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Six women who guide Latin American economic policy

From positions in government, autonomous institutions or academia, female economists in the region are leaving their mark on public policy and resource management

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From right to left. Top row: Mercedes D'Alessandro, Mariana Mazzucato, Stephany Griffith-Jones; Bottom row: Azucena Arbeleche, Ifigenia Martínez and Ana María Ibáñez.Agencias / RR SS

There is still a long way to go in the fight for more women to rise to positions of power and influence, but these six economists are among those who have already made their mark in Latin America.

Azucena Arbeleche

In December 2019, economist and university professor Azucena Arbeleche became Uruguay’s first female Minister of Economy and Finance. Little did she know that it would befall her to navigate a global pandemic with profound consequences. A country of just 3.4 million inhabitants, Uruguay was already ranked among the top countries in the region in indicators such as per capita income, as well as having one of the most comprehensive social protection systems, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

To keep Uruguay on the front foot Arbeleche implemented a series of measures, among them the extensions of unemployment benefits and health insurance. The government also created the Coronavirus Fund, through which resources were allocated to combat the emergency in a transparent manner. This fund was partially financed by the temporary reduction of the salaries of the president, government ministers and high-ranking public officials.

A member of the center-right National Party, Arbeleche defines herself as a Keynesian. In 2020, she said during a radio interview: “What sums up my feelings and where I place myself is in what Keynes said: “The political problem of mankind is to combine three things: economic efficiency, social justice, and individual liberty.”

Mercedes D’Alessandro

Mercedes D’Alessandro made her mark in her native Argentina as the first Director of Economy, Equality and Gender, part of the economy portfolio within the national government. During her two-year tenure, from January 2020 to March 2022, D’Alessandro, who holds a PhD in economics, ensured that women reached record levels of activity and employment. During the pandemic, she and her peers in the government designed the Emergency Family Income mechanism.

In addition, she was involved in the design of the “first budget with a gender perspective,” as reported in her announcement of her departure from the Ministry. “Today Argentina’s Economy Ministry is proudly feminist,” she declared.

D’Alessandro was part of the team that negotiated an agreement with the IMF, influencing issues such as social spending, pensions, and gender. She also created a group bringing together more than 250 female officials to promote gender issues across all government agencies (and which, despite her departure from the government, continues to operate). In 2021, Time magazine included her in its list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Before her time as a government policymaker, D’Alessandro published several books including Feminist Economics: How to Build an Egalitarian Society (Without Losing Glamour), which is currently in its fifth edition.

Ana María Ibáñez

Violence in Colombia throughout the 1980s and 1990s unleashed a phenomenon of forced displacement within the country whose impact on poverty and quality of life is still visible today. At the end the 1980s, a young Ana María Ibáñez entered the Faculty of Economics at the University of the Andes. Her work, considered a watershed moment on the issue of inequality generated by this displacement, would lead her to influence the government’s land policy.

During her master’s and doctoral studies, Ibáñez was one of the first academics to survey displaced people and gather data on how the loss of land generated poverty and impacted income, education, and opportunities for younger generations.

“Her rigorous research on inequality in this country has determined public policies both in government programs as well creating indicators that are faithful to reality and thus influence land policy,” said Lucas Ospino, her colleague at the University of the Andes, where Ibáñez became Dean of the Faculty of Economics.

Her influence on economic policy today is evident in the agrarian chapter of the peace agreement that the government signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The research findings of Ibáñez and her colleagues were instrumental in designing a land policy that returns access to the displaced and which could affect 8.4 million Colombians.

After working as a visiting professor at Yale and Princeton Universities, Ibáñez joined the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, where she is now a researcher.

Ifigenia Martínez

Mexico would not be what it is today if it were not for Ifigenia Martinez. The first Mexican to graduate from Harvard University with a master’s degree and a doctorate, Martinez is an economist, politician, legislator, and diplomat and previously director of the Faculty of Economics at the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

Among her students was former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who, with her help and guidance, also studied at Harvard. She was also a teacher and inspiration to many others who made up the first generation of Mexican government officials considered technocrats, on account of being appointed to their posts for their technical abilities rather than their political ideology.

As a legislator – she is currently a Senator – she fought to ensure that farmers were not left unprotected against foreign competition. Among her proposals was the revision of the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed by Salinas de Gortari, to include clauses to protect agriculture.

Those who know her know that Martínez speaks her mind no matter who she might make uncomfortable. A declared ally of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Martínez did not miss the opportunity in 2022, when, upon receiving the highest award bestowed by the Mexican Congress, she said: “The endorsement of respect for the division of powers must remain untouched.”

Stephany Griffith-Jones

Stephany Griffith-Jones has been sounding alarm bells over the ills that have afflicted the world’s financial system for the past 50 years: excessive and poorly managed debt, volatile capital flows and financial crises. Holding a PhD in economics from Cambridge University, she has left her mark throughout the region and particularly Chile, where she was an advisor to President Gabriel Boric’s election campaign.

One of her many books, Debt and Development Crises in Latin America: The End of An Illusion, published in 1986, used data to highlight the dire consequences of the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s on the region’s economic development. In line with left-wing social democratic thought, Griffith-Jones has advocated for IMF aid to be faster, with fewer conditions, and on a larger scale.

She is perhaps the fiercest supporter of development banks, which offer countries more favorable interest rates and terms for projects and reforms that promote economic development. During her time as Boric’s advisor, she proposed the creation of a National Development Bank, which would be public and have concrete development objectives.

In 2020, Griffith-Jones was included in the list of the 100 most influential economists in the world by the specialized magazine Richtopia. She was a professor at the University of Sussex and Columbia University before being appointed a member of the Council of the Central Bank of Chile in May 2022, the highest authority within the autonomous institution. Griffith-Jones is one of five members with decision-making power over monetary policy and financial regulation.

Mariana Mazzucato

In a photo taken on October 28, 2022, and shared on social media, Chilean President Gabriel Boric poses with Italian-American economist Mariana Mazzucato. Boric is holding three books, all authored by Mazzucato, and all of which he has read.

A professor in the Economics of Innovation and Public Value at University College London (UCL) and founding director of the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, Mazzucato is a guru for left-wing governments in South America. Her October trip took in Santiago, Buenos Aires, and Bogotá, where she met with the presidents of all three countries. She is considered one of the most influential economists of her generation for her vision of a form of capitalism in which the state invests in innovation to generate wealth.

Based on that visit, Mazzucato wrote in this newspaper that the solution to the problems of poverty, low productivity, and dependence on natural resources “demands progressive governance and an emphasis on clear economic goals” requiring governments to adopt a “new narrative that puts innovation-driven growth at the forefront.”

“It is not that Latin American countries need disruptive innovations (like those we see in Silicon Valley), but purposeful innovation for the solution of concrete problems, such as the growing digital divide and rising greenhouse gas emissions,” she concluded.

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