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Panama’s Multidimensional Poverty Index: Bridging the Technical and the Human

by Michelle Muschett, Vice-Minister of Social Development of Panama

Jorge Atencio/ Santiago Pérez

For Michelle Muschett, Panama’s Vice Minister for Social Development, the national Multidimensional Poverty Index is the result of the work of a technical and political team that took full advantage of the opportunity to do its very best in the attempt to build a more socially just society, inspired by an authentic feeling of solidarity and respect for human dignity.

 

On Monday the 26th of June 2017, the Republic of Panama officially established its first Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI-PA). It was authorized by presidential decree and adopted as an instrument of public policy and as an official measure of multidimensional poverty at the national level.

Within the central government, the MPI-PA identifies and measures the incidence and intensity of the main nonmonetary deprivations that affect the wellbeing of Panamanians. The government then seeks to use these statistics as a complement to income poverty measurement to reorient social policy with the goal of achieving an effective and comprehensive reduction of poverty levels.

Panama made public its intention to adopt a national MPI during the 70th session of the UN General Assembly. During this same session, Panama agreed to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which it then used as a blueprint for national development.

In May 2016, the Cabinet for Social Affairs, with John Hammock and Mónica Pinilla from OPHI as guests, began proceedings by approving an action plan for the adoption of the MPI-PA. From the very beginning, the presence of OPHI, in addition to confirming its sound technical, academic, and intellectual reputation as a developer of the MPI, permeated the proceedings with the ethos for which it is renowned. This ethos, which insists that poverty must be understood through the daily experiences and values of the poor, is the real driving force behind OPHI’s determined efforts to reduce poverty.

One of the first steps in this plan of action was the creation of a technical advisory committee. Led by the Ministry of Social Development (MIDES), in its role as head of social policy and technical coordinator of the Cabinet for Social Affairs (also known as the Social Cabinet), the committee also included the Directorate of Economic and Social Analysis of the Ministry of Economy and Finances, responsible for the estimations and analysis of poverty data, and the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses (INEC), responsible for compiling the necessary data for the establishment of the MPI-PA. This committee worked closely with high level technical advisors from all the institutions that make up the Social Cabinet, with the aim of proposing and submitting for approval the main normative decisions that had to be made at the central governmental level in order to construct the MPI-PA.

Behind every number there is a human being, and, in order to connect with that person and understand her needs and aspirations, it is crucial to ‘feel more’.

The relationship between the technical criteria of the advisory committee and the decisions made by the Social Cabinet built a solid bridge between the technical and political aspects of the project. This, in addition to giving visibility to the frequently anonymous work of public servants dedicated to its mission, gradually strengthened an articulated and comprehensive vision of the role that should be played by different state institutions in moving human development forward in any country.

However, the work of the team involved in the design and construction of the MPI-PA went beyond efficiently fulfilling the technical role expected from their duties. Their actions were guided by the shared conviction that a more humane and just society is possible and that each of them, in their individual roles, had something to contribute to the transformation of this conviction into reality. This gave the advisory committee a special cohesion that allowed different positions to find a convergence zone by the simple fact that all shared the same vision: to develop a tool as close as possible to perfection within the existing technical and data requirement limitations that would allow key decisions to effectively improve the quality of life of those who most need it. The establishment of the MPI-PA ceased to be a purely technical aim; it became a tool for a far greater end.

The dimensions and indicators that now form the MPI-PA are the product of a broad consultation process. They reflect the comments from academics, economists, public servants, members of civil society, and, most importantly, the experiences of Panamanians who live in poverty from all over the country. In order to carry out these consultations, the team had to adapt highly technical concepts and methodologies to communicate them to a wide range of audiences and obtain sound feedback. It was here where the human and the technical aspects of the project were bridged, which served to strengthen the significance of the work that was being carried out.

This bridge made it possible for genuine interest to spontaneously emerge in the forums and workshops that preceded the launch of the MPI-PA, which were aimed at disseminating the results to the media, specialists, public servants, and civil society. This interest was directed at taking full advantage as a country of the opportunities that establishing the MPI-PA created, recognizing that the fight against poverty is a task that affects us all. It is precisely in the alliances constructed from this uniting sense of humanity where the usefulness and sustainability of the MPI-PA lies.

As President Juan Carlos Varela said, resolutely advancing towards an inclusive Panama goes far beyond the information provided by an index. Behind every number there is a human being, and, in order to connect with that person and understand her needs and aspirations, it is crucial to ‘feel more’. This is the only way in which decisions made on political, technical, or indeed any other grounds, can be taken across the bridge that connects them to their more human side.

Today, now that Panama has established its MPI-PA, it can be said that it is much more than a simple, robust technical tool for guiding public policy: it is the result of the work of a technical and political team that, inspired by an authentic feeling of solidarity and respect for human dignity, took full advantage of the opportunity to do its very best in the attempt to build a more socially just society.

 

*Original in Spanish. Translated by Thomas Pease, United Nations Volunteer. Revised by Diego Zavaleta and Ann Barham.

MPI Multidimensional Poverty National MPI Panama