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poverty in panamaPanama has one of the fastest growing economies in the world and has made great strides in reducing poverty. However, some have called it a dual economy where the benefits of trade and commerce are felt in some urban areas but not by its most vulnerable populations, including its indigenous peoples. Here are ten disturbing facts about poverty in Panama.

10 Disturbing Facts About Poverty in Panama

  1. Panama has the second worst income distribution in Latin America— Although the country is rapidly growing in wealth, prosperity is not felt by all. According to the CIA, approximately one-quarter of the population lives in poverty. The richest 20 percent of the population controls half of the country’s wealth while the poorest 20 percent control only controls 12 percent of the wealth.
  2. Poverty in Panama is largely divided along urban and rural lines— The Panama Canal and its related sectors bring in more than 30 percent of the country’s annual economic growth through port activities alone. The total internationally focused service sectors account for more than 60 percent of the overall GDP. However, 21 percent of the population still makes its living in agriculture and does not see wealth generated by internationally focused services. Rural areas are largely inhabited by indigenous people who have limited access to resources and basic services. The Panama government, though, is working to improve access in these areas. Panama’s World Bank portfolio is $435.59 million USD, which includes seven active projects on social protection, governance, sustainable production, disaster management, wastewater management and indigenous peoples protection.
  3. The average life expectancy is much shorter for indigenous people— There is an 11-year difference in life expectancy between indigenous people and the general population. While the average life expectancy for the overall population is 79 years-of-age, the life expectancy for indigenous men and women who live in their original territories is 67.75 years.
  4. Access to healthcare is largely determined by location— Rural areas often lack medical infrastructures such as access to doctors and hospitals. This, as well as extreme poverty, takes a toll on the health of indigenous populations. Infant mortality rates among indigenous people are four times higher than urban Latino populations and 75 percent of Panama’s malnourished indigenous and non-indigenous children live in rural areas. To combat this, the Panama government has deployed its Coverage Extension Strategy by sending out mobile medical units providing basic care to 149,028 people from 47 poor rural communities. According to the World Bank, by 2014, 96 percent of children under the age of one received full vaccinations compared to 26 percent in 2010.
  5. The maternal mortality rate is much higher for indigenous women— The rate of maternal mortality for indigenous women living in their territories is five times higher than the national average. Nationally, the maternal mortality rate is 80 per 100,000 births, but for indigenous women, the rate is 462 per 100,000. Panama’s Coverage Extension Strategy has also been providing maternal healthcare with its mobile units by increasing access to prenatal controls. In 2010, only 20 percent of poor rural women had access to prenatal controls. By 2014, the number jumped to 86 percent of pregnant women in these communities receiving healthcare.
  6. Rural Panamanians largely lack access to education—A lack of infrastructure in rural areas makes it difficult for its largely indigenous population to gain access to a good education. While, in the year 2000, approximately 5.5 percent of non-indigenous adults couldn’t read, 37.7 percent of indigenous adults were illiterate. School attendance is also lower, with 78.7 percent of indigenous children in school compared to 96.8 non-indigenous. However, according to the CIA there has been an increase in secondary schooling lead by female enrollment in rural and indigenous areas, which will likely help to alleviate poverty.
  7. Access to information and communications technology (ICT) is largely determined by region— Access to communications technology such as computers and the Internet can be vital in improving education and opportunity. However, rural areas are often passed over by private companies who see little profit in creating the infrastructure that remote and impoverished regions need.
  8. Indigenous people’s rights are at risk— According to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, in 2016, Interior Minister Milton Henríquez told the leaders of all the country’s indigenous congresses and councils that the country would only recognize the five original comarcas, or tribal regions, preventing the leaders of 30 indigenous territories from advocating for themselves in further consultations and negotiations.
  9. Indigenous tribes’ territories are being encroached upon—The Barro Blanco hydroelectric plant in the Ngäbe-Buglé territory is being implemented without the tribe’s consent. Communities were forcibly evicted from the project area, which then flooded homes, farmland and sacred sites. Additionally, many tribes have begun using drones to keep an eye on their rainforest territories and prevent illegal logging and mining on their land.
  10. The need for water in sustaining the canal often supersedes the needs of the rural poor—The Panama Canal requires the release of approximately 52 million gallons of fresh water daily. The water comes from two reservoirs, which also provides water for the city. The prioritization of water for the canal ignores the need of farmers, who, beginning in the seventies, were viewed as threats to the canal instead of partners in watershed management. Though improving water management is important, the poor have reaped few of the benefits and many of the negative consequences of these policies.

Although Panama is a wealthy nation, prosperity is not felt by all. Rural and indigenous people often lack access to education, health care and political efficacy.

While this list may look grim, Panama has done much to fight poverty. From 2015-2017, poverty in Panama has declined from 15.4 percent to 14.1 percent and extreme poverty has decreased from 6.7 percent to 6.6 percent. According to the CIA, from 2006 through 2012, poverty overall decreased by ten percentage points.

Although Panama has made great strides in reducing poverty, this list shows that there’s always room for improvement. Overall, the country has the potential to bridge the income inequality gap and make itself an equitable society for all, regardless of class, region or ethnicity.

– Katharine Hanifen
Photo: Flickr

Humanitarian aid to PanamaThe U.S. began providing aid to Panama in 1961. In its early stages, the main purpose of humanitarian aid to Panama was to eradicate poverty in the country’s rural communities. Between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s, the focus shifted to improving Panama’s infrastructure and public facilities. In the 1990s, USAID was used to help jumpstart Panama’s economy following a political transition.

The Success Stories

In 2012, the USAID mission in Panama was officially closed. This means that after 51 years of providing humanitarian aid to Panama, the country had reached a point where it could deal with its own developmental and economic challenges.

At the time the mission was closed, the poverty rate had fallen from a high of 23 percent to seven percent, and the official unemployment rate was just 4.3 percent.

The health of Panama’s citizens also improved greatly during the period in which USAID was active in Panama. The life expectancy went up to 76 years and the fertility rate went down to 2.4 children per woman.

Access to education is now nearly universal in Panama. The country’s education system includes 11 years of free and compulsory education provided by the government. The curriculum includes science, math, language, social studies and other subjects needed to train a thriving workforce.

Humanitarian aid to Panama also helped the country during its transition back to democracy in 1990. The aid was used to bolster an economic recovery after a 20-year military dictatorship. It also helped stabilize Panama’s new democratic government.

From Aid Recipient to Aid Provider

When Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September and early October 2017, Panama was quick to ship aid in the form of milk, oil and rice to the island.

Panama had been receiving U.S. foreign assistance for over 50 years and they have seen tremendous benefits from USAID. But the biggest success story of all is that Panama has become a country that is now able to provide aid to other countries in times of crisis.

When former aid recipients are able to give back to American citizens in their time of need, it is a reminder that foreign assistance is not a handout, but an investment in the future. USAID in Panama assisted Panama in their economic, political and humanitarian development. It also helped create a powerful ally for the U.S.

Aaron Childree

Photo: Flickr

Panama Poverty Rate

Panama is a country of sharp contrasts. Despite recent economic growth that has benefitted some, many Panamanians still suffer from poor living conditions as the Panama poverty rate remains high, especially in rural areas.

According to the World Bank, 18.7 percent of Panamanians live in poverty. However, it is important to note the decrease in poverty that has taken place over recent years. Between 2008 and 2014, poverty was reduced from 26.2 percent to 18.7 percent and extreme poverty was reduced from 14.5 percent to 10.2 percent.

Much of this poverty is manifested in rural areas where the benefits of Panama’s dramatic economic growth have failed to reach. Those that live in rural areas of Panama often suffer from a greater rate of poverty. Extreme poverty in rural areas reaches 27 percent, in sharp contrast to urban areas where only four percent live in extreme poverty.

Poverty is even worse in indigenous areas—known as “comarcas”—where 70 percent of Panamanians live in poverty. In these areas, many lack access to clean water and sanitation, contributing to a poor quality of life outside of the bustling urban centers.

The economic growth that has benefited Panama recently is newsworthy. Compared to other countries in Central America, Panama’s GDP has grown twice as fast. This is due, at least in part, to the expansion of the Panama Canal, a thriving banking industry and an outflow of cash from Venezuela. As Panama’s economy grows, however, so does its income inequality.

This economic growth has not created better living conditions for all and has only exacerbated the disparity between the wealthy and the poor of Panama. According to a CIA analysis, Panama has the second-worst income distribution among Latin American countries, despite its reputation as one of the world’s fastest growing economies.

Perhaps the key to continuing to lower the Panama poverty rate is addressing the inequality in income distribution. While Panama’s economy is expected to continue growing in the future—the forecast in 2017 is 5.4 percent—it is important to determine how this growth can be used to benefit those that still live below the poverty line.

Jennifer Faulkner

Water Quality in Panama
As one of the most prosperous and developed countries in Central America, Panama is a leader in the area regarding sanitation and water quality. Current estimates say that 93 percent of Panamanians have access to an improved water source, while 69 percent have access to improved sanitation. Despite these numbers, there have been many challenges in recent years pertaining to water quality in Panama, especially in rural areas.

  1. Many of Panama’s improvements in water quality occurred in the 1990s after Ernesto Perez Balladares was elected president in 1994. Privatization of water and electric companies helped to improve conditions as the country continued to invest in urban areas.
  2. Data from the World Bank showed an increase in the percentage of those that have access to an improved water source from 83.8 percent up to 94.7 percent between 1990 and 2015.
  3. The Instituto de Acueductos y Alcantarillados Nacionales (IDAAN) has been responsible for water quality in Panama for more than 50 years. IDAAN recently set up a tariff system to help cover investment costs as their expenses increase.
  4. In 2013, 840,000 of the country’s population of 3.8 million did not have 24-hour access to water, while 600,000 lacked access to a potable supply, and 30,000 relied on tank trucks to deliver drinking water.
  5. A 15-day rainstorm in December of 2010 created a clog in purification equipment in a water treatment plant, resulting in a month-long shutdown that hindered more than a million residents’ access to water in Panama City.
  6. Recent studies about the effects of climate change have suggested that periods of flood and drought may threaten both Panama’s water quality and the water supply in the Panama Canal. This may pose a huge threat to Panama’s shipping industry, as it takes 52 million gallons of water to move just one ship through the canal.
  7. One recent threat toward water quality in Panama has been the agricultural runoffs in rural areas that may contain pesticides, animal feces and other contaminants. After facing pressure to confront this issue in 2015, Panama’s National Assembly created the Ministry of the Environment to focus on giving rural residents consistent access to clean water.
  8. If present trends continue, Panama hopes to increase drinking water coverage for both urban and rural areas above 90 percent by 2020.

While the country has made tremendous progress in the last few decades, water quality in Panama remains an issue due to poor response to problems such as drought and runoff. In the near future, Panama will have to respond to changes brought about by climate change and other factors to ensure the continued health and prosperity of their nation.

Nick Dugan

Photo: Flickr

Cost of Living in Panama
Known for its 48-mile canal connecting the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic Ocean, Panama receives over a million visitors each year. Panama’s beautiful beaches, ecotourism and international festivals can seduce many tourists into making Panama their home rather than a vacation spot. For those who entertain the thought of Panama as their permanent home, it is important to know the cost of living in Panama as well as what it’s like to live there.

Panama has a relatively low cost of living, which can range from $1,120 to $8,000 per month for two people, while the average middle-class salary in Panama is estimated at $1,200 per month. These costs fluctuate depending on what region or city you are going to be living in Panama.

The unemployment rate in Panama is 4.5 percent. The labor force in Panama is made up of 1.78 million people; a large majority of the population works in services while the rest works in agriculture and industry. The standard work week in Panama is 48 hours, which is 8 hours more than a full-time work week here in the United States.

While the cost of living in Panama is low, migrants should know much more about Panama before making the decision to move there. For example, while Panama’s crime rate compared to other Central American countries is relatively low; however, it is still high compared to most of the United States. Panama, Colon, Herrera and Chiriqui are among the provinces with the largest cities which had the highest overall crime rate. There has been a pattern of decreasing crime in Panama. Homicide, armed robberies and petty theft rates have all continuously fallen.

Moving from the United States to Panama may come as a huge shock when you realize that Panama’s population is only four million. Approximately one-third of Panama’s population lives in Panama City or the immediate area around it. Panama City is packed with nightlife, shopping areas. The rest of the areas in Panama provide a quiet and relaxed life which provides quicker access to Panama’s nature.

There are many things to consider and know about Panama before turning your yearly vacation into a forever home. While Panama may be very appealing to the eye and its beautiful attractions may coerce someone into a quick move, the cost of living in Panama may be a deciding factor.

Danyel Harrigan

Photo: Flickr

Panama Refugees
Panama is a country located on the isthmus between Central and South America which hosts thousands seeking asylum from nearby countries such as Nicaragua and Venezuela. However, the majority of refugees in Panama come from Colombia.

Over more than 50 years of drug-related conflict, 6.6 million Colombians have been forced to leave their homes. An estimated 370,000 Colombian refugees live in countries near their own, and Panama is a major hub. Below are ten facts about refugees in Panama and organizations working to improve their circumstances.

  1. Panama is a possible destination for refugees because of its relative safety and proximity to countries currently at war. As a result, many applications go unreviewed for years due to high volume. Of 893 requests for asylum in Panama from Colombia last year, just 28 went under review, of which 23 were accepted.
  2. Also, few Colombian refugees receive Refugee Status Determination (RSD), meaning deportation is a constant possibility. Without the direct support of a governing body, there is no guarantee of essential resources and safety.
  3. Due to lack of documentation, Colombian refugees in Panama have little job security. Sometimes, refugee families cannot afford to stay.
  4. Fortunately, organizations identify these gaps and step in to help. The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) offers legal services and counseling to Colombian refugees in Panama, helping them to achieve official refugee standing and to defend their property rights.
  5. The NRC aims to empower refugees in the context of the law as a whole. The staff at a convenient Panama-based office train authorities to maximize their ability to help, escort new asylum seekers to refugee commissions and ensure a basic understanding of the law so refugees can avoid falling victim to crime.
  6. In 2016, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued an initiative to improve resources and security for refugees in some Latin American countries, Panama included. The appeal calls for $18.1 million to ensure housing, child protection and related resources. So far the appeal has fulfilled nearly half of these requests.
  7. Closely following these efforts, the UNHCR supported the release of the San Jose Action Statement, in which nine countries across North and Central America agreed to protect those struggling to flee danger in their home countries.
  8. Participating countries will formulate solutions to keep refugees safe as they cross borders. Implementing the use of clear, abundant documentation and creating access to legal services are foundational elements of the plan.
  9. The process also includes training national officials according to the concerns of refugees, with a specific focus on law and policy. This step is already in motion in all nine participating countries.
  10. Protecting refugees in Panama and ensuring them basic resources will mean extensive data collection.  This plan is an endeavor that has presented a challenge already, as there is little existing protocol. Countries continue brainstorming to troubleshoot such issues.


Though technicalities pervade—and sometimes inhibit—the flow of refugees from places of conflict into Panama, the work of compassionate nations and organizations like NRC and the U.N. promise smoother transitions. With their continued efforts, the experiences of refugees in Panama are bound to keep improving.

Madeline Forwerck

Photo: Flickr


A 2015 report by the United Nations Organization for Food and Agriculture (FAO) showed that Panamanian malnutrition rates have fallen in the last 25 years from nearly 26 percent to 10 percent. The report attributed this trend in decreasing hunger in Panama to its economic growth.

Panama has made significant progress in reducing poverty in recent years. Between the years 2008 and 2014, from the 3.9 million citizens of Panama, an additional 168,000 people overcame extreme poverty, while close to 300,000 got out of poverty.

Regional disparities are still prevalent, however, especially in rural areas that are mainly inhabited by indigenous people. While in urban areas extreme poverty is below four percent, in rural areas, extreme poverty is about 27 percent. In indigenous territories, poverty is above 70 percent and extreme poverty is above 40 percent. These consistently high poverty rates in rural indigenous communities mean that many still face hunger in Panama.

To combat persistent malnourishment and micronutrient deficiencies in rural communities, Panama adopted a national strategy of biofortifying staple food crops like rice, beans, and sweet potatoes.

Research began in 2006, coming to fruition in August 2013, when the government launched Agro Nutre Panamá, coordinating the improvement of food quality among the rural, indigenous poor by adding iron, vitamin A and zinc to seeds.

“We see biofortification as an inexpensive way to address the problem by means of staple foods that families consume on a daily basis,” said Ismael Camargo, the coordinator of Agro Nutre, in an interview with Inter Press Service (IPS) in 2014.

The program enlisted 4,000 subsistence level or family farmers in planting biofortified seeds and does not plan to monetize the seeds for commercial use.

“The aim is to improve the nutritional quality of the diets of family farmers,” food engineer Omaris Vergara of the University of Panama told IPS.

While the exact impact of these biofortified crops has yet to be measured, due to lack of the Central American country’s research infrastructure, this program of eliminating hunger in Panama shows great promise.

Casie Wilson

Photo: Flickr

poverty_happiness_panamaA Gallup poll revealed that Panama was one of the happiest countries in the world, followed by Paraguay and El Salvador. The poll interviewed people in 148 countries and asked about their experiences the day before. People were asked if they smiled a lot, if they felt respected and if they were well-rested.

Panama is one of the poorest countries in the world. Why are people there so happy?

1. Positive Attitude

Latin American countries focus on positives such as friends, family and religion despite the difficulties they may face in their daily lives. With the economic boom, including more jobs, resulting from the success of the Panama Canal comes increased traffic and crime. However, Panamanians choose to focus on the positives. People in the happiest, yet poorest, Latin American countries find joy in moral satisfaction more than in material goods, a mentality that is often not found in citizens within developed countries.

“Overall, I’m happy because this is a country with many natural resources, a country that plays an important role in the world,” Carlos Martinez said. “We’re Caribbean people, we’re people who like to celebrate, to eat well and live as well as we can. There are a lot of possibilities here, you just have to sacrifice a little more.”

2. Health Care

State-of-the-art equipment, highly skilled doctors and reasonably-priced health insurance are just a few benefits of living in Panama. As a result of a good healthcare system, life expectancy is quite high in Panama – 74 years for men and 80 years for women.

3. Favorable Climate

The temperature remains at about 80 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. Furthermore, the country does not experience dry and rainy seasons. The weather, along with a developed pension system, draws retirees to the country. In 2005, Panama won first place in the global index of the most comfortable countries in the world. According to the American Association of Retired Persons and the organization “International Living,” the United States recognized Panama as one of the world’s four best countries to live in outside the United States.

Haley Sklut

Sources: Live Science, Daily Mail, World Mathaba,
Photo: News

panama_lands_people
The National Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples in Panama, or COONAPIP, is rallying for support to protect land rights, claiming the national government has failed to do so. “Our government has committed sins of omission as well as commission, showing great lack of concern about the wellbeing of indigenous peoples,” said Betanio Chiquidama, President of COONAPIP.

The UN is also calling on the government to expand and protect land rights. “The development of large investment projects in indigenous territories of Panama has been the subject of numerous allegations of violations of the rights of indigenous peoples, especially in recent years,” said the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya.

Land in Panama has been increasingly used-up by third parties, illegal loggers and miners. The misuse of indigenous land is not only making life difficult for people, but also puts Panama’s rainforests in jeopardy. In the past 5 years, unsustainable harvesting of natural resources has escalated on indigenous territories, which include more than half of Panama’s old-growth forests. The fight for indigenous peoples to hold onto their land has resulted in nine deaths in standoffs with the police in a two year span.

Panama’s indigenous groups comprise 10 percent of the total population, and most remain largely autonomous in the governance of their preserves, called comarcas. However, the strong interest in natural resources on the preserves is weakening the indigenous communities’ ability to protect their land. Some parts of the comarcas are not even on the map, which makes it hard for indigenous peoples to claim the land is theirs. Another problem is that the government has stopped designating comarcas in the 1990s, leaving nearly 20 indigenous communities without rights to their land. They had to lobby hard for the government to recognize just two more preserves, which are smaller than those established two decades ago.

Illegal logging, mining, and dam construction occurs on lands which are not clearly designated. The Program Director of Rainforest Foundation U.S., Christine Halvorson says, “there’s no good state presence, so it’s a little bit of a Wild West.” Indigenous people have even been bribed by companies with gifts of money and food to give their signatures in support of mining operations on land owned by their community, according to a 2011 report on indigenous experiences with mining in Panama.

COONAPIP is fighting for the voices from the comarcas to be heard by the decision makers in government, who continue to sell their land to international investors without including indigenous peoples. “They are making deals for investments on our land and we know nothing about it until the bulldozer arrives,” said Williams Barrigón Dogirama, former president of COONAPIP.

– Jennifer Bills

Sources: Thomson Reuters Foundation, UN News
Photo: Take Part

poverty in panama
To understand poverty in Panama, is to understand geography. Citizens in urban Panama are granted numerous economic opportunities. These opportunities keep jobs being generated and help provide incomes to support communities. With all of these positives coming out of urban Panama, why then is the country so poor? The answer lies in the areas less populated.

Over a quarter of Panama’s more than three and a half million population lives in poverty. The numbers show this poverty in concentrated in rural areas. Nearly half of those living in rural areas suffer from poverty, with a quarter of those people experiencing extreme poverty. For the indigenous people of Panama, the numbers are even worse. Of the indigenous natives in the country, eighty percent live below the poverty line and over half are extremely poor.

Such an extreme difference between poverty in the rural and urban areas can be explained through the geography of Panama. Those living in remote areas aren’t granted the economic opportunities that the cities have to offer. There are less people and therefore fewer jobs. The inability for farmers to sell their products to a broad array of consumers makes agriculture a less stable sector of the economy. Many of the indigenous areas lack roads, so travel to and from these areas is limited. With such a narrow access to the outside world, these citizens are forced to live off of what the land provides. Panama is known to have poor agriculture and cultivation, making it hard for rural citizens to make a living.

Inequality in Panama is astonishing. It ranks as one of the most unequal countries in the world, along with Brazil and South Africa. Panama has a strong urban health care system, but poor health practices are common in the rural areas.

Many citizens in Panama aren’t given the opportunities they deserve simply based off of where they live. Excluding rural citizens from the country’s workforce will keep Panama’s poverty rates consistently high for a long time to come.

– William Norris

Sources: Rural Poverty Portal, World Bank
Photo: Oneonta