THE HEART OF THE MATTER

Panama 2017 | ECONOMY | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Alcibíades Vásquez Velásquez, Minister of Social Development (MIDES), on ambitious welfare programs, eradicating illiteracy, and crafting development policies with socio-cultural needs in mind.

Alcibíades Vásquez Velásquez
BIOGRAPHY
Alcibiades Vásquez was born in 1962 in Panama. He graduated from the University of Panama with a degree in accounting. He has had an extensive career in the public sector. He currently holds the position of Minister of Social Development. He is also the Secretary of the Panameñista Party.

Health, infrastructure, education, and security received more than 50% of public investments in 2016. How much is the current government investing in social issues?

Official data shows that our budget is about USD280 million. Of that, social spending received about USD215 million, a figure that covers all types of programs that reach our country's most vulnerable. For example, men over 65 with no pension and living in extreme poverty get a government subsidy of around USD120/month. Today, this program has around 133,000 beneficiaries. We have another program called Opportunity Network, which targets families headed by women and has 65,500 beneficiaries who receive USD50/month. There is another program for those with severely disabled dependents who receive USD80/month, which has 17,000 beneficiaries. In the last two years, we have expanded this program by 90%. Finally, there is the program for people suffering from malnutrition, mainly amongst indigenous people. Today, there are 10,000 beneficiaries who receive food support of eight million balboas per year. Our administration has also built several children's counseling centers across the country that meet the necessary quality standards. In this context, this program is supported by the Inter-American Development Bank and reaches soup kitchens across the country, especially in the capital cities and remote areas. We additionally donate about USD4 million to about 100 non-governmental organizations that support elderly people in remote and indigenous communities. These are the main points of our social policy. On top of that is our literacy program. Some 4.5% of Panamanians are still illiterate, and our objective is to eradicate this. One of our greatest achievements has been the implementation of the Social Investment System, through which we eradicate poverty by providing people with the necessary tools. These cooperatives support local farmers, handicrafts, and small industries through a PPP that spurs them to become entrepreneurs. Some universities also take part in this program by providing training. Finally, we have created the so-called Social Protection and Inclusion Program; we have aligned the structural matrix of the program/system to reach our beneficiaries with transparency and efficiency.

Why is welfare not more equally distributed?

We are a country of around 70,000sqkm and enjoy great social cohesion. Our people are our greatest asset. We are proud of having become the epicenter for many cultures and ethnicities; culturally, we are Caribbean, geographically we are Central American, and historically we are South Americans. Yet, we are alongside Brazil and Haiti as one of the countries with the highest levels of inequality. This is because, historically, the political system was mainly dominated by particularistic party and government policies rather than long-term state objectives. President Varela and his administration have recognized the critical nature of the situation, and we have identified three countries within Panama: that of the rich; that of the middle-class, which supports the social and economic development of the country; and everyone else. In this context, our government has prioritized projects to address the situation. We fight poverty with basic healthcare, eliminating ranch schools and providing educational opportunities to all, decent housing, and other similar programs. We have also decentralized investment, which has been complex and difficult for mostly cultural reasons. We have slightly less than 500,000 indigenous people, and 23% of regional land belongs to them. Large investment projects in these areas always face the radical opposition of local communities. For example, the electric connection between Panama and Colombia was suspended due to the opposition of indigenous communities. The main challenge here is the differences within those communities. It is fair to say there is no consensus within them regarding their development. In this context, we have established an Indigenous Coordinator to channel the development of the regions, for we are committed to their development and will continue to invest in these regions.

What are the main actions and investments toward the inclusion of women in the country?

It has been hard for women in Panama to break the glass ceiling. At the ministry, however, we are 80% female and 20% male, meaning we are trying to lead by example. In this context, 70% of our mid-level management across the country are women, too. At the MIDES level, we have the National Women Institute, of which I am president. There is also a national Women's Council, in addition to many other organizations and institutions that have been fighting for equal gender rights. One of our main focuses in 2016 has been the fight against femicide, of which at least 25 were registered in 2015. We have already seen that figures have dropped thanks to our efforts. Our priority is to provide women with the tools to achieve economic autonomy while still taking into account their importance in the development of their families, households, and so on and so forth. Another of our main struggles has been struggling against early pregnancies, and we are drafting a law to strengthen education and consciousness in society.