Maya Gainer is a first-year International Development student and an editor of SAIS Perspectives.  She previously worked as a researcher at Princeton University's Innovations for Successful Societies program, which took her to six continents to study governance and service delivery.

SAIS welcomed the Vice President and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Panama, Isabel de Saint Malo de Alvarado, for the first Development Roundtable of 2018. Vice President de Saint Malo was elected in 2014 and previously worked for 15 years with the United Nations Development Program in Panama. She has been recognized by the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Promotion of Peace for her work promoting dialogue and consensus throughout her career, including the arrangement of a meeting between the presidents of the US and Cuba, and by the World Economic Forum for her leadership in transparency and anti-corruption.

Vice President de Saint Malo discussed the administration’s vision for Panama as a country that promotes global dialogue and connections, and as a leader in translating strong economic growth into poverty reduction and greater equality. She emphasized the value of setting an agenda shared by all stakeholders: in Panama, a national dialogue involving all political parties, the private sector, and civil society created a set of priorities that will guide development policy beyond a single administration. After her talk, SAIS Perspectives caught up with Vice President de Saint Malo to learn more about her work to promote inclusive development and good governance in Panama. 

Perspectives: What policies do you believe will contribute most to your overall objective of eliminating poverty and inequality?

Vice President de Saint Malo: The international community has worked together to establish the Sustainable Development Goals, which I think clearly establish the path we need to follow. Different countries have different realities, and that requires different approaches; the most important thing is that policies and resources are focused on achieving the integration of people into society and the enhancement of their quality of life.  We must leave no one behind.

Perspectives: How has Panama’s government prioritized what actions to take?

Vice President de Saint Malo: Panama went a step further and adopted the SDGs, by decree, as a national policy, and incorporated them in our Strategic Government Plan. In fact, we were the first country in the region to develop such a plan with a vision for 2030 and one of the first in the region to implement the Multidimensional Poverty Index, using Oxford University’s methodology. With this tool, we now have the capacity to identify and measure specific deficiencies and reorient social policies to address them. This will enable us to achieve the reduction and eradication of poverty in a more efficient and transparent way.

Our governmental plan is very aligned with the SDGs. It focuses on projects and policies that help bridge our social gaps and ensure a better distribution of wealth, so we can reach prosperity with equality. One program I can highlight is the urban renewal of Colón City, with the construction of 5,000 homes with drinking water, roads, street lighting, restoration of historic buildings and wastewater treatment. We are also implementing the "100/Zero" Program, to supply drinking water to the entire country; the "Roofs of Hope" program, which aims to improve the quality of approximately 30,000 homes; and we are creating the necessary incentives to promote the construction of 125,000 homes in partnership with the private sector. We are developing Lines Two and Three of the Metro of Panama as part of the metropolitan area’s integrated public transport system, among other projects.

Perspectives: One of the biggest challenges to inclusive development is gender inequality. In your experience, what can political leaders do to unite their countries in support of women’s participation in development?

Vice President de Saint Malo: The first challenge is to be able to show that there actually is a problem with gender inequality. Latin America lacks deep studies and data that can highlight this issue to decision makers in both the public and private sectors. Moreover, we have to see it as a matter of development, as essential for economic growth, not mere “justice” for women.  In order to achieve sustainable and real results, men and women need to work together.

Political leaders must promote policies to create a safe and accessible environment for women to participate. Historically, women have been underrepresented in society, but this has been especially prevalent in decision-making spaces. If we want to achieve the 2030 development agenda, it is essential to include 100% of the population in the process. Nowadays, women are more than 50% of the population and their voice and talents should serve as assets to achieve our development goals.

We will continue promoting projects, plans, and policies aimed at improving the conditions of women in the workplace and ensuring equal opportunities for the entry of women into the labor market.

Perspectives: What strategies have you found most effective in promoting transparency, and are there lessons from your experience that might apply in other countries seeking to prevent corruption?

Vice President de Saint Malo: Our government has pursued a frontal fight against corruption, while making sure we do not harm the innocent in the process. Our first and most important goal is governing in the interests of the people. Our plans, policies, and strategies are geared towards this sole objective.

Governments need to support the judicial system and guarantee its independence. In Panama, this has resulted in the recovery of more than US$500 million dollars from corruption processes. These resources have been allocated to social projects that will ensure better housing, health, education, and a better quality of life for thousands and thousands of Panamanians.

Countries also need to work with the international community. As a global issue, transparency and the fight against corruption need strong international alliances, for the exchange of information and the sharing of best practices.  In recent years, we have fought hard to strengthen our financial platform, making it more competitive and transparent, adopting international standards and making alliances with world leaders and recognized international organizations.

It was an honor to host Vice President de Saint Malo, and we are very grateful for the opportunity to hear about her experiences. Many thanks to the International Development Program and Latin American Studies Program for organizing the Development Roundtable. To learn about other events in the International Development Roundtable Series, click here.

PHOTO CREDIT: Noel St. John for Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies