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Q&A: Nicaragua Is Not Likely to Meet the MDGs

Interview with Dionisio Marenco

ROME, Jun 22 2007 (IPS) - Managua Mayor Dionisio Marenco does not believe that Nicaragua can meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which he describes as a wish list rather than an action plan, and underlines that his country is in need of enormous foreign investment in order to overcome its high levels of poverty.

Managua Mayor Dionisio Marenco Credit: Sabina Zaccaro

Managua Mayor Dionisio Marenco Credit: Sabina Zaccaro

Only expatriate remittances are currently fuelling the economy, now that “people have become an export market,” he said in an interview with IPS.

A 60-year-old civil engineer, Marenco fought in the ranks of the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) against the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza, which the leftist movement toppled in 1979. He was elected mayor of the Nicaraguan capital two years ago, when his party, which won the 2006 elections that brought Daniel Ortega back to the presidency, was still in the opposition.

Marenco and Hyara Rodríguez, the deputy mayor of Montevideo, Uruguay, are the only high-ranking Latin American city officials taking part in “Running Out of Time”, the Local Governments’ International Mid Term Evaluation Conference on the MDGs, taking place in Rome Friday and Saturday.

The MDGs, adopted by United Nations member countries in 2000, are halving extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women, reducing maternal mortality by three-quarters and infant mortality by two-thirds, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, adopting an environmentally sustainable development model, and building a global partnership for development.

Most of the specific MDGs are to be achieved by 2015, on 1990 levels.


IPS: Why the scepticism with regard to Nicaragua’s chances of fulfilling the MDGs?

DIONISIO MARENCO: Compliance is unlikely, because we’re practically talking about changing the social structure of countries. The way the goals are stated, they’re a wish list rather than an action programme for reaching the targets.

In Nicaragua, poverty is really extreme, and it would take enormous foreign investment and a huge programme of support – I would almost say a Marshall Plan – to help the country get on its feet.

You have to remember that we were in a war for 10 years, and our economy was devastated. Local governments are in a dilemma, because the people express their needs directly. They ask you for everything: from a door hinge to a house. That’s why I’m not very optimistic that the MDGs can be achieved.

IPS: And what can development aid from the industrialised world do?

DM: I don’t believe the developed world feels a great urge to help. Economic policies are about investment, about trade. By definition, countries that are not doing well economically are not very attractive to foreign investment.

In Nicaragua there is a chance for a big infrastructure project – an interoceanic canal, which could pull all of Central America out of the morass, and which is needed because the Panama Canal is not able to handle post-Panamax ships, which can carry 250,000 tons of cargo.

IPS: You also stress emigrant remittances as Nicaragua’s major source of revenues.

DM: That is what is dominant now in nearly all of Latin America’s small economies. It is the main source of foreign exchange in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. In Mexico remittances almost equal oil earnings. People have become an export market. Nearly one billion dollars a year in remittances flow in to Nicaragua.

IPS: Is this income that goes to families? Is there any government control over these flows?

DM: No. It’s a very democratic phenomenon because it goes directly to the user and there is no state mediation. There is mediation by private interests, which make a lot of money through the commissions they charge.

If the state intervened to make it cheaper to send remittances, liquid revenues could increase immediately by some 100 million dollars. That could be achieved by reducing the commission earned by the financial middlemen, which ranges from 10 to 30 percent.

You can imagine if the state set a two percent fee for the paperwork, the amount of money that would immediately be available, without the need for any investment. The impact of remittances is instantaneous.

IPS: Does the population of Managua know about the MDGs?

DM: I don’t think they’re familiar with them in-depth. They must have heard of them, but those issues are more the terrain of the intellectual elite. That’s why I say the goals should be democratised so that people understand and participate more.

IPS: So what role should the press play in helping people understand the goals?

DM: Well, basically they should get the information out, but it’s a task for the state, because the people are going to agree. If you ask people, do you believe clean water should be available? Of course they agree. Do you agree that everyone should have access to education? Of course they do. That everyone should have a house? Obviously.

IPS: Yes, but you always hear the complaint that the press isn’t interested in development issues. Is that true in Nicaragua too?

DM: No, in Nicaragua there is an extremely politicised press. This issue, which would be the focus of a political debate, is sure to be picked up by everyone, because in Nicaragua the press, unlike in other countries, politicises everything.

If someone’s run over by a bus, it becomes a political issue against the mayor, against the police, against whoever. That comes from the time of the (Sandinista) revolution, which really polarised society.

IPS: With respect to the MDGs, does the Managua city government have any programme to make clean water available?

DM: No, potable water is a responsibility of the central government, although I believe it should be a municipal question.

But in relation to the MDGs, the city government is doing something that I believe few countries will achieve; something that is not quantitative but a social question. We are carrying out a literacy drive. Managua is going to be declared an illiteracy-free capital, the only one in Central America.

In that aspect, we are fulfilling an MDG way ahead of time. The campaign has been underway for two years, and we have taught more than 25,000 people in Managua to read and write. This is going to be monitored in July by UNESCO (U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation).

IPS: And the state of health services?

DM: That’s also a central government question. The city has some clinics, but they are mainly to provide assistance in street markets. It’s difficult. The health service is very weak and rickety, it’s not good. A great deal of international assistance would be needed to improve it. There are frequent epidemics of cholera, dengue fever. As the second-poorest country in Latin America (and the Caribbean after Haiti), Nicaragua has all of these problems.

IPS: With regard to other aspects of the MDGs, is there greater gender equality in Nicaragua?

DM: President Ortega promised that 50 percent of government officials would be women, and the Sandinista Front, based on an internal law, has 30 percent. All of the women in parliament are Sandinistas…Women always make up 30 percent of the Front’s parliamentary lists.

IPS: Is that proportion also seen in the Managua city government?

DM: Yes. We have 19 city councillors, 10 Sandinistas and nine members of opposition parties…The Sandinistas are three women and seven men. In other words, 30 percent.

IPS: Do you agree that it is necessary to decentralise government administration to fulfil the MDGs?

DM: It would be a big help, because bureaucracy is always a filter that holds things up. When funds go directly to the territory in question, they are used more effectively and faster. The best example is family remittances, which are only inefficient in the sense that they fuel consumption.

But now I’m thinking of developing housing plans, so that emigrants in the United States can buy a house for their family in Nicaragua. And to develop the tourism industry, so that emigrants who are somewhat well-off but will never be able to afford a house on the sea in the United States can buy a house on the sea in Nicaragua and use it for vacation, taking advantage of the distance, because most of the Nicaraguan community is in Miami, just a two-hour flight from our country.

 
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