services, especially to the remote areas of the country, with implications for the poor.

Up until recently, the Water and Sewerage Authority and the Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Programme provided the public water network, and promoted safe disposal of waste. The latter has recently been disbanded, a victim of austerity measures. There is a major problem in some pockets of the country in respect of potable water, and not only the poor are affected. Toilet facilities are also an area of deficiency especially in the south with negative implications for health. High incidence of water borne diseases is testimony to the problem.

A number of agencies are involved in providing housing: The Ministry of Housing, the Housing and Planning Department, RECONDEV, DFC, commercial banks, credit unions, development NGOs, and BIMCO. A Housing Policy Paper has been prepared and should allow for coordination. There is some regressiveness in BIMCO's operations given that much of its inflows are financing housing for the non-poor only.

The involvement of Government in the area of entrepreneurship development has been quite limited. The effort in the development of cooperatives has been stalled as a result of the funding for the Cooperative Department in servicing communities. NGOs have made some contribution especially with community based organisations. Hopkins Women's Cooperative which runs a guest house, is an example of successful entrepreneurship resulting from NGO initiative, which has enhanced income and employment opportunities for women who would have been poorer otherwise.

The Ministry of Human Resources, Refugees Department, development NGOs, the Patriotism Committee, the Consciousness Youth Movement are organisations that contribute to social integration and to the inculcation of desirable social values in one way or another. Some have been effective with marginalised communities, e.g. BEST, SPEAR, and HELP. The Patriotism Committee does not seem to reach the more remote communities. The Consciousness Youth Movement has been a major success in respect of the reorientation that it has been able to cultivate in disenchanted youth in Belize City.

The Department of Women's Affairs, the women's organisations, and the development and welfare organisations have made a major impact in their work or in advocacy and promotion of equity in gender relations. Through the Community Bank projects of BEST, a number of community based enterprises have emerged out of these efforts, providing opportunities for mainly poorer women e.g. Hopkins Women's Group. Unfortunately, some of these organisations have been hit by funding problems: BOWAND, BIB, BRWA. Sustainability is a problem, therefore, in the fulfilment of gender equity.

The Ministry of Human Resources, CVSS, and ANDA are the agents involved in the provision of a social safety-net, the first in the provision of the official safety net of the Government, the others through the support they give to households and individuals, especially the more vulnerable. Resource and funding limitations have afflicted all three. Public Assistance bears little relation to the needs of the poor who seek support from the programme. The present safety-net offers little protection in a situation where the restructuring of the Belizean economy will create new poor to join those who had been unaffected by positive economic growth in the 1980s, or who have been victims of structural poverty, that has affected especially the Toledo District.


The expansion of the economy of Belize is the key to poverty reduction. Incomes and employment for the poor can be sustained only through the promotion of growth, which in the context of such a small country, depends on the external competitiveness of the economy.

Strategies for Poverty Reduction and Alleviation

Expansion of Key Economic Sectors

Poverty reduction, in the final analysis, is about the generation of resources. Employment growth and income generation offer the most secure means of reducing poverty. The promotion of Agriculture and Fishing, Manufacturing, and Tourism/Eco-tourism, the provision of support for SMEs and the informal sector are recommended through the implementation of specific policies and strategies that allow the poor to participate effectively, with due regard for the requirements placed on the Government in respect of regional and international agreements.

A range of institutional supports will be necessary to allow the sectors listed above to contribute to poverty reduction, credit, land reform, fisheries protection, cooperative development and entrepreneurship development, to list a few.

Capacity-building through Human Resource Development

The flexibility and resilience of small open economies are contingent or the adaptability of their human resources, and therefore on the trainability and productivity of their workers. It is recommended that the educational and training systems be revamped to allow for wider participation at all levels, and to afford adults already in the work force, and out-of-school youth an opportunity for training and retraining and educational upgrading at different points in their work careers. Intra-firm training, technical and vocational training, and retraining programmes for the range of productive activities, along with youth development require the fullest support of Government with the appropriate institutional mechanisms. The promotion of the ethos of training and retraining by the Government is also recommended.

Land Use Policy and Land Tenure

The institutional structure relating to land use and to land tenure is an important ingredient in the stimulation of expansion of the Agricultural Sector and must be upgraded to ensure the sustainability of land and soil quality, to afford the easier access of would-be farmers to land, and to improve tenurial arrangements that allow farmers to derive benefits consistent with their efforts. At the same time, communal and other traditional systems have to be respected where they exist to avoid disruption and social dislocation to traditional groups like the Maya.

Improvement of the Social Infrastructure

An improvement in the social infrastructure of Belize, in respect of access to potable water, safe toilet facilities, better housing, and effective primary health care is recommended to ensure the possibility for the mass of people of leading healthier and more productive lives which would, in turn, contribute to material expansion, especially of the poor. There is need to upgrade the primary health care delivery system through health centres and health posts.

Expansion of the Physical Infrastructure

It is recommended that the Government intensify its efforts to provide the infrastructure which underpins private sector growth. Roads, access roads, piers or jetties in fishing villages, electricity, communication and potable water are some of the urgently needed infrastructure whose absence reduces the attractiveness of many parts of the country.

Cooperative Development

It is recommended that the Cooperative Development Programme be intensified. Cooperatives have performed very effectively, especially in the Fisheries Sector. The involvement in commercial fisheries of villages in the south of the country, and the application of self-help in housing seem to be early candidates for use of the cooperative model. The experience of BEST in community banks would be a source also for useful insights into what is appropriate in the social and economic structure of Belize. Cooperatives may turn out to be a natural organisational structure to succeed communal production systems for people with traditional cultures divergent from the individualism of a capitalist market economy.

Empowerment of Communities

It is recommended that the Government revamps its thrust in Community Development, such that it can contribute more meaningful to the social and economic empowerment of communities. In this regard, it should collaborate and coordinate its efforts with development NGOs that have promoted community banks, self-help, greater citizen involvement, and have brought a gender focus to their work.

Building Social Consensus

The ethos of cooperation is required among the social partners to allow Belize to develop the social model to adjust its labour force to the imperatives of technological and trade changes. It is recommended that the Government take a lead role in this endeavour by ensuring that lines of communication are always maintained, and by improving the level of economic literacy in the population at large.

Reorganising the Social Safety-Net

It is recommended that the social safety-net be redesigned so that key areas of vulnerability are addressed as and when they manifest themselves. Capacity building should complement poverty alleviation where there is the possibility that the individual or household can be restored to income-earning capability on a sustained basis. The aged, the infirm and others without secure source of income and facing chronic poverty would need to be supported permanently.

It is also recommended that the safety net be extended to the support of households where no income is currently available and individuals lack the skills to secure employment or to engage in self-employment. Temporary alleviation should be provided for such situations, care being taken to avoid inculcating a dependency syndrome in those who may need temporary assistance.

Reorganisation of the Public Finances

The resources for much of the above will have to come from the Government of Belize itself, both for poverty alleviation and for the expansion necessary for poverty reduction. There is need to restructure the tax system to increase the revenue yield, and to adjust public expenditure. VAT, user charges, involvement of NGOs in social service delivery, productivity improvement and tighter management within the operations of the Government are some of the elements of the strategy.

Institutional Framework for Poverty Assessment and Reduction

The National Assessment Team should be institutionalised, retaining a structure that affords participation to NGOs and CBOs. The focus of such an entity should always be poverty reduction and alleviation. Poverty monitoring will ensure that the appropriate official and other policies are adjusted in light of the changing realities. While poverty assessment exercises of the type conducted herein will not be undertaken with great frequency, the development of suitable indicators will allow the profile of the poor to be adequately and effectively monitored.



Estevan Perera Jr.        Belize City        28 Pickstock, Belize, C.A       (501) 620-1992     
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