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Uruguay, Argentina Top Social Inclusion Index

When it comes to civil rights and GDP growth, chances are the Cono Sur or Southern Cone countries have got most beat. Uruguay topped Americas Quarterly’s 2014 Social Inclusion Index for the second year in a row, Argentina tied for second (with Costa Rica) and Chile rounded out the top five.

The index, which was released Wednesday, aims to provide a comprehensive approach to social inclusion, a term that refers to the sway a country’s citizens gain via economic growth, political participation, civil rights and equal access to services and employment.

The index, which is in its third iteration, is based on 21 variables compiled by the Americas Society and the Council of the Americas (AS/COA) to rank 17 countries, including Latin America and the United States. The evaluation factored in national poverty rights, school enrollment and access to housing by race and gender.

“What stands clear is that the issue of social inclusion—unlike GDP growth and even increases in income—is difficult to change in the short term. It is deeply embedded in historical, structural, and even attitudinal conditions," said Christopher Sabatini, AS/COA Senior Director of Policy and Americas QuarterlyEditor-in-Chief, in a statement tied to the index’s release.

Despite Uruguay's strong performance, the index highlighted some areas where the government could improve, in particular the need to raise spending on education.

In its first appearance on the index, Argentina managed to place high largely based on its strong GDP growth as the country continues to emerge from a long recession, though the country has been wrestling to avert a possible default. Chile fell to fifth place from second place last year and first the year before due to its middling performance on women’s rights.

The United States is in the top 5, and ranked highest for spending on social programs, personal empowerment and financial inclusion. Like Chile though, the U.S. was knocked down from a higher ranking last year because of issues related to women’s rights, particularly a “low level of perception of government responsiveness by gender.”

On the other end of the spectrum, four Central American countries landed in the bottom five along with Paraguay – Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Guatemala, which had the dubious honor of ranking last for the third year in a row, featured the lowest score for women’s rights and little GDP growth. Last year, the index noted that these countries’ low rankings could also be correlated with their high homicide rates.

The index provided recommendations for the countries it ranked. The index directed criticism toward Honduras and Panama for their handling of LGBT rights; they ranked lowest for that measure. Suggestions included recognition of same-sex relationships and passing legislation to protect transgender citizens.

Poor spending on education in El Salvador, just 3.2 percent of GDP, was one of the factors contributing to that country's low ranking.

Ecuador, which landed in the middle of the pack overall, was roundly criticized for poor access to employment among the country's indigenous or Afro-descent population. Only 41 percent of those groups had access to a formal job, compared to almost 55 percent for citizens with European ancestry. The difference in job access is even more stark for the indigenous populations in Guatemala and Paraguay.

Some countries, such as Venezuela, were not included in the overall ranking because of missing or incomplete data. That said, Venezuela posted the lowest score for two variables – disability rights and access to justice.