December, Panama, madness, road rage, traffic jams, inconsiderate drivers, emotional intelligence, cutting off, blocked intersections, blocking intersection

December Madness: Road Rage

Unfortunately, we are back in that time of  year when Panama’s road rage escalates and the traffic jams just seem to be crazy!  Everyone that has a car is out and about, and there does not seem to be a single day where there aren’t any traffic jams.  Obviously, Panama’s traffic in the central business district is pretty bad all year round – but December is nightmarish.

Every year, we see the government make the Corredor Norte & Corredor Sur (toll highways) free for some of the December period (often December 7 or 8 – Mother’s Day; and then again for Christmas – one year they made it free from the 19th to the 23rd!).  This is because some 2 million cars transit through Panama City every week.

It was so bad in 2016 that the Government changed the working hours of public offices so that they would leave work earlier and be able to get home before the worst of the traffic.  Hopefully this year it will be repeated, and we will see some employers offering alternative working hours to their staff to accommodate the Christmas traffic.

Road Rage

In Panama, all year round, it’s quite common to find drivers aggressively jumping queues, blocking intersections (even with the traffic cop directing the traffic), honking, flashing their lights, and speeding up to block you out as you try to change lanes or merge.  But this inconsiderate driving in bad traffic conditions seems to get worse in December.

What is essential to realise – while you cannot change or control how others respond & react in the traffic – you can control yourself! You can choose how you are going to view the problems around December traffic and stress.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence – something that many times appears to be sorely lacking in Panama – is the capacity to perceive, access & manage yourself and understand others.  It’s quite similar to empathy – with the added bonus of being self-aware.

It’s important to note – this is not intellectual.

This is intelligence.

It refers to our ability to learn – to continually change and adapt the information we had and then choose to respond differently.  One of the biggest challenges with emotional intelligence is that there is communication between the emotional and rational centres of our brain – and they occur at different speeds.

The lymbic system, which receives and processes a stimulus (leading to an emotional response), actually receives and processes faster than the neocortex (rational brain).  So, inevitably, we react emotional BEFORE we have had a chance to think.

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So, while it’s true that Panama needs to come up with new solutions to the December madness that leads to the road rage in the first place – there’s also a place for self-regulation!

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In  my ideal world of PanUtopia, all driver’s ed courses would include the following education:

  1. Pause & count to 10 —
    1. The brain struggles to process more than one thought at a time.  So you cannot count to 10 AND be thinking about why you are so mad at the other person.
    2. This allows the anger and emotions to dissipate until you can engage the rational brain
    3. Don’t take this frustration home with you – release & let go before you walk in the door!
  2. Engage your brain – think & visualize the consecuences of how you are planning to respond
  3. Practice empathy – recognise that they are driving in their own circumstances
  4. Defensive driving – not simjply driving according to the rules, but awareness that others might not be following the rules. It’s better to be safe than to be right.
  5. General education about timeliness – if there’s always bad traffic in Panama (and we all know that there is) – always calculate your travel time to the worse possible scenario, so that you are always on time.  It’s not the traffic’s fault you are running late.

Solutions

So, let’s really talk solutions to this December madness.

More public transport

I would love to see Panama actually start planning and announcing public transport options during the peak traffic.  To know that during the December traffic, there will be buses running more often than during the rest of the year.

And I would like to see Panamanians using public transportation more during the Christmas period:

  • metro
  • buses
  • Uber/taxi
  • Pedestrian

Carpooling

I would love for Panama to simply do away with their not-so-well and not-so-brilliant carpooling legislation! Who would think that legislating carpooling would actually work?

The problem is that in other countries a police officer will not pull you over in the morning traffic to find out whether the person(s) travelling with you in the car are friends/family or an officially carpooling which is registered… they will simply be glad for less traffic on the road.  However, in Panama, the taxis and transport unions are so strong, that they have made it impossible for anyone to give a neighbour or co-worker a lift to work – because apparently that’s unfair competition with the public transport sector!

Who in their right mind thought that this was a good idea?

If we want to address the traffic nightmare, we need to accept that maybe, perhaps, a neighbour will ask you for petrol-money!  And that’s okay.  It’s one less car on the road.  It’s not an illegal taxi service!

Changed working hours

In past years, the government has changed public offices working hours in December, in order to alleviate the congestion at peak hours.  This means that public officials were getting out of work by 3.30 p.m., allowing them to be home before 5.00 when the rest of private enterprise was getting off work.

More TV time – educational videos

I would love to see the transport authorities / police spend money on educational videos!

  • how to use a roundabout (circular intersections  – rotaries – what do you call them?)
  • reminder that a passing lane is for “passing” – go back into the right lane if you are not passing
  • give me a comedy about the rudeness of queue jumping
  • pet peeve – teaching drivers NOT to block intersections – don’t move forward into an intersection until it’s clear to exit.  And give this education, especially, to the traffic cops that are directing traffic.  Yes – even if you are directing traffic, there’s still no reason to allow ANY car to block the intersection!
  • tailgating versus defensive driving
  • purpose & uses of indicators – maybe another tongue-in-cheek comedy routine

But really – be safe as you are out there driving in the December madness.

Remember – while you have no control over how others are driving – you are 100% responsible for your own responses.  How will you choose to drive this December?

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Panama, traffic jams, car, cars, transport, network, train, metro, bus, buses, quality, life, work, employment, jobs, commute, commuting, driving, riding, stuck

Traffic jams

It’s 4.44 a.m. and I am awake with my hot chocolate. This, for me, is quite a normal time to be awake and up.  But that’s just my body clock – that loves getting up hours before dawn to welcome the day!  I love the quiet morning – no interruptions – just to sit and write.

Most Panamanians, however, have a waking time similar to this – with alarm clocks and a commute that I do not envy!  One friend tells me she leaves home before 5.50 a.m., otherwise she will be stuck in traffic for 2 hours.  If she leaves before then, it only takes 30 minutes.  So, she gets to work at 6.30 a.m. every morning!  But it’s better to be at work than stuck in traffic for hours!

Another lady in my office leaves home (Chorrera) every day before 5.20, so that she has a “hope” of getting on the unlicensed buses (known here as bus pirata), because at least then she can come with air-conditioning and sitting down.   All in order to get to the office before 8.00 a.m.  Most people that live in Chorrera are awake at 4.00 a.m. to get to work by 8.00 – to me that is simply unimaginable!

It’s quite normal for a Panamanian to spend 4 to 5 hours a day stuck in traffic on their way to and from work!  Imagine the quality of life they could have if they could recover 3-4 hours a day!

While it’s true that the Metro train runs from Los Andes to Albrook Mall in 20 minutes, that’s only a partial solution to Panama’s commuting problem!  Panama has built suburbs in three directions:

  1. Los Andes / Milla 8 / San Miguelito
  2. Tocumen / Pacora / 24 de diciembre
  3. Arraijan (pop. 300,000)  / Chorrera (pop 200,00)

Of these three areas, the current metro line only services the first of these.  The second metro line – under construction but “almost finished” will cover Tocumen, 24 de diciembre & Pacora – but will not actually go to the airport!  So, for now, we can forget about the option of coming into the airport and just catching the metro home!  Once again, I see no plans for any parking at the final station.

And the third line of the metro – that will take care of commuters from Chorrera & Arraijan, is still in planning phases – with the largest part of the plan being the bridge across the Canal for the train & more traffic.  Chorrera and Arraijan used to be in the same Province as Panama City – until the populations grew so much, that the west side of the bridge was divided off into a new province: Panamá Oeste.  Chorrera is now the capital of that province!  But it doesn’t “act” like a provincial capital in many ways.  It continues in its role of sleeping & housing satellite for Panama City.

As Ursula Kiener stated earlier this year in a tweet – building 20 bridges across the Canal isn’t going to solve the problem – the issue lies with having Chorrera & Arraijan simply as dormitory cities.  We need to start developing the rest of the country and creating jobs there.

But even if I look at New Zealand – and their commuting problem for Auckland’s central business district – is it really all that different? Twelve KM from New Lynn to CBD in about an hour – which is half the distance that commutes have from Tocumen or a third from Chorrera (34km) into Panama City’s CBD.

Panama attempts to solve the commuting issue by having all of the lanes of the Interamerican highway coming INTO town from 4.00 to 8.00 a.m. – meaning that if you want to go out of Panama City, you take the Puente Centenario!

Basic culture – driving:

And that’s without even talking about the traffic in downtown Panama City!  Unfortunately, Panamanians do not appear to have learned the basics of how to handle intersections – exacerbating the traffic jams and frustration for other drivers.

What’s worse — you watch the traffic cops telling drivers to pull up over the intersection while they wait in line… doing nothing to help in the education of drivers who are respecting an intersection.

 

Pet peeve # 2 – Panamanians do not seem to have learnt the correct way to use a roundabout!  Panama would be a slice closer to Utopia, if every driver would just follow the simple etiquette and rules for using a roundabout.

Part of the solution lies in a complete education of Panamanians regarding regard to the driving rules – not driving on the shoulder and creating a third lane when there are only two, not driving down a one-way street the wrong way to avoid the queue in the other street, and respect for fellow drivers.  Everyone is heading the same direction – getting to work.

Transport solutions

Public transport

The options in Panama at the moment are limited:

  1. Buses, including metro buses & “piratas” – referring to the unlicensed buses that run daily (who when they are deemed illegal actually protest and block the roads)
  2. Metro system – line 1 – running North-South – only available at the moment from San Isidro to Albrook Mall
  3. Taxis – which used to be relatively safe and comfortable – are now often not air-conditioned and people are concerned about their safety
  4. Uber & other apps – a better option, as long as you have a credit card for payment, since they are phasing out cash payments (although in today’s headlines – this is being extended again)
  5. Walking
  6. Cycling

I don’t know anyone in Panama that would cycle to work – especially since upon arriving at work they would need somewhere to shower.  The heat & humidity of the tropics does not make this a cool morning ride to work – and the fumes from the traffic are asphyxiating!  Not to mention the complete lack of cycle-friendly cars that would push you off the road in their angst to get to work “on time”.

Uber & taxis are certainly not options for a long commute – such as from Chorrera or Pacora, because they would break a hole in your pocket if you did that daily!

And so commuters are left only with walking (fine for short distances as long as there isn’t a tropical downpour), buses or their private vehicles.

Car-pooling or ride sharing

Car-pooling would seem like one obvious solutions to Panama’s public transport crisis more than one person travels in a car, and prevents the need for others to have to drive  themselves. Ride-sharing reduces each person’s travel costs such as: fuel costs, tolls, and the stress of driving.

While to me it may seem crazy – Panama prohibits carpooling or ride-sharing to work – unless you’ve registered for it!  The taxis and public transport didn’t want people to be able to do this, because they said that the driver would charge others for the ride (i.e. gas money) and that was taking money out of the pocket of public transport.

Really?

Seriously?

Would you LOOK at the transport problem that Panama has?

And you want to legislate carpooling & ride-sharing so that it’s done properly???

While every other country simply has a rule that there are carpooling lanes (i.e. if there are two or more people in a car they get a special fast lane) – Panama is sitting here complaining about the traffic problem without really solving it!

Rant over.

Parking for at Metro Stations

One of my pet peeves is the LACK of parking at the final metro stations – I’m talking Pacora (when they finish line 2), San Isidro (out past Los Andes) and whatever the plans are for the last station in Chorrera.  I understand that there is no parking at the station on Vía España or even San Miguelito’s “La Gran Estación”.

But I don’t understand the lack of planning of not ending the final station with a car park, so people can drive to the station, leave their car and hop on the train! So you don’t want to have security looking after the cars? Put a sign up – “leave cars at your own risk”.

But the reality of Panama’s situation – especially in a country where it rains 8-10 months of the year – people need a way to get from their home to the train station.  How do we expect commuters to get from their homes (often in suburbs and gated communities) to the train station to start the commute? They are not going to pay a taxi and most likely not going to walk 3 km to the train station!

Implementing solutions

While I agree that it would be fabulous if some of the companies and jobs were available in Chorrera, rather than everyone commuting into Panama City – I don’t realistically see that happening within the short term.

Headquarters for multinationals are already “out of town” – in the sense that they are not central business district – either in Panama Pacifico, ciudad del Saber or Costa del Este. Processing zones are constantly being developed in Don Bosco, Tocumen and Transistmica – areas which are highly industrial and strategically located for logistics between Colon and the airport.

But Panama needs to find that perfect mix between investing more heavily in public transport (buses, not just the metro) and offering commuters options of how to get from their homes onto the public transport network.  They need to make sure that walking to a bus stop is actually an option, not an obstacle course.  I am constantly amazed at how sidewalks simply “end”, leaving you in the middle of an overgrown or muddy patch of mire.

There has been a lot of criticism these last two years about how the walking infrastructure (foot paths & walkways) has taken away what little parking there was in the central business district.  Not to mention the horrendous flooding that badly planned and executed works have caused!  The current river flowing down Vía Argentina each time it rains has become a sad parody of  wake-boarding!

That aside – if we really want to improve the quality of life for Panamanians – we need to accept that public transport is what will provide that.  This means more trains & a metro system that allows people to get home within 30-40 minutes, rather than 2 hours, more buses (especially shorter routes that go through neighbourhoods) and taxis or Uber.

If we are going to go with more public transport – Panama needs bus stops that actually keep the water out when it’s raining – not tiny little roofs for a spring shower!  And the public foot paths need to be walkable – rather than dangerous obstacle courses!

Building more roads (corredores or bridges across the Canal) will not solve the problem – this requires a change of culture & expectations.  And this means – the solution will take a generation to re-educate!

So – when do we start?

 

Panama politicians, politics, promises, electoral promises, needs, community, communities, identify, coach, coaching

Promises Panama needs

Last week I published a post regarding my “wish list” for Panamanian politicians – what I wanted them to demonstrate in their character – compassion, creativity & courage.

André Conte responded that while he enjoyed it, more than “what do you want” he wanted the question to address “what do we all need?”

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So, while I’m not entirely sure that I have managed to truly answer his question, here is my attempt at responding to the issues that I think our 2019 elected politicians need to seriously address.

Many of these issues will not fall upon the legislators to respond – but rather upon the President, Cabinet, individual Ministers and heads of Government Departments.

Some will require incredible courage, such as the head of the Caja de Seguro Social – a crisis which I have been hearing about the past 25 years. And yet, it’s still in crisis! The leadership required here is one of an appointee – not an elected official!

And yet, here’s hoping that they step forward with compassion – the ability to connect to all the interested parties; creativity – to be able to draw upon all the solutions from all interested parties to solve the crisis; and courage – to confront the many interests that arise and actually implement a solution after having heard all interests, identified the needs of the institution and the public, and work to a long-term solution for the institution once and for all.  I maintain my opinion that every single politician and director or Minister needs coaching & mentoring in order to truly be effective in their roles with adequate support!

What I’ve seen of politicians so far

Unfortunately, my opinion of politicians is not very favourable.

It’s my belief that they are driven by their need for “job security” – which means that they are looking solely for reelection (to the same post or a “better” one), rather than driven by the needs of their communities.

Typically, this means that they are always looking for a building or project with their name on it – it’s irrelevant whether the community really needed it or not. They want something that they can point to and say “look what I did for you”.  Most constituents will look at that and think “wow, they built something”, without actually asking whether that was the priority of the community.

Bureaucrats, similarly, are driven by promotion & job security. This means that they will not do anything risky – even if change is needed – because that could get you fired. Likewise, in a situation of cronyism, they are unlikely to oppose elected politicians, because that will get you fired.  This means that they will simply toe the line – even if the line isn’t going anywhere!

Community interests & needs

Unfortunately, this typically means that neither the elected politicians nor the bureaucrats are studying the interests of the communities that they serve. And moreover, it means that no one is thinking or evaluating the long-term needs of the community or society as a whole.

For some areas of Panama’s political plans, I am aware that there have been agreements reached between political parties & bureaucrats regarding long-term plans. But this is the exception, rather than the rule.  Unless politicians are willing to give up their aspirations for reelection – focusing instead on the long-term needs of society, instead of a building with their name on it or hams for Christmas – what will be done?

How will projects actually be completed if there is not complete “buy-in” from all interested parties? Solutions that are reached by the different interest groups – and not simply decided by politicians with a 5-year plan.  This is one of the primary reasons why I will harp on, over and over, about the need for compassion (connection), creativity (the ability to brainstorm with all interested parties solutions – outside the box), and courage (motivation to move forward and overcome obstacles that arise along the way) for the leaders in driving a solution forward!

Because – if for once – someone were able to get all of the interest parties to agree upon the solution, which takes longer than 5 years to implement – it wouldn’t matter that the government changes.  The interest groups themselves would keep the projects and solutions on track through the change of government. But I haven’t seen a government yet capable of pulling off a solution of this magnitude!

So, what do I think we need?

Where do I start?  Which of all of the needs of Panama is clamouring the most for attention?  If we solved one of the problems, would that solve all the rest?  I know that O’Neill in Alcoa found a keystone problem, which when he solved then solved by itself all the rest of the problems within the company, but I am really hesitant to take a guess which one of the areas of government might have the biggest impact on all the rest of the areas!

Presidency

For want of a better place to start, I will start at the top!  And I will admit – this being PanUtopia – the size of the issues to be addressed overwhelms me as to who the right person for this job might be.  Because, in utopia… this person would be capable of handling a Cabinet of Ministers and keeping each one of them, and their respective subordinates, focused on the goals at hand and putting each of the areas I will touch upon in order!

Qualities I want in a President:

  1. compassionate – able to connect with empathy and understanding with communities and their leaders; able to connect with each member of the Cabinet and empower them to effectively do their jobs, because it’s not the President’s job to fix each of the problems that I will identify below; diplomatic – able to command a room and speak from the heart, capturing the attention and connecting with the audience;
  2. creative – able to sit down at a table with 15 people + assistants, and brainstorm solutions – calling in all the talents & abilities of those present – to create solutions that no one person individually could possibly come up with; analytical & logical – able to look through the numbers and lists and come up with priorities and rationally decide the most efficient course of action; well-read & educated – to learn from the experiences and draw from the experience of others that are not even in the room through extrapolation;
  3. courageous – secure enough in their identity to speak their truth and present their ideas and solutions; motivated to see the solution through any obstacles, knowing from the very beginning that obstacles would arise and that they would need to create solutions for those, and being willing to do the hard work consistently to see it through to completion.  Motivated to push through the days when things appear to be going wrong, not simply waiting until “things feel right”.

Looking at that list… it’s kind of what I want in every Minister & Director of Government Agencies as well!  It’s not enough that it only be at the level of the President!

As you will see from the issues below – many of these issues are actually in the hands of bureaucrats – Ministers appointed by the President (not publicly elected officials) and heads of Departments.  While there will be necessary work with publicly elected officials (mayors, representatives and legislators), the majority of “decision making” and implementation will be effectively be within the executive branch of government!

How important is it, over the next 5 years, to legislate in theses matters (other than budget constraints) versus implementation of the decision-making?

Education

Unfortunately, earlier this year I wrote about the challenges facing Panama’s education system, and many of those challenges are still unattended.  Of the 1300+ schools without walls (just the roof held up on posts), there are more than 700 still outstanding. In a recent study of the 3rd grade education level, 1/3 can’t write, 50% can’t read and 60% don’t have requisite basic math skills expected!  That’s without even addressing the issues of modernisation of the system to meet the constantly changing global climate and advances in technology and work environments!

The biggest challenge, however, that I see — what is the vision that guides Panama’s education policies? How will the Minister of Education reach consensus with the educators and other interested parties (including even future employers and entrepreneurship opportunities) to establish the road map that will guide decision making in coming years?  What is the first and primary issue that should be dealt with in the education system that would work towards solving the myriad of issues that need to be faced: preparation of the teachers, infrastructure, participation in growth of the economy, technology?

This one area alone requires someone at its head that truly can get to the bottom of the issues within the Ministry and set a plan of action with the buy-in of the teachers & educators to achieve at least one phase of the plan by 2024!

Health

While I accept that the health issues are actually 2 separate issues, one being the Ministry of Health (and approval of imports of medication, as well as the State health network), there is the more pressing crisis of the CSS (Social Security).  This is a challenge from within as well as from the outside!  The competing interests are tearing it apart, as they have been doing for the past 30+ years!

There are issues regarding their finances & assets, issues with respect to the services (or failure) offered, the infighting and power struggles (national as well as regional and within hospitals), and the competing interests of the doctors, nurses, technicians, suppliers & patients.

This is definitely a scenario where I could see the identification of keystone habit (such as that described by O’Neill in his experience at Alcoa) would actually make a monumental difference to the whole organisation and could be the beginning of a solution!  However, O’Neill was lucky that he counted with the support of his Board – the ones responsible for bringing him on to solve the problem!  In the case of the CSS – this need for support from the Board would need to be addressed!

Housing

Panama currently faces the challenge of needing 200,000+ housing units – but the construction industry is faced with rising labour & material costs.  Construction permits dropped 50% in 2018, and while the country needs 15-16,000 additional homes each year, only some 14-15,000 a year were being built (before the drop in permits!).  Of the 100,000 homes promised by the current government during their term, some 45,000 have been built.

The head of housing will need to balance the interests & needs of the community (for housing) against those of the construction companies, infrastructure needs, and environmental concerns.

Infrastructure

Closely related to the need for housing are other infrastructure needs – even though in 2018-2019 some $2 billion of projects are underway.  This includes finishing line 2 of the Metro and starting line 3 to Arraijan & Chorrera.  But one of the questions being regularly asked is why Chorrera is merely a satellite of Panama City, rather than being designed and built as a separate center that provides employment and not merely sleeping quarters to workers for Panama City!

Two thousand km of roads were promised by the government and claimed to have been built, although it was later clarified that this was really only some 355 km that were completed.

The government also promised to eradicate latrines – but while 200,000 were promised, the results remain unknown.  Likewise, running water has not been installed to all communities in Panama, and many communities still find themselves off the electric grid and mobile phone coverage.

Energy

Closely related to the foregoing issues are the myriad of issues tied up in the energy sector.  I wrote about these issues a number of months ago.  The interest groups here are varied and with conflicting interests.  Needs include:

  • a long-term maintenance plan
  • transmission line #4
  • pricing
  • environmental policies and policing.

The sectors that are affected by energy include: construction, commerce, industry & consumers.

If Panama wants 75% renewable energy by 2050, it needs to change the legal framework and confront the investments recently made into gas-based energy projects, rather than green energy projects such as wind farms or solar power.  In 2016, 60% of the electricity produced in Panama was through hydroelectric plants (which while a renewable source, create significant environmental damage in large areas), 32% thermal, 7% wind and only 1% solar.  What is curious to note is that worldwide, countries with much less sunshine (take for example – Germany) have a much higher rate of solar power than our tropical nation!  Go figure!

Fiscal Policy

Panama’s current fiscal policy requires an overhaul – in order to:

  1. attract investment
  2. be fair on all the players in the market (including small & medium enterprises)
  3. tax monies should not be “lost” through poor management and corruption/theft
  4. in order to “balance the books” – decisions may need to be made to cut government overhead
  5. it may be necessary to down-size government offices, irrespective of how unpopular that may make government members!

Economy

Where to start?

Panama currently faces more unemployment, less investment, less loans being granted and less sales in commerce.  In 2018, the unemployment rate increased for the fifth consecutive year.

There is a serious lack of equality within the country, with many areas still in subsistence farming and well below the poverty line.  Only a few sectors are actually benefited by the current economic growth that is touted internationally.

Financing is barely available for the business sector, particularly small to medium enterprises.  Policies do not support or encourage growth, investment or expansion of companies.

Unemployment

Forty percent of the workforce is currently listed as “self-employed”, “on contract” or “part time” – with no stability.  The results in lower productivity and inability to participate in bank financing and other needs.

Special Zones

While the special zones were thriving, with global changes, they are failing to create a significant difference to the economy and generate employment. Policy changes and focus are necessary.

Tourism

While tourism generates about 10% of GDP and 130,000 jobs in the economy, hotels are currently suffering with a 46% occupancy rate. Once again, a concerted plan and creativity – from public and private sector together – is required to change the situation.

Agriculture

It would appear that the agricultural sector has been abandoned to subsistence farming – with not much technological or educational assistance to the sector.  Exceptions to this are the farms owned and operated by the major supermarkets, who basically produce exclusively for their own consumption.  But many areas of the country are abandoned, with little or no interest in exchanges of technology between countries and participation in projects for learning in the alienated communities that are relegated to subsistence.

Another concern, in the commercial enterprises of farming, is long-term sustainability and environmental accountability for farming methods – particularly long-term effects of runoff from the farms and damage to the surrounding environment.

Justice & Security

I can’t close without mentioning the concerns about the justice system and security issues in Panama.  There are many jokes and memes about “perception” – we “perceive” that there is a problem.  But let’s get real – there is a problem! Not a perception!

Security of citizens and tourists needs to be addressed not only in Panama City or Colon, but in the entire country. Gangs & drug trafficking need to be addressed, as do home invasions and robberies.

In the justice system, attention should be given to the Sistema Penal Accusatorio – which was introduced over the past few years.  It’s not that the system should be reverted to the previous system, which was full of its own flaws – but attention needs to be given to the concerns of the police force and prosecutors regarding their experience within the system. These concerns needs to be addressed across the board.

  • What needs to be fixed?
  • What simply needs to be tweaked?
  • How can members of the police force be educated and prepared better to work within the system?
  • Where are different parties frustrated by the process?

Change is never comfortable, but concerns should also be addressed.

Drawing this to a close

As I look at all of these needs, I recognise that Panama needs well-prepared teams within each area.  This is not an issue for “the President” to fix. I admit, I am sick of people saying “The President needs to come here and solve this problem”.  A country’s problems cannot depend solely on one person to solve them!

This is something that will require not just Ministers that are prepared to sit down at tables, but all interest groups that are well-versed in the myriad of issues and concerns of their specific industry and that are open to brain-storming solutions that take into account all of the interests in the matter, rather than simply being closed to “this is my position”.

Experienced negotiators and mediators – that are able to delve into the needs and interests of all parties will be required at each table – that can identify the need that lies below the stated position.  People that know how to ask questions and are willing to continue asking until truly connecting with the source of the interest, rather than accepting on face value a projected position at the negotiating table.

If any one of these problems is truly to be addressed and a solution found – all parties have to be prepared to see all sides of the issue and begin to accept that the solution may only truly be found by everyone working together to build a better country!

Communities themselves will need to start to believe that they possibly have a role to play in solving the problem, and actually in carrying the solution into effect.

This may require that everyone stops looking at their belly button and “what’s in it for me?” – and actually starts to look at

“how do we all participate in fixing these problems?”

Well, as always, this is PanUtopia!

Panama, politicians, re-election, reelection, promises, campaign promises,, preparation, hopes, dreams, compassion, creativity, courage

Politicians, Re-Election & Promises

The Reelection debate has quieted down a little bit recently in Panama – as political parties finish up their primaries, headed into the 2019 elections. But, what I am noticing is that within the political parties, we are still seeing a lot of “reruns”, rather than new blood.

So this idea “No a la re-elección” – while it’s popular with the average person on the streets, does not seem to truly have taken flight within the main parties.

Looking from the outside in – I recognise a pattern that comes up often when dealing with clients.  You ask the client “what do you want?” and they proceed to provide you with a list of “I don’t want“.

That.
Wasn’t.
The.
Question!

I didn’t ask “what don’t you want” – I asked “what do you want?”

Because, unfortunately, until we can clearly enunciate what it is that we DO want, we are just going to continue getting more of what we don’t want!

So… I am going to attempt to enunciate what I do want to see in our publicly elected officials in Panama.

I will remind the reader – this in PanUtopia – an alternative reality – what could be in a Utopian view of Panama.

PanUtopia-tea

So… come sit down with me… grab your cup of tea or coffee… and let’s dream & idealise for a moment what that perfect Panama might look like!

To start with, I want politicians with coherence & alignment – you might think a better word for this is integrity – where their passions & purpose drive their creation of solutions, and these are followed through with concerted actions.

Is that really too much to ask?

I don’t think so!  Hey, neuroscience says that it can be done!

Of course, that presupposes that we are talking about emotional intelligence – politicians that are actually self-aware and have self-control! They don’t freak out, shut down or stone wall when faced with obstacles to their plans.

But to be realistic, what I really want is heart-lead politicians!

I don’t mean all emotional – wear your heart on your sleeve – politicians.  No.  I mean that they are truly connected with their compassion (self & others) and connected from the heart (not their pocket) with the community.

This means that they listen to the dreams and desires of their communities – the ideals & values.  It means that they are really “chunking down” on what are the values that their community holds dear, and then using those values as a guiding light for their decision-making!

They have to establish trust & connection with their communities – understanding the wants and desires that drive the communities that they serve.

When I say I want a heart-lead politician – I mean I want someone with wise compassion. Not a people-pleaser or a yes-man – someone that has clear boundaries established by values and dreams.  That recognises that priorities may have to be established and not everyone will be in agreement with those priorities.  But whose passion for following the dreams, aspirations, purpose and values of the community drive what they are working on!

This person will need to be able to listen to criticism and handle being in the hot-seat.  And I mean listen to criticism. Not take it personally and get all defensive. Not brush it off and ignore it – but be open to listening to it, because perhaps there is something in there to be gathered and learned!  To respond to criticism, rather than to react!

Did I mention emotional intelligence?

I want a politician that accepts responsibility – that doesn’t play the “blame game” and does not justify & deny.  Who doesn’t use smoke screens & mirrors to confuse the crowds. If they make a mistake, I want them to be humble – to accept their mistake and acknowledge it – and then look at what repairs will need to be made.

I want a creative politicians

And by this, I mean I want them to put all their creative and problem-solving abilities at the service of their purpose & passion.  To allow their compassion & connection to others to indicate where solutions are required, and then to sit down with their teams and brain-storm how to bring these into effect.

I want a strong team leader that can guide others through the mental imagery of the creative process – connecting dreams & visions with reasoning, analysis, synthesis & cognition.

To set up a 5-year plan with vision & goals – and then to connect with their communities and interested parties (including the businesses and the construction industry) to make these plans & goals happen!  To take into account the concerns that the communities have and also the concerns of the business backbone – and then to think outside the box to find creative solutions to the issues and obstacles.

I want politicians with balanced perspectives – that understand that there are always going to be competing interests in a community – but that through their creativity can integrate views and find solutions that generate the greatest good!  Someone who brings to the table effective decision-making & problem-solving.

I want someone that knows that sometimes the right question is “who”, rather than “what”.  A person that recognises that they personally don’t have to have all of the answers – but rather that sometimes they should ask “who” – who is the right person for this project?  Who should I delegate this to?

And, finally, I want courageous politicians.

It’s all fine and well to have heart – and be lead by compassion.  It’s wonderful to allow that compassion to guide your creativity – to be the north-star for how you solve problems — but unless they are courageous, unless they dare to step out and actually put into motion all of these ideas… we will still have nothing!

So, I want these politicians that take action, that are deeply connected to their internal sense of security & safety, and that align their actions with their compassion & creativity!  I want to see full mobilization – willpower and quiet courage – from a relaxed and calm disposition.

Someone who is not worried about self-preservation – in terms of getting re-elected next term – but rather someone that is simply keeping their promises to the community.  Who limits their hunger from becoming greed. Who does not allow their aversions to become fear.

I understand… there are no perfect outcomes.

There will, inevitably, be mistakes and learning opportunities.

But I want someone that is open to learning from the failures – that is willing to communicate these situations.

So… you ask… what do I want from my politicians?

  • compassion – lead from the heart
  • creativity – putting all their intelligence & ideas at the service of their compassion
  • courageous – to actually put it all into action

And then, as a result of these 3 prime characteristics – I want

  • communication
  • caring
  • consistency
  • competency

I warned you… this is PanUtopia

But I also know that these skills and way of being can be learned!  So, knowing that in the primaries half of the politicians that are being elected are “more of the same” – I have a new wish… I wish all of these politicians would get some coach training, so that they could LEARN how to be lead by their hearts!

PanUtopia02

 

Jesus, Panama, children, religious community, abortion, gay marriage, family values, Utopia, churches, healing, communities, love Thy neighbour, love thy neighbor, organised religion, Catholicism, politics, political parties, followers, evangelists, televangelists

Panama – Utopia – a religious community where Jesus might actually be welcome

“What if Panama had 0% corruption, no inflated government contracts and politicians were actually elected for their capacity and ability to get the job done? What if public sector officials actually did their work with heart and soul? What if private citizens and companies practiced social responsibility? What if neighbours worked together to build better neighbourhoods and participated actively in local government?

What if churches fed the poor and provided social and emotional healing to their communities?”

Panama doesn’t have Jesse Duplantis, wanting his $54M jet, but it has its fair share of “rockstar” evangelists.   Like the one that rides in a helicopter over Panama City to “bless it”.  His critics suggest that Jesus would have walked around the city to impart his blessing on everyone, not flown over in a helicopter.

These same evangelists would create a new political party, calling on all of their members to only vote for those who are sanctioned by the church.  They call on their members to protest “for family values” against gay marriage.  And then, they are strangely silent on issues like rape of minors and the 9,000+ adolescent pregnancies from last year. They are vociferous in their rejection of sex ed in schools, because it would compromise a family’s right to teach this in the home, but are silent with respect to real social solutions.

They are likewise nonvocal on corruption, the investigation of Obredecht bribes, and the slow justice system in Panama which never seems actually convict anyone other than the poor.  They say that with a new political party they want to drive change, but there are some things that they just don’t seem to want to change! If they can amass 10,000+ for a family values march, why not bring all of those members to a march against corruption?

While claiming to draw the community closer together and working together  to protest against same-sex marriage, they are separatist on so many other matters.  In 2019 Panama will be host to World Youth Day, a week long convention of youth in Panama organised by the Catholic Church.  It is expected that the Pope will attend. This event is thought to cost some $50M to organise here, and while the Baha’i, Methodist, Anglican & even Muslim communities have expressed their support, including housing the youth in their places of worship or homes, support from the evangelical community has once again been soundless, other than Salvation Army and other groups that are very youth-focused.

Would these be religious communities where Jesus might actually feel welcome?

Am I being tongue in cheek? Hell, yes!

I am so sick of watching churches say that they support “family values” and yet do nothing when there is a case of a minor having been abused for 8 years by a family member.  There were no protests when he received a sentence of community service, which isn’t allowed under the criminal code.  “That’s a problem for the justice system”. It obviously has nothing to do with “family values”.

There are likewise no “family value” issues in teen pregnancies, and God forbid that we have sex ed in schools.  Abstinence, taught in homes, is certainly the only way to stave off the rising cases of HIV, STDs and unwanted pregnancies.  What about all those youth whose families are not teaching anything at home?  Should they simply receive whatever education their families see fit?

Adolescent mothers, most of a certain social strata, aren’t provided with a staunch support network to help them through their pregnancies, stay in school, and other basic skills to help them break the poverty cycle.  Now, there are fabulous programs like “Las Claras”, run by the women’s group “Voces Vitales”.  But this is run by a group of professional women concerned to improve the opportunities for young women as single mothers.  This is not something that churches in Panama have seen as an “outreach program” or a social need to address.

There are also programs, like Asociación Luz y Vida, which runs a home for the elderly in Paraíso (and another in Metetí, Darien), most of whom were homeless.  This was started by Monseñor Rómulo Emiliani and then set up as a Nonprofit, with a group of donors.  Even so, it only has space for 50 elderly patrons.

Another program was established by the Catholic church in cooperation with the City Council: “Centro de Orientación y Atención Integral San Juan Pablo II“, in which the Catholic church undertakes to take on at least 30 people a month referred to it by the City Council social workers.  This is an attempt to work together at solving a problem of homelessness and drug addiction, but requires that the participants want to be rehabilitated.  The City Council, will, however, subsidize the program with $36,000 a year towards expenses ($3,000/month).

There is also a program under way in San Miguelito (probably the most dangerous part of Panama City, that is actually outside of the city limits), which addresses the gang wars.  In this program, some 200 evangelical groups and 60 Catholic churches joined task forces to reach 1,500 youth in a program aimed at getting them out of gangs and into “the Life University”, in which they would be taught life skills, sports & hand-crafts of various types.

But, with the exception of Las Claras (not associated with any church) and Asociación Luz y Vida (a nonprofit that I know was originally the brainchild of Monseñor Emiliani), which I already knew about, I had to search long and hard to discover the social programs that the churches in Panama were participating in! For example, when I looked up Hosanna Social Programs, the results that I got from the search engines were all about their television programs and shows!  They do, however, have a prison outreach program.

What happened to Jesus’ call to love your neighbour as yourself:

35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ (Matthew 25)

This makes me truly wonder if Jesus would feel at home with the churches in Panama today?

Or would he be walking through their houses of worship, overturning tables and throwing out the money changers and all of those seeking to make a business of the church?

It’s not that I don’t want to see churches in Panama, but in a Utopia, churches would be so much more than inward looking social clubs only concerned about their ratings and attendance numbers!

 

Panama, business, money, entrepreneur, business index, economy, doing business, starting a business, economic indicators, ideal business environment, import, export, fintech, incubators, assistance

Panama’s money stories – the way forward

Ranking and Index: doing business in Panama

One of the difficulties that I see on the way forward, is that Panama is not the easiest country in which to set up a business (locally) and run it.

Panama scores a low #54 in “economic freedom” according to the Heritage.org, having a score of 67.0 – because of drops in property rights and government integrity (corruption).  On the other hand, the Fraser Institute and the Economic Freedom Network place Panama for 2017 at #30 in Economic Freedom.  Forbes lists Panama as #64 in “Best Countries for Business“.  Unfortunately, economic growth has depended on debt-financed infrastructure projects, while the economy has depended heavily on transportation and logistics services.

One of the biggest problems with all the infrastructure development and spending is the burden this creates on tax payers.  General government gross debt accounted for 39% of GDP in 2017, with a fiscal deficit of 3.1% (up substantially from 2% in 2016). That said, amazingly enough the IMF estimates Panama will have the highest per capita GDP in Latin America – USD 25.712 – in 2018.

That said, Panama continues to have the fastest growing economy in the region: our well-developed services sector accounts for over 75% of GDP.   Before the crash of 2008, Panama has the highest growth rate in Latin America (close to 11%) – with real estate prices and speculation leading the rush.  Since 2013, the GDP has slowed from previous levels of 6-8%, and following on from the #PanamaPapers scandal the banking and corporate services sectors have diminished considerably.  The services which continue to contribute to GDP include logistics, banking, the Colon Free Zone, insurance, container ports, tourism and offshore services to a lesser extent.

Unfortunately, Panama dropped (2016-2017) on the global entrepreneurship index from 32.2 to 26.1, and in the innovation index ranks also #63.  In human development, Panama also ranks similarly at #61.  Likewise, in the knowledge economy index, we come in at #64.

Having looked at these indexes, it is interesting to see how well Panama is moving with respect to FinTech, blockchain and the implementation of these technologies. As Panama seeks to leave behind the shroud of “shady deals” and “Panama Papers”, the Ministry of Economy & Finance has announced an initiative to regulate FinTech, blockchain, sandboxes, crypto-currencies, and crowd-funding enterprises.

Development of the Fintech industry in Panama

Bitcoin, blockchain, fintech, crypto, currency, FinTech, disruption, innovationUnbeknownst to most people, Panama is on the list of countries that are friendliest to Bitcoin and crypto worldwide!

Panafintech is the Panamanian Association of Fintech, who so far have organised five blockchain and fintech events.  Back in 2017 they organised an event for 300 people from banking and finance, to discuss blockchain – its scope and application.  It was at this event back in 2017 that Cryptobuyer announced that it was moving to the City of Knowledge and that it would be developing Blockchain Academy Latam.

Blockchain Academy offers training not only to developers and entrepreneurs, but also for financial institutions (such as banks), organizations, schools and the government.  It also offers a bootcamp in which it is possible to learn about cryptocurrencies, industry, mining, Blockchain, opening a digital wallet and other applications of the technology.

blockchain-3212312_1280Cryptobuyer is unique in Panama, offering the “Blockchain Academy Panama“, in which it offers training and certification in programming with blockchain, and has its offices in Ciudad del Saber.  Additionally, it has installed Bitcoin ATMS in parts of Panama, such as in Banistmo (since June 2017) and has installed Cryptobuyer Pay in various local businesses (so that they can accept payments in Bitcoin and other currencies).

Cryptobuyer also set up Blockchain Embassy Panama, which opened in 2017.  In addition to offering crypto clothing and merchandise, craft beers, hardware wallets and working space, the embassy also gives cryptocurrency workshops and presentations.

The first large-scale conference on fintech & blockchain was held May 5 & 6th, at Ciudad del Saber, and called “PanamChain“, with Andreas Antonopoulos  as the Keynote Speaker (author – Mastering Bitcoin (O’Reilly Media), speaker, educator) .  This event was organised by Cryptobuyer and Panafintech.

Coming up on May 24th, Panama will host its secondDigital Business Day“, offered by CAPAtec – the Panamanian Chamber of IT, Innovation & Telecommunications.  This is a “Microsoft Experience Day” – about AI, transforming customer experiences, using ChatBots, and “intelligent billing”.

Disruption & change of the market

Fintech additionally has a role to play in Panama’s “offshore industry”. At its simplest, financial technology – or fintech – applies technological innovations to financial processes, products and services. It could easily play a large role in the lucrative business of identity verification, eKYC and fraud detection. This could also directly impact in the banking industry, if Panamanian banks could work out how to incorporate this into their account opening process.

blockchain-3019120_1280Experts in blockchain have shown that banks could easily change their account opening process to a simple 5-step process relying on this system.  Some go so far as to claim blockchain technology could transform international financial transactions in much the way the Internet transformed communications. Of course, on some levels fintech competes with the traditional financial methods of delivering financial services.

Blockchain = distributed ledger technology  – provides decentralized networks that simply record transactions.  So, for example, IBM provides “Blockchain-as-a-service” for banks.  It is interesting to see how the blockchain industry could have helped Panama avoid the #PanamaPapers, as expressed by Otonomos BCC:

Our hope is that a decentralised database, which by its very nature is secure, tamperproof by third-parties and immutable even by its very authors, can be looked at by enlightened regulators around the world. This technological architecture could ultimately become a global, cross-jurisdictional database.
At Otonomos, which represents private company shares on blockchain and makes them programmable, we have engineered a decentralised solution that performs Know-Your-Customer checks at every stage of the ownership chain of company shares, and watermarks the shares with the UBO’s identity.
In addition, Otonomos has architectured our solution with the privacy of end-users in mind. We make public only such information regulators in a specific jurisdiction require to be publicly accessible, whilst masking non-publicly disclosed information.
Finally, we future-proofed our solution by letting third-party verification agents — typically organisations such as banks who by legal mandate from their Government can perform KYC checks -“stamp” people’s KYC at the blockchain level, resulting in a layered verification process in which every check fortifies a user’s KYC.

Nonetheless, it seems that tech giants are much further ahead in disrupting banks, as these lag behind in cloud computing, AI and big data.  Fintechs define the direction of innovation in financial services, but they face a challenge in their ability to scale (something that companies like Amazon or Facebook have already dealt with).  So, for example, Amazon Web Services provides cloud computing for Capital One and Nasdaq.  That’s because of the scope of the transactions that occur on a single day, which small start up fintech companies are not ready to handle.

If what we see internationally occurs in Panama, this means that large banks are acquiring fintech companies and digital banks, as strategic acquisitions – they are simply leveraging the competition to re-establish their leadership in the market.  So, for example, in Panama we have a small crypto-currency that was recently established:  Natan Edu – created by a group of young entrepreneurs, as a payment system in education, to allow payments of online courses.  This was created by Osmar Major and Marcos Pineda (22 and 24 years old respectively).  Will this be swallowed up by bigger players in the market?  Additionally, just this week, DigitalX (the first crypto-currency fund established in Australia) indicated that it is looking at Panama to establish the Latin American financial hub.

Response from the banking sector

Panama’s banking sector, however, has been very cautious in response to fintech, indicating that until it is fully regulated, they simply see the possibilities of further scandals for money laundering.  On this note, Panama’s banking Superintendence issued a notice to banks that the activity of exchange, investment, purchasing, and commercialization of “Bitcoin” or any other crypto-currency is unregulated in Panama.

As a result, some traders were threatened with having their bank accounts closed at local banks for receiving funds from their international crypto accounts!  This seems to be completely contrary to the way it is being dealt with, for example, in the US where Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley both announced that they were going to get involved in crypto-currencies.

Nonetheless, we find that Australia (leading with DigitalX), the UK and other jurisdictions have all introduced regulations in order to create the market conditions for development of fintech, blockchain and financial services.  For example, back in 2015-2016 the UK introduced their regulatory framework, working closely with the operators, so that fintech firms could set up.  This involved the Innovation hub (similar to what Panama wishes to do in the City of Knowledge), in which the businesses can understand the financial regulations and how these might apply to their business model.

As with the Innovation Hub in the UK, the City of Knowledge will simply provide guidelines, from which the startup would need to apply for the regulatory approval from the respective agency (possibly the Banking Superintendence or the Securities Commission).  Also copied from the UK is the idea of the “sand box” – where fintech startups can test their financial products and their business model in the market, and then work out the details of regulation as the market develops.

So, as Panama looks to regulate “Specialized Financial Entities”, as it is calling fintech companies, setting up crowd-funding enterprises, incubators and sand boxes, I hope that it doesn’t simply protect the interests of the existing players (like banks), but rather innovates to draw into the country investors, know-how, and entrepreneurs that are looking to build something special from Panama.

 

 

 

Education in Panama – hopes and dreams

Last week was the first week of school for public schools in Panama.  Universities typically finished their “summer holidays” at the end of January, but primary and secondary schools still have a three month summer vacation.

And after seeing headlines in Panama in late February, I’ve been asking myself: What has happened during these three months of school holidays? What efforts are made to ensure that when students return in the new year, the teachers will be better equipped as well as the schools in a better state?  And what can we do differently?

Panamá Bilingüe:

I was stunned by the news a few weeks ago that of 5,200 teachers sent abroad to study, only 1.5% (70) teachers were “certified”. Of course, it turns out that headlines sell newspapers, but don’t tell you the whole story!

During these summer months, about 1,000 Panamanian teachers and 500 students traveled from Panama to the US, England, Canada and Barbados for full immersion English classes through the program “Panamá Bilingüe”.  The Panamá Bilingüe program has a budget of over 100 million dollars for the five year period it is intended to run, and costs about $8,000 – $12,000 per teacher for training, airfares and accommodation costs.

When this program started in 2015, it was slated to be the beginning of a new era of education in Panama.  Unfortunately, if you look at the quality of the translation on the President’s website, you may be forgiven for thinking there’s not much hope for the future if this is the best that can be done for the President!

During the 5 year program (2015 to 2020), some 10,000 teachers are slated to receive instruction both in English and educational classes to improve the quality of the education received in Panama in public schools and at public universities.  A further 20,000 high school students and 30,000 primary school students are expected to also benefit from this program.

Teacher Training:

  1. national – before they are given any opportunity to study abroad, all expenses paid, the selected teachers are given training in Panama, in order to reach a certain level in English (Private & Public).  They are then given an exam (such as TOEFL or Cambridge) to see the level of their English before they go.
  2. international – 10,000 are being sent overseas. They will not only study English, some will also be studying in science and Education. Of these 10,000 teachers that are slated to go overseas before 2020, 5,200 have already completed the training internationally.  When they are sent overseas, they are expected to work (side-by-side) with teachers internationally (some 25-35 hours per week), as well as study at their designated University.

Unfortunately, the initial (and badly explained) results that came in February 2018 were not very promising. Of the 5,200 teachers who have traveled internationally so far in this program, only 70 (1.5%) have  obtained the Cambridge certification in English. However, what was important to note is that the certification in question was a certification to become examiners in Panama of students in English (i.e. it was not whether they had attained or not a proficiency in English, but whether they had a proficiency and the additional certification to be an examiner in Panama).  Five hundred teachers volunteered to participate in the courses for certification, of these 389 have a level of proficiency that are certified, and 70 have actually received the Cambridge certification as examiners.  So, while it sounds terrible that only 70 of 5,200 got certified, I had to read more to understand what they were getting certified in. Not half as bad as the headlines sounded!

In the explanations given by the Ministry of Education, they indicate that in terms of the English levels of the 5,000 teachers sent overseas to study, only 5% have completely failed to reach the levels of proficiency required (according to where they are at the time they start the course), and in these cases the teachers involved will be required to pay back the cost of the studies from their salaries.

What does concern me, however, is that the minimum level required is High Intermediate English. This means that the English teachers in our primary and secondary schools is possibly only Intermediate English.  These are not teachers who are speaking fluent English. So, if they are at intermediate level, how will our high school students reach anything higher than just intermediate?

Kids program:

In addition to the training for teachers, Panamá Bilingüe also offers classes for kids.  And this is for kids all around the country, not just in Panama City. Some of the kids will be from different regions, such as the Guna in San Blas, the Ngobe in the Ngöbe comarca between Chiriqui and Bocas del Toro. Of the 13,000 that started in the program, some 8000 children that have been participating in Panamá Bilingüe for the first three years were tested and 82% have reached Intermediate Level (as gauged by the TOEFL exams).

School buildings: Gazebo schools

Of the 1,080 gazebo schools (escuelas ranchos) found to exist in July 2014, the Ministry of Education has only been able to replace 504 so far with school buildings (some still under construction).  As expected, this project is taking longer and costing more than the current administration anticipated: they are half way there with only little more than a year left before elections (5 year term).

Although the numbers mention 1,080 “schools”, this really means buildings or class rooms, rather than the entire school.  So, for example, in 2018 they are undertaking 16 projects for 69 properties, which will eliminate 209 gazebo schools.  The new school properties will include dormitories for the teachers (as some are in remote areas), as well as play courts (with roofs) which can be used for assemblies as well as for exercise and gym class.

One of the biggest difficulties being faced is the remoteness and access of the regions where these gazebo schools exist.  Many contractors are not interested in bidding for the projects in these areas, because of the transportation issues (materials as well as workers).  So, the Ministry of Education puts out the details of the public bid, and no one responds.  And the Panamanian Ministry of Education does not seem to have its own maintenance and building division for these particular cases.

In these regions, the debate continues to be over school buildings, with no debate being entered into regarding the quality of the education that these children are receiving.

How do we combat poverty in these regions without any infrastructure to speak of?

Public Schools not ready

In addition to the issue of Gazebo schools, which is gradually being addressed and faced, every start of the school year, we hear of schools that simply are not opening for the first day of school because basic maintenance work has not been done.  So, for example, on March 5th we read that some 20 public schools were not ready and a further 32 schools were opening, but with either infrastructure issues or not having enough teachers.

Of these 20 schools, 10 are simply not opening and ready, and a further 10 are using alternative properties for the school year while their schools are being maintained. Once again, we’re talking about whether there WILL be any education, not what the quality of that education will be!

What makes for a first world education system?

When we look at the question of education, obviously these are very basic issues that Panama is facing.  Quite unlike the kinds of issues that you would face in say New Zealand or the Netherlands. Panama says that it aspires to be like Singapore, and yet Singapore often comes out as the best education worldwide!   If we look at the World Education Rankings, Panama doesn’t even make it onto the graph! Even the articles that criticize the US education system, providing graphs that include our neighbors Costa Rica and Colombia, completely ignore the existence of Panama.

How did (or does) Singapore make it to the top? For starters, education spending makes up about 20% of the annual national budget! Yes, you read that right: TWENTY percent.  Panama spends only 3.5% of its budget on education!  We get what we pay for!

English is the first language in the education system (since the 1960s), meaning that all children are fully bilingual, usually reaching fluency in primary school.  Admittedly, during the 1950s and 1960s, Singapore adapted their “survival driven” system into one which could provide a skilled workforce for their industrialization. They have also adopted the requirement that throughout primary and secondary school, all children must participate in one after school program (performing arts, clubs, sports, etc.).  Maybe these children aren’t perfectly well-rounded, but they are at least socialised and with some leadership skills.

Upon completion of secondary school, Singapore offers vocational education (since 1992), Polytechnics and Arts Institutions, Junior Colleges (2 years, pre-University), and Universities.  It also offers other alternatives, and encourages students to pursue further studies even after completing their Polytechnics or vocational training.

This strong focus on education in Singapore should be a shining example to Panama, as like Singapore, we lack natural resources (other than the Canal) and we need to develop our human resources and manpower to build a knowledge-based economy.  Obviously, there’s a lot more we could look at in Singapore’s system: meritocracy, investment and the priority that it has been given.