WASHINGTON, D.C. – Fighting violent crime, reducing malnutrition, helping children learn to read and getting rid of corrupt judges – any of these would be commendable goals to pursue in one of Latin America’s poorest countries.
Last Thursday, Guatemala’s Salvador Paiz received the Inter-American Dialogue’s Award for Civic Engagement for his success in all of these areas. Paiz is co-chairman of Grupo PDC and chairman of Fundación Sergio Paiz Andrade (Funsepa).
Donna Hrinak, president of Boeing Brazil and former U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Brazil and Venezuela, called Paiz “a corporate leader deeply committed to fostering quality education throughout our region.” Words of praise also came from Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank, former U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills, now president of Hills & Co., and José Miguel Insulza, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, where the 10th Sol M. Linowitz Forum gala dinner took place.
“The importance of this award cannot be understated,” Paiz said in his acceptance speech. “Transforming a nation is a process fraught with uncertainties. But there are also many rewards, and seeing tangible changes in Guatemala is the most rewarding of all. My father, who died while trying to improve our region, taught me that a country is only as good as its citizens, and that we each have a role in shaping its future. Your validation of work reaffirms our commitment in building a more prosperous and just Guatemala.”
Paiz spoke before an audience of some 300 people that included former Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla, former Vice President Rebecca Grynspan, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) and dozens of ambassadors and other dignitaries.
“Latin America has made progress over the last century, but for most of our countries, the rate of progress is far from sufficient,” he said. “The often-desperate votes that favor outlandish populist policies are all symbols of a mountain of discontent. It is with a sense of urgency that we must grow our economies faster, and in a more inclusive fashion. And even though Guatemala is small, it could play an important role in furthering that trend.”
Paiz’s company, Grupo PDC, is a holding company with interests in distribution and real estate finance throughout Central America. The young entrepreneur, who’s also a member of the board of Walmart Mexico, has a bachelor’s from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Business.
“I firmly believe that education is the most important long-term capability we need, in order to break free from our poverty trap. However, it is also the most elusive,” he said. “Short-term agendas imposed by political parties distract us from the central priority of education: the kids. Only 24 percent and 7 percent of our graduates pass the basic reading and math exams, respectively. Fewer than 40 percent of our teachers pass those same tests.”
FunSEPA, which Paiz chairs, has installed more than 16,000 computers in 1,050 public schools throughout Guatemala, benefitting some 400,000 students. It has also trained and certified more than 85,000 schoolteachers – more than 60 percent of the country’s total teacher population.
Paiz has been a leading advocate for “Mejoremos Guate,” a long-term holistic development roadmap with short-term actionable projects.
“Very early on in this process, we realized that there is simply too much noise and volatility to be handled by our institutions. Our president felt frustrated by the lack of progress, due to meager institutional competencies. Therefore, we must focus on enhancing a few key capabilities, identifying the ones that have the most impact and letting the future take care of itself,” Paiz explained.
“We do this by engaging citizens and encouraging them to bolster our often-rundown institutions so they can do the work they’re meant to perform. Our donations, albeit in the millions of dollars to date, are but a drop in the bucket relative to our national budget,” he said. “Therefore, our focus has to be altering those public institutions. Our most recent work targets the eradication of corruption that is corroding our institutional framework. In its first year of operation, the Escuela de Gobierno Guatemala has become the country’s leading post-graduate educator of future civil servants, and is disrupting the current logic of cronyism.”
But such efforts cannot bear fruit if violent crime continues to plague Guatemala.
“We need to satisfy the need for personal safety before we can move on to other issues,” said Paiz, noting that in 2009, Guatemala’s homicide rate was 46 per 100,000 inhabitants – making it the third most violent country in the world.
To that end, FunSEPA has sponsored Alertos.org, a new platform that recruits citizens to report crimes using email, Twitter, Facebook, mobile apps and text messaging. Alertos and other citizen security initiatives, he said, have helped slash Guatemala’s homicide rate to 34 per 100,000 – still high, but far less than what it was five years ago.
Other FunSEPA projects include the Alliance for Nutrition, an initiative to reduce the country’s 49 percent chronic malnutrition rate, as well as Guatemala Visible, a citizen movement whose main objective is to improve the quality of the nomination process for candidates to Guatemala’s Supreme Court and Attorney General’s Office, among others.