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Alcibí­ades Vásquez Velásquez

PANAMA - Economy

Plans for Paradise

Minister of Social Development (MIDES), Panama


Alcibí­ades Vásquez Velásquez inished a master’s in accounting in 1991 and went on to receive full recognition as an authorized public accountant in 1995. He later acquired a diploma in export trade, negotiation, treaties and international commerce at the Universidad Latinoamericana de Comercio Exterior. Throughout the 1990s he held various public positions before becoming legislator and later an elected deputy for the Partido Panamenista. During this time he was president of the National Assembly’s Committee on Budgets and also worked on the introduction of important social measures.

“Yet, we are alongside Brazil and Haiti as one of the countries with the highest levels of inequality.“

Health, infrastructure, education, and security received more than 50% of public investments for 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 among indigenous people. Today, there are 10,000 beneficiaries who receive food support of PAB8 million 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 in 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 in which we support people in our effort to eradicate poverty by providing them 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 Social Protection and Inclusion Program. We have aligned the structural matrix of the program/system to reach our beneficiaries with transparency and efficiency. Overall, our greatest achievement has been the establishment of strategies for the creation of state policies in the social area without political objectives.

In such a small country characterized by solid and constant growth, is welfare equally distributed within society?

We are a country of around 70,000sqkm and enjoy great social cohesion. Our people are our greatest asset in Panama. 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 certain parties 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 intangible projects in order to address this 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. We can say that there is no consensus at all 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 is being done to improve the inclusion of women in the society?

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 is women, too. At the MIDES level, we have the National Women Institute of which I am the 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 for them 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.

What are the main programs MIDES wants to implement starting in 2017?

When we arrived at the ministry, we approved a five-year program for our policies and development. In 2016, we completed about 95% of the program. In 2017, our priority is centered around increasing systems efficiency and better serving our beneficiaries. We also want to find a payment mechanism to deal with all the transfers to our beneficiaries. Today, almost all our beneficiaries receive the payments through the so-called social card in both private and public ATMs. When dealing with remote areas, we want to implement an e-wallet concept. We also want to implement the social protection and inclusion program I previously mentioned in its totality, in addition to tripling literacy rates across the country and formalizing children’s counseling centers. In 2016, we formalized almost 50% of these centers. We also want to reach a wider geographic spectrum of the country with soup kitchens, children’s counseling centers, and other such investments, especially within these 14 areas at high-risk of exclusion.



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