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Oxford Latin American Economic History Database
Latin American Centre, Oxford University

Reviewed by:
Matthew Karush
George Mason University
May 2004

This database contains a wealth of statistical information on Latin American economies and societies in the 20th century. It is the result of a major study funded by the Inter-American Development Bank and conducted by the eminent economic historian, Rosemary Thorp. This website makes available demographic, social, and economic statistics on 20 countries from 1900 to 2000 in an easily searchable format. It provides an extremely valuable service for scholars and, used wisely, can be an effective teaching tool.

The database includes statistical data on population, life expectancy, education, the labor force; trade; industry; transportation and communications infrastructure; tax revenue; government spending; and prices for all 20 Latin American nations. To access data, users simply select a country or countries, specify the date range, and select a statistical series. A click of the mouse produces an easy-to-read chart that can be viewed on-screen, printed, or downloaded as a CSV file.

Beneath every column of data is a link to a pop-up window that specifies the sources for the statistics. Full bibliographical information for these sources is available on a “References“ page. A “Methodology“ page provides definitions of the data series available on the website as well as an extensive discussion of the complex hurdles that the compilers had to overcome in order to present consistent, comparable data. My only quibble with the website’s interface is that it can make international comparisons a bit awkward. Even when the user is seeking just one set of statistics, such as illiteracy rates, information is presented in a separate chart for each country. Of course, this is hardly insurmountable; simply printing out the charts is one solution.

There are two main difficulties for teachers seeking to use this site. First, several of the data series are only meaningful to those with extensive training in economics: the “US Producer Price Index,” the “Implicit GDP Deflator,” and the “US Inverse Net Barter TOT” are probably not particularly useful in the classroom. Nor do the highly technical definitions of these terms on the “Methodology” page solve the problem. Second, many other data series are probably too specific for general classroom use. Only a specialist would want to compare how much cement is produced in each nation or the fluctuations in the price of palm oil.

There are ways, however, that a teacher might use the website in order to introduce students to Latin American economic history and to the practice of interpreting statistics. Students might be asked to gather and analyze data on GDP, life expectancy, illiteracy, and education spending from various countries. The results should reveal the heterogeneity of Latin America, while allowing students to probe the extent to which various countries have prioritized social spending in different periods. Students learning about industrialization and urbanization in big countries like Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina or about the persistent dependence on export agriculture in smaller countries could find statistical evidence of these trends.

More ambitiously, students could be asked to use the statistics (in conjunction with secondary sources) to determine whether the turn towards neoliberalism in recent decades has been beneficial to most Latin Americans. A debate between students on either side of this issue might encourage students to question the apparent transparency of statistics.

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