By:Heather Grady Issue: Biennial of the Americas 2010 Section:Heads of State
A Quiet Passion
Though Fernando de la Rúa resigned his Presidency in 2001 after two years of leading Argentina during a period of economic and political strife, civil unrest and civic protests, he still believes in the power of public policy to positively impact the social and economic health of Argentina and Latin America.
When asked to participate in the creation of the Social Agenda for America, de la Rúa was honored and viewed it as an opportunity to help drive the future of Latin American social policy. The "Social Agenda for Democracy in Latin America for the Next 20 years" is a collection of 63 policy recommendations within 16 social issues derived from discussion, debate, and collaboration of representatives from public, academic and private institutions. Being at the table put President de la Rúa in a position to use the lessons he learned in public office to influence and educate. It is a position he takes seriously and for which he has tremendous passion, particularly in the areas of education and healthcare. Though his quiet, thoughtful demeanor was a source of difficulty while in office, it serves him well in this role of advisor. “We cannot individually or collectively move forward and make significant change without collaboration. It is through addressing the social problems we all face that will enable us to help our economies grow.” - Fernando de la Rúa
Being one of the members of The Biennial of the Americas Roundtable of the Former Heads of State was an opportunity to push the social agenda and spread the ideas it contains through a trade in ideas. “To be able to even be here is a demonstration of democracy. Argentina, and all of Latin America, has entered a new era with the United States,” he began. “We cannot individually or collectively move forward and make significant change without collaboration. It is through addressing the social problems we all face that will enable us to help our economies grow.”
Of the 63 explicit policy recommendations, the former president of Argentina is particularly drawn to address access to education and healthcare. He believes strongly that, “Children can only learn when they are in school and when they are healthy” and it is only when children have access to both quality education and quality healthcare that the future will be secure. Government involvement in education, particularly early childhood education, must be viewed as an investment, not an expense. Low quality education has negative impacts not just for the poor and underserved, but the wealthy, too. State participation in access to quality education is not a new focus for the former president. In 2000, de la Rúa initiated www.educ.ar, a state-sponsored educational portal. He understands that rapid advances in technology and the “information revolution” provide an imperative to utilize these resources to improve education while reducing costs and, the inequality of quantity while increasing quality access to education.
Raising teachers’ salaries in his first year in office was not a popular decision, but was a demonstration of his commitment to the principal role of the teacher in the educational process. He sees an improvement in pay and working conditions as a major contributing factor to recruit and retain the best people as professional educators. Establishing a system that supports professional development and clear and fair evaluation processes are also success factors. The Agenda sites improvement in the educational system as an imperative. Particular focus is placed upon better education for teachers and administrators and, the distribution of more highly educated teachers across schools with poorer students.
Changing the culture of education will require making policy decisions that promote a “culture of reading” and instill pride in teachers and students. Parental participation in their children’s education will help. De la Rúa stated, “We need to recover that responsibility with a historic commitment to education, not only to transmit knowledge in a more equal fashion, but to transmit democratic values, which are essential to combating violence and authoritarianism.”
This means that in order to strengthen democracy, public and private institutions need to commit to investing in the potential of human productivity. Improving access to quality education is only part of the challenge to achieve what de la Rúa refers to as “a more human-oriented economy.” Another, directly related piece is access to preventative health care for expectant mothers and young children. The Agenda outlines the strong ties between health and education and is a tremendous reference for understanding the impact of poor health and education on economic development. It states, “Many studies suggest that investing in young children from pre-natal health of their mothers to quality preschools yields a very high social return.” A healthy, educated populous is able to actively participate in a democracy and contribute to its political and economic well being.
In de la Rúa’s own words, “Health is a right. It is not an economic issue.” He sees the prioritization of infant nutrition as an investment in the viability of the democracies of Latin America. Undernourished, sick children cannot reach their full potential. As malnutrition’s chief determining factor is poverty, he believes the state has a responsibility to provide quality health services for the poor and that health policies need to focus on preventative health care, particularly in rural areas and marginal urban areas. Changing the culture of health care delivery in this way, he believes, will permit more efficient state spending while reducing or eliminating diseases which disproportionally affect the poor.
Low-income children have often been poorly nourished since being in the womb. This lack of proper nutrition leads to illnesses that can limit the development of motor skills and inhibit both cognitive and emotional development. Children who grow up in these situations start with significant disadvantages when they enter school and it is difficult to overcome these challenges throughout their lives. The former president feels that an increase in public hospitals and family doctors who can assist in “whole family health” now will, over time, lead to a reduction in poverty and greater equity in education.
The long term costs of poor health are well documented, as are the connections between poverty and poor health. Breaking the cycle through improving the health of the poor is a difficult challenge, particularly with limited resources, systems and policies which do not support change. The Agenda recommends a combination of policies and structural changes based upon the approaches Chile and Cuba have taken to reduce child malnutrition and increase the quality of healthcare. In both cases, there was a commitment to government playing a role, whether alone as in Cuba or in partnership with the private sector as in Chile, in actively reducing malnutrition and disease among the poor through a combination of programs and services.
For de la Rúa, the health of individuals has a direct impact on the health of the nation and the region. The challenges of health care, education and economic prosperity are deeply interwoven and it will take policy changes and cultural shifts to adequately address them over time. Creating opportunities for collaboration and forums to share success and failures is imperative in ensuring the long term prosperity of Argentina, Latin America, and the hemisphere. Democracy is a participatory form of government and in order to actively participate and expand that participation throughout all sectors of a given society, governments and leaders in the public, private and academic sectors must work together.
Heather Grady is the Manager of Business Development and Marketing for Rossetti Architects in Denver, CO.