Our latest workshop on the ‘Design and Evaluation of Innovation Policies’ (DEIP) was co-hosted in January 2016 by UNU-MERIT, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and Panama’s National Secretariat of Science, Technology and Innovation (SENACYT). This four-day course gathered around 40 policymakers from Panama, Costa Rica and Honduras, as well as innovation experts from around the world. To put things in context, we spoke with a number of local representatives, including Galileo Solis, Competitiveness and Innovation Specialist from the IDB’s Panama Country Office, and Gustavo Valderrama, Director of Public Policy at Panama’s Ministry of Economy and Finance.
Galileo Solis, Inter-American Development Bank (IDB)
1. What are the particular challenges for Panama in Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) policy?
GS: There are two important challenges for Panama. The first relates to a lack of productivity, the second to a lack of social equality. With those two challenges in mind we wanted to follow up on projects that we’ve been financing in Panama since 1998 — projects that aim to foster and stimulate innovation in the country. Promoting innovation is a very important task for Panama and is part of the country’s plan to increase the funding of innovation. We’re now preparing a new loan to support these activities: the National Secretariat of Science, Technology and Innovation (SENACYT), our main partner in the Government of Panama, has its own budget and we’re going to complement it with this loan.
2. What are the specific advantages of Panama beyond the Canal?
GS: First, Panama is strategically located in the middle of the Americas, which gives it an immediate advantage in many ways. Second, the land that separates the Atlantic Ocean from the Pacific Ocean is very narrow, around 80 km. The Canal represents 20-25% of the economic activity of the country, but Panama has a very diversified economy. So there are other activities such as the finance sector and the Free Zone on the Atlantic side in the city of Colón and these are advantages that add up to the huge economic growth that Panama has experienced for the past seven years. So now is the time that Panama should be investing in more long-term tools to be able to sustain that economic development. In other words, it should commit the amount of resources necessary to sustain that growth over the next 10-15 years.
3. What is the added value of this workshop? And why include other countries from the region?
GS: We discussed on the course how Panama has an innovation system which is not very well linked, so the main focus of this workshop was to make these linkages and bring together people who are part of institutions that make up the innovation system in Panama. What actors are we talking about exactly? The usual suspects: government, academia and the private sector. We managed to attract all sectors for this workshop and got them to think about the roles they play in the innovation system — while also accepting the roles of the others. Working with SENACYT as the main coordinator, we were able to find common ground on how a system of innovation should look like, and how they can use their organisation to bring about a more articulate innovation system.
We wanted to invite Costa Rica and Honduras because they are two other countries that have been advancing in the innovation system. Honduras is in a very early stage; last year they started to rebuild their innovation system, so they are now evolving in a new wave. Meanwhile, Costa Rica’s Ministry of Science and Technology is executing an IDB loan, and now becoming the innovation hub for Costa Rica.
We also wanted to have a more regional look at how innovation systems work across Central America, based on the belief that it is better to have a regional perspective. All of the countries in Central America have a particular economy. Panama has the financial sector, the Canal and the Free Zone in Colón. Other countries have a more agricultural focus. They are very diverse but the challenges of Science, Technology and Innovation are very much the same across the region, which is why we brought everyone together.
Gustavo Valderrama, Ministry of Economy and Finance of Panama
1. What are the particular challenges for Panama in terms of STI and policy communications?
GV: The biggest challenges for Panama, under the strategic government plan, are to foster education, strengthen our institutions, and improve the country’s equality. To this effect innovation policies are very important because they allow us to develop new methods and systems to tackle the challenges faced by Panama. Until now, the country has been a little left behind in terms of innovation and governance. The DEIP course helps us to address this shortcoming and to learn — in a very direct way — what policies are being used successfully in other Latin American countries.
2. What are the particular advantages of Panama in terms of its STI structure?
GV: Panama is very diversified. The current engines of economic growth are related to logistics, particularly air and sea transportation; and obviously the Canal is the main area for economic expansion. Moreover, the sectors of tourism, trade and exports of services also play an important role in the economy. All of these elements require innovation and the development of productivity in order to achieve competitiveness. It is indispensable to develop innovation policies. With the best logistical and connectivity platform in Latin America, Panama requires constant updates to its innovation and competition policies.
3. What is the added value of this course? To bring new people together and perhaps change mindsets?
GV: Yes, this type of course really helps to open minds and learn from the experiences of other countries. It also allows our country to learn how to innovate and generate added value in all policies the government is developing. It is important to know the opportunities, limitations and direction of development for other Latin American economies, in this case Honduras and Costa Rica.
UNU / H.Hudson