New Ministry to Coordinate Poverty Relief
Fernando Marín has one goal when he steps into office on May 8: to shrink the number of families living in extreme poverty, now estimated to be around 50,000.
Tapped by President-elect Laura Chinchilla to lead the charge against poverty reduction, Marín will become the first-ever Minister of Social Welfare.
His aim is to reach out to 20,000 families, 10 municipalities and 22 communities during his four-year term, helping impoverished families take steps toward joining the middle class. Rather than seeking new funds, his ministry will coordinate existing government aid programs, ensuring that assistance to families arrives in an integrated manner.
However, he heads a ministry without employees, office space or government funding, as his post needs the approval of the Legislative Assembly before it’s officially established. For that reason, Chinchilla has given him the complementary role of heading the Mixed Institute for Social Aid (IMAS), a central player in existing antipoverty efforts.
While legislators debate the merits of adding a new ministry to an already bloated bureaucracy, the title of Minister of Social Welfare gives Marín a seat at weekly cabinet meetings and access to the President’s ear.
He met with The Tico Times shortly after his appointment to explain Chinchilla’s strategy of coordinating aid, to discuss the causes of poverty in Costa Rica and to talk about why he thinks he’ll be able to make a difference.
TT: In your opinion, what is the most important cause of poverty in the country?
FM: Poverty can be explained by many causes. There are homes that, for whatever reason, don’t have access to the educational system. There are people who live in areas of the country where national services have not arrived in the quantity and quality necessary. But there are also economic reasons. Aside from the advances this country has made and that have been recognized on the international level, we haven’t been able to develop sufficient quality employment for everyone, nor have we been able to incorporate these families into the job market under optimal conditions and with the technical preparation necessary to take advantage of existing economic opportunities. Poverty is a combination of social and economic causes.
Why haven’t prior governments had success in eliminating poverty?
In the former administration (of President Oscar Arias), there were important advances. Poverty decreased from 20 percent to close to 16 percent. The economic crisis affected the numbers, and for a brief moment, poverty increased to 18.5 percent in 2009. But thanks to the efforts of the former administration, the numbers eventually declined to 950,000 people living in some type of poverty and around 250,000 in extreme poverty (50,000 homes). If you look at the situation over the last 30 years, the (Arias) administration was successful.
But we are still in a situation in which we would like to and can do better. How are we going to do it? By integrating social programs, uniting them on two fronts: on the cantonal level (by selecting 10 municipalities with the lowest social indicators) and on the household level, by selecting 20,000 of the poorest families. … We want to improve health and education services, housing and security. We want to restore public spaces, prepare people to work in technical positions, and support small- and mid-sized businesses. All this will be done in coordination with each of the institutions responsible for these things.
Can you give me an example of the municipalities you will be working with?
They include Talamanca, Golfito, Buenos Aires, Los Chiles, Sarapiquí, etc. … The list is being determined by the planning ministry based on a report that has been published since 2007 called the Index of Social Development. We are also working with 20 to 22 communities including Rincón Grande de Pavas and Santa Lucía in Cartago as well as communities in Guanacaste, Limón, Puntarenas and Alajuela. We are still defining the list because we have to do it in a coordinated manner with other institutions that are already involved in these zones.
Does this mean that the towns and the communities that are not on this list will not be receiving support?
No. I want to make this clear. Institutions in Costa Rica that work in education and health will continue with their existing plans. We are not going to take away from any program currently running in the country, nor are we going to interrupt the plans and programs that are currently taking place. These programs have had success. What we are doing here is undertaking an additional effort in communities that have high indices of poverty and of social exclusion.
And your plan with the 20,000 families?
We will undertake a similar strategy (as with the municipalities) with 20,000 families in extreme poverty. These families need to have fundamental access to quality education and health services. They are people who are prepared to work, but don’t have access to technology. We can give them a scholarship to the National Training Institute (INA). We can support them with a productive idea so that they can begin their small business. … We can support them with aid to improve housing, with Avancemos scholarships so that kids can study. In conclusion, Costa Rica and its distinct organizations have a series of plans and programs that many times aren’t successful on their own, but can be successful if applied in a coordinated manner.
Can you speak more specifically about how this program is going to work? The idea is to use the information and the work already done by the Caja to identify a first round of families that live in extreme poverty or are at social risk. From this information, there will be social workers from each organization who will determine the needs of each household. The idea is not to give a family a packet of medicines worth 25,000 colones because that won’t take a family out of poverty. …We will use all the resources of social institutions to help families in a collaborative way. Each organization will attend to its specialty and its area, but the final product will be integral.
Do you have different strategies when working with rural zones as opposed to urban zones?
For each community, we need to adopt a strategy. Yes, the marginalized urban zones require different attention than rural areas. But, in general, the strategy is the same: to organize the community, learn about the needs of each community (from the community itself) in order to provide government assistance in accordance with these needs. It’s also important to note that we are relying on the participation of the beneficiaries. We need to give them a voice in the process. They have to do more than receive. We need to open them up to the possibility that they participate in (their own) personal development, family development.
Are you working off a model that perhaps you’ve seen outside the country?
We are incorporating experience from other countries, but we are also developing our own model.
Do you need more money to carry out this program?
At the beginning, we will work with existing resources, trying to be more efficient and to have a greater impact. If the economic situation improves and the government expresses a willingness to invest in social programs, perhaps we will have additional money, but at the start, we are working with the resources we have.
What experience do you personally bring to your new role?
My experience is in health and in the administration of health services. This is one of the most important social services. … I’ve worked with similar integration programs, (for example) helping to form the first health cooperative in the country in Pavas. From this cooperative, we weren’t just interested in the health of the population, but also in initiating a series of programs with other organizations and in other fields. I also worked internationally, lending my technical experience to health organizations. I also served as health vice-minister from 1994-1998.
When one speaks of lowering poverty, common themes are education and employment. Why do you think health is such an important ingredient?
Alleviating poverty is fundamentally served by education, but health is important for various reasons. If health services aren’t close to the community, if people have health problems and they don’t have access to health services, these families will become poorer because they need to pay bus fares, because they need to buy private medicine, because they need to see a private doctor or simply because their health fails. …We need to ensure this health system is universal and strong.