“I’ve seen how public policy and collective action can effectively change the reality of life for thousands of people”

TEXT: ISABEL PRESTEL PHOTOS: MÁXIMO GARCÍA

Economist and former president of Costa Rica, the country where she was born in 1955, Rebeca Grynspan is an affable woman, a great conversationalist, with really clear ideas and great foresight. All extraordinary qualities for heading the SEGIB (Ibero-American General Secretariat, which she has chaired since February 2014, having renewed in the post just a few months ago. The first woman to lead this institution, she has managed to raise certain issues which, without a doubt, highlight Latin America’s future challenges, thanks to her evidently great sensitivity.

As you start this new term, what legacy would you like to leave behind at the Ibero-American General Secretariat?
Firstly, having managed to consolidate this Latin American organization as a place where we can share our firm commitment to multilateralism, open dialog, cooperation and peace. This institution continues championing the core values firmly embedded in its original international structure, although this needs to be modified and, indeed, improved. But we must continue defending these essential values.

Women constitute the largest emerging labor market in the world. Talent that is entering political life, companies and all spheres of social life. But there still exists a lot of invisible discrimination

Regarding the priorities you have identified, what are you particularly proud of?
Having brought some new issues to the Secretariat which have made a great impact. For example, gender equality, which was at the forefront of the summit in Guatemala, and was defended by a very large number of countries. We have dedicated ourselves to the whole area of women’s economic empowerment, as we know this lays the path to their independence. Fostering autonomy and independence are key elements when it comes to combating gender-based violence and achieving equality. Another issue is related to the UN’s 2030 Agenda for sustainable development goals. The Declaration of Guatemala reiterates the region’s commitment to the 17 development goals.

So many issues to be addressed…
Too true! At the Summit we also talked about the first Latin American multidisciplinary disability program, which aims to support a really vulnerable population group. And the climate change observatory for the region. This is a region that is going to be greatly affected by climate change and we need to consider policies that are not only aimed at mitigation, but also at adaption. There are many areas already affected by climate change, hit by droughts and floods, and we have to learn how to cope with them as they are not going away: this is not reversible. And the private sector question: which business models are going to be compatible with the sustainable development goals, ensuring that growth can be both inclusive and sustainable. Another issue that sparked great interest in Guatemala was a new program for social innovation, innovation in science and technology, innovation to resolve problems within communities, innovation to attract young people, creative industries… that whole package of innovation and talent, making the best use of people’s potential.

In that sense, do you believe that technology and innovation help increase or decrease inequality?
We just completed a report for the International Labor Organization (ILO). In it we indicated that new technologies can help reduce poverty but, if they remain concentrated in just a few hands, they will only foster growing inequality. Technology is a tool; on its own, it is neither good nor bad. Technology empowers those who possess it. And our task is to seek universal access and teach people how to use it. Moreover, the possible loss of jobs was heavily underscored. Personally, I believe it’s necessary to defend the workers, not job positions. Policies need to be implemented to defend individuals, not the jobs they do. We have to assist workers so that they can migrate to other better quality jobs, with social protection. I believe many jobs are going to be created shortly, as there are sectors that have to expand, such as education, health, the care economy… But perhaps the workday would need to be shortened.

The new technologies can help reduce poverty but, if they remain concentrated in just a few hands, they will only foster growing inequality

In order to facilitate work-life balance, right?
We must seek the right balance between men, women and work. Between family and work. It may prove necessary to reduce the workday, as there are still people working really long hours. And we need to ensure those rights we created in the 20th century are truly effective. This is a 21st century task, given that, in many places, these rights are not respected. At the same time, what is needed is flexibility within the world of work so as to be able to adapt to the new conditions. I believe that, in the future, there will be many more selfemployed workers. But those workers must not lose the fundamental rights we managed to win in the 20th century. We must strive to attain a more stable life, with less uncertainty. We should devise a social protection framework that does not depend on the type of job one has. With a contributory scheme, but always accessible to everyone. And that is one of the challenges we must tackle, even more so now in this new world.

How do you see Latin America in that future?
I’m optimistic because our citizens are much more active. I feel this will put pressure on the political system and institutions to improve matters. But, of course, we’re going to continue feeling tension and friction. One of the things that make me most hopeful about Latin America is that we have the largest cohort of young people in history. And this is a great opportunity. A gold mine of talent! These youngsters are better educated than their parents. The university population has doubled in recent years. What we must do is know how to respond. Because these young people also want better jobs and greater opportunities, and they need a world that lets them manifest their ideas and participate with their talent, with their proposals. If we manage to do that, we can be really hopeful about the future.

What role do you feel women are going to play in Latin America?
A glance at the figures reveals how huge numbers of women have entered the labor market. One third of the decline in poverty rates has to do with the incorporation of women into the labor market in Latin America. Into the remunerated labor market, of course. And these women are asking for equal pay for equivalent jobs. In fact, I believe women constitute the largest emerging labor market in the world. Talent that is entering political life, companies and all spheres of social life. But there still exists a lot of invisible discrimination.

Much remains to be done…
There are no women in the highest positions, nor on the boards of directors. This is a family life cycle issue. Spain, for example, has a major problem. Women are achieving work-life balance by not having children. The reason for our fight has always been to be able to decide whether or not to have kids. But you must be able to decide. We’re now making certain decisions because we cannot make others. We’re not totally free when it comes to making these decisions. One option rules out the other. And these sacrifices are no longer just a question for women, but also for men. Men are also entitled to have feelings. They must also be able to enjoy being with their family. We want people to be happier. A Scandinavian politician recently declared that equality cannot mean overwhelmed women and embittered men. We have to distribute our tasks better, not just within the couple, but rather in society at large. Reproduction, our happiness, affects us all; we cannot resolve this on an individual basis. This is a global, collective issue.

Rebeca Grynspan

I’d like to ask you how you are feeling at this moment of your life.
It hasn’t always been that way, but I can say that my life now is exactly how I want it to be. I’m excited and highly motivated. I have the energy and motivation needed. While I can indeed see the dark side of society, I still believe in a better world. This is probably because I come from a country where kids ran around barefoot, but today has a high human development index. I remember my childhood in the rural area of my country, where there was no electricity and not all children went to school. And I’ve witnessed the progress. I’ve seen how public policy and collective action can effectively change the reality of life for thousands of people. That’s why I cannot resign myself to doing anything other than all we possibly can to achieve this.

Rebeca Grynspan in 10 words

MULTILATERALISM: “More necessary than ever.”

DISRUPTION: “What’s needed is a transformation that does not entail suffering. We’re going to see a great deal of disruption in this so-called fourth industrial revolution. And it may lead to worlds with greater inclusion, sustainability and prosperity. But, if we don’t handle this correctly, we’re going to see a lot of people suffering.”

EDUCATION: “The most important element for development.”

SOCIETY: “An essential aspect of human beings. None of us can survive alone. One of the most impressive things in the evolution of human beings is precisely their ability to form a society. This is what has led to the greatest progress.”

FAMILY: “Happiness (laughs). This has also been an essential element for everyone. When you read studies on happiness, people attribute most of their joy and happiness to their nearest and dearest. The affection of those around them: the family.”

EQUALITY: “The horizon we must aim for, without oversimplifying the issue. When we speak of equality, we are not referring to egalitarianism. We are different, we are diverse; we must live in diversity, with respect for others who may be different.”

LEADERSHIP: “Most necessary in these times. But positive, robust leadership. Leaders who are able to develop leaders. Not only thinking of perpetuating their position and creating followers. Leaders with charisma and a special ability to reach out to others and achieve collective undertakings.

DEMOCRACY: “A conquest for my generation. A concern for the new generations. My generation lived through dictatorships and we know that democracy is something to be nurtured every day. We appreciate its intrinsic value, as it allows us to change the state of things, despite the discontent, mistrust and errors.”

LOVE: “I believe that love makes us excel as individuals, because it demands the best from us. The best and the worst can be found in us humans; and love makes us bring out the best in ourselves. The worst in each of us needs to be controlled; it cannot be allowed to run around loose (laughs).”

WELL-BEING: “We have tended to believe that well-being can be gauged by the gross domestic product. And that’s not true. Robert Kennedy said that GDP measures many things, save the most important. It’s deceptive. Well-being has to do with those issues: with our affections, with our friends, with the family. Hopefully we can move toward measuring well-being in a different fashion.”