From April 1st-3rd, the World Economic Forum will host a conference focusing on economic issues in Latin America titled Opening Pathways for Shared Progress in Panama City, Panama. To be sure, Latin America offers vast potential for investment, growth, and progress. With a market of over 600 million people, strong regional economic growth, and abundant natural resources ranging from oil to timber to minerals, there are plenty of positives for policymakers, analysts, and conferees to focus on.
Panama City, as the World Economic Forum points out, is an embodiment of Latin America’s progress and future prospects. Panama attracts an incredible amount of international investment, and is a center for global business logistics.
Of course, the region--and Panama specifically--has its share of challenges as well. Governments need to improve the access to and quality of public goods such as education, security, healthcare, and infrastructure. There are also daunting social matters to address. Latin America, as a region, has the highest level of inequality in the world, and there are serious tradeoffs that come along with neoliberal economic development, including conflicts with the rights of indigenous communities and environmental degradation. Politically, Latin Americans confront the difficulties of balancing effective and decisive governance and the deepening of democratic institutions and credibility of their elected officials.
It is unclear to what extent the World Economic Forum can address these political issues, but it is certainly within the forum’s purview to promote economic policies that simultaneously address fundamental social issues. The obstacle to accomplishing both economic and social objectives lies within the dichotomy presented by short term vs. long term goals. In the short term, pro-growth policies have a potential, especially within the Latin American context, to take a heavy toll on the poor, indigenous communities, women, and racial minorities. However, long term economic development, which is not a synonym for economic growth, requires a focus on improving governance and reducing structural inequalities through investments in human capital and infrastructure. It is unfortunate that the incentives faced by politicians push them to focus on the short term, rather than the long term.
Attendants at the World Economic Forum in Latin America this upcoming spring will have their hands full. Although an official agenda has not been released, the Forum will,
“focus on the region’s efforts in maintaining its economic growth, boosting the diversification of its economies, increase its productivity, fuel competitiveness, enhance trade and invest in human capital. Participants will help to determine how to better address challenges in education, health, infrastructure and technology in the region and will contribute to shaping the region’s economic, social and political agenda.”
It will be interesting to observe what the policy proposals and subsequent outcomes of the conference will be. Unfortunately, only two of the five co-chairs are actually Latin Americans, and both of them are Panamanians. The remaining co-chairs are European and Emirati, two areas which have distinct histories and challenges from Latin America. Hopefully, participants in the World Economic Forum’s conference on Latin America will be more representative of the populations whose livelihoods the Forum is seeking to improve.