THE MELTING POT

Panama 2015 | ECONOMY | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to HE Alcibíades Vásquez Velásquez, Minister of Social Development, on the importance of developing high-risk groups in Panamanian society, and working with national and international organization to address illiteracy and unemployment.

HE Alcibíades Vásquez Velásquez
BIOGRAPHY
HE Alcibíades Vásquez Velásquez is the Minister of Social Development,

What is the Ministry's strategy to promote and enhance social cohesion among Panamanian people?

The current government presented its vision and ideas during the electoral campaign, though many thought that this was only propaganda. We prioritize social equity and development through high-quality education and enacting education reforms that have an impact on both students and professors; through integral and high-quality healthcare reaching even indigenous communities and all areas of the country; and finally through providing a higher quality of life to our people through environmental protection and sustainability efforts. When we took over, our first priority was to catch up as the Ministry and finish whatever remains to be done. We recognized the problems; inequality, poor distribution of wealth, and discrimination. Having said that, the Ministry's focus is on rural regions and on the autochthonous population. Other groups we have identified as high risk are youth, working children, and women. We are focusing on them, and we will develop strategies that will tackle the issues.

Due to its position as point of crossing and center of transport Panama is a melting pot of cultures and races. Today do you still consider immigration an opportunity or a challenge for the country?

Immigration, if done in a planned manner and with good controls, is a positive opportunity for Panama. We are a rather small country with a population of about 4 million people. Panama itself offers many opportunities and, unfortunately, we do not have enough people to make all of them a reality. However, the country has a lack of effective policies in this regard to make immigration an effective tool for development. The subject has been rather politicized over the years; some argue that it has become excessive, and now we are suffering the consequences. Immigration has already brought the country much in terms of qualified human resources, technological advances, and so on. However, it has also brought some new challenges. In light of this, we need to take action in order to give a legal and regulatory framework to immigration policies.

How does the Ministry work to create synergy with other national and international institutions?

Since we have started at the Ministry, we have developed a social cabinet in which all ministries and main public organizations in the region take part to develop the social policies of the country. The policies are then ratified by the executive committee and finally the parliament. We have achieved a lot since the establishment of the cabinet, addressing social issues the country dragged their feet on for over a decade, such as the equalization of marriage age (18) and the creation of the interagency commission for the development of the Children's Code. We have also developed cooperation agreements with many social entities, such as national universities graduating qualified professionals that can join the workforce in a number of sectors. We have addressed illiteracy—Panama's literacy rate is at just over 94.1%, and we are developing literacy programs and establishing partnerships with the private sector in order to offer more job opportunities. Finally, we have signed social partnerships and agreements with the civil society and many international organizations, such as the EU.

What are the main objectives of the Ministry for 2015?

Our main goals for 2015 are centered around institutional reorganization, which has already been achieved in large part, the improvement of the impact of our social policies, and the development of an integral social protection plan for the entire country. We willcontinue improvising social policies regarding social protection, especially when it comes to groups at high risk of exclusion. We will also make sure we develop first class care centers for newborns and children. In this context, our strategy is to upgrade the current centers and develop new ones. Finally, we will be taking steps towards the implementation of emergency and contingency plans in cases of natural disasters. For this purpose, we must organize society. We will also boost volunteering across the country.