On Wednesday, January 12th, 2005, the Latin American Program hosted the book launch of Crucial Needs, Weak Incentives: Social Sector Reform, Democratization, and Globalization in Latin America, edited by Robert R. Kaufman and Joan M. Nelson. This book emerged from a series of workshops that are part of the Latin America Program's ongoing examination of social sector policies and reform in Latin America.

Joan Nelson began by describing the convergence in international development circles, early this decade, around emphasizing improvements in health and education as essential to the alleviation of poverty and inequality, the strengthening of national economies, and the improvement of the quality of democracy. Nelson then discussed the difficulties of reform, stating that social reform in Latin America encapsulates the age-old political dilemma of delayed results and immediate risks. A politician spearheading reform will usually be retired before benefits can be seen, while there are not necessarily any political costs of inaction. Where reforms have succeeded, Nelson stated, they were often moderate in size and incremental in speed. Moreover, successful reform was often linked to goals outside the health or education sectors, such as labor market deregulation or economic reform, or occurred in an atmosphere of post-crisis conflict where the power of vested interests and the status quo had been weakened.

Robert Kaufman discussed the important links between social sector reforms, democratization, and globalization. He stated that Democratization and Globalization have been crucial in promoting the political salience of social reform issues by facilitating the rise of interest group politics, the participation of NGO's, and increased community involvement. As a cautionary note, Kaufman added that he was surprised at the fact that despite the electoral incentives for reform, the results have been mixed. He attributed this to the fact that just as globalization and democratization empowers those who seek progress, it also empowers those who seek to preserve the status quo.

Shahid Burki sought to contrast the social reform experiences of Latin America with those of other parts of the world, especially East Asia. Burki began by asking why social reform in Latin America was much less successful than the reforms undertaken in East Asia, considering that the economic resources committed by each region were comparable as a portion of their respective GDP's. He suggested a number of possibilities such as wasted or misspent resources, the capture of reform programs by vested interests, or the idea that democratization had enabled increased opposition to reforms. Burki followed this by asking whether, in light of democratization's ability to empower vested interests, nations may better be able to reform more successfully under autocratic rule and offered China as an example. Burki finished by commenting on the role that international development institutions can play in the reform process. He observed that unless the recipient country accepted the influence of the organization then pressure is unlikely to work and can potentially incite resistance.

Juan Carlos Navarro began his comments by commending the book on its realistic portrayal of the inner political workings of the reform process in Latin America. He commented that the politics of reform during the 50's, 60's, and 70's were more easily navigated because they involved the "politics of expansion," which entailed little opposition. He went on to say that the politics of the 90's and today are more difficult because the numerous interest groups and diverse populations that exist within any Latin American country do not as easily accept the "politics of efficient, quality reform". Navarro went on to state that "big bang" reforms were not the answer but that a consistent, constant commitment to the pursuit of well thought out "piecemeal" reforms was perhaps the best approach to successful reform. Consistent with this approach, Navarro believes that international financial institutions should be wary of pursuing reform with a sector-wide approach, as has been the case, and should instead focus on the political impediments to reform.