25th Annual CAF Conference


CAF Conference 25

CAF 2021 Conference

On October 19 and 20, 2021, over 3,000 participants from around the world convened virtually for the 25th Annual CAF Conference to discuss the most pressing issues facing the Western Hemisphere. For the first time in its history, the conference was hybrid (in person and virtual) and was broadcast in three languages over the span of two days, drawing over 17,000 views.

Established in 1996 as a joint initiative of CAF – Development Bank of Latin America, the Inter-American Dialogue, and the Organization of American States, the annual CAF Conference has become the primary forum for policymakers and analysts, journalists, government officials, business leaders, entrepreneurs and investors, and civil society leaders to review progress in the Americas and address pending challenges.

Sessions focused on: the lost time for education in the Americas; the uneven economic recovery of the region; the challenges to reach the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030; and social protests, political polarization, and the threats to democracy. The conference concluded with a conversation on how to tackle climate change by implementing a green economic recovery in the region. The conference also featured a special presidential panel with presidents Iván Duque of Colombia, Laurentino Cortizo of Panama and Alberto Fernández of Argentina.


In their introductory remarks, Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, Sergio Diaz Granados, president of CAF – Development Bank of Latin America, and Luis Almagro, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, welcomed attendees and highlighted the quarter-century history of the conference.

Shifter started by noting that this was his last conference as the Dialogue’s president. He emphasized the importance of greater integration in the region to overcome fundamental challenges. Shifter also recognized that the conference had become a key forum where a wide array of issues on the hemispheric agenda is discussed.

President Diaz Granados underlined the importance of achieving steady growth to deal with and overcome social problems. He further highlighted CAF’s commitment to help bring about a transformation in the region, with a strong focus on climate change. He emphasized that, in the face of climate change and global warming, the private sector needs to create new job opportunities and spur economic growth through sustainable development.

Secretary-General Almagro called attention to the fact that the conference was being held as the Organization of American States celebrated the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Almagro views the Charter as a key framework of the Americas in an effort to defend democracy in the region. He urged its consistent application. Almagro further stressed that the region’s persistent inequality – exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic – needs to be a top priority on the hemispheric agenda. 


Following the introductory remarks, Enrique García, former president of CAF who also co-chairs the Dialogue’s board, recalled the conference’s origins as a small meeting and highlighted its growing importance over its twenty-five-year history. García stressed that the Bank has always respected the diversity of its stakeholder countries and noted that now more than ever it is important to consider issues stemming from inequalities, persistent poverty, environmental concerns, and lagging economic growth. In commemoration of the conference’s 25th anniversary and Garcia’s legacy, CAF announced the Enrique Garcia Leadership Award which will honor individuals or institutions who have made significant contributions to sustainable development and regional integration in Latin America and the Caribbean.


Dialogue co-chair and former Costa Rican president Laura Chinchilla then offered some remarks to frame the conference. Chinchilla outlined the main problems confronting the region today and the need to act with a sense of urgency to counter the negative effects of the Covid-19 pandemic by “making our strengths and opportunities the basis for policy of reconstruction.” She stressed the importance of mobilizing investments, restoring regional dialogues and cooperation, strengthening democratic governance, advancing sustainable development, and narrowing the economic, digital and gender gaps throughout the region to tackle the main challenges. 

After her remarks, President Chinchilla introduced Juan Gonzalez, senior assistant to the US President and senior director for the Western Hemisphere at the National Security Council. During his conversation with Chinchilla, Gonzalez highlighted President Biden’s Build Back Better World initiative, whose main goal, he said, is to support and catalyze an increase in responsible and market-based private capital in the region. By doing so, the US government hopes to establish an alternative to predatory lending models and help secure a democratic, safe, and middle-class hemisphere.

Gonzalez also urged a new approach to manage the challenges that stem from migration. He discussed the need for a coordinated approach that provides protection for those who cannot immediately return home and legal pathways that will allow individuals to migrate safely. Addressing the concern about democratic backsliding in the region, Gonzalez made it clear that the United States does not have all the answers and hopes the upcoming democracy summit will be a space where every country will be able to bring ideas and proposals to the table to establish a common set of agreements and a roadmap to strengthen democratic institutions.


The first panel focused on challenges to achieving a fairer, more equitable and better educational system in the Americas. The conversation was moderated by Claudia Uribe, director of the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Education in Latin America and the Caribbean. She was joined by Mariano Jabonero, secretary-general of the Organization of Ibero-American States for Education; María Victoria Angulo, minister of education of Colombia; Nyan Gadsby-Dolly, minister of education of Trinidad & Tobago, María Brown, minister of education of Ecuador; Leandro Folgar, president of Plan Ceibal; and Vicky Colbert, executive director of Fundación Escuela Nueva.

Among other issues, panelists discussed the challenges stemming from the sudden and prolonged effect of school closings due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the measurement and monitoring of the different school reopening plans and pedagogical strategies. They pointed to the importance of a true digital educational transformation accompanied by a digital governance model to ensure the region can maintain the link between students and teachers during school closures. The panel also discussed strengthening the role of teachers by training them in socio-emotional skills to humanize education and build trust in the entire educational community.


Susana Malcorra, senior advisor to the Presidency of IE School of Global and Public Affairs and Argentina’s former minister of Foreign Affairs and Worship, moderated the second panel, which addressed the economic growth forecast for the region amidst the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Panelists included Alicia Bárcena, executive secretary, United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC); Gustavo Béliz, secretary of strategic affairs of the Presidency of Argentina; Rémy Rioux, chief executive officer of the Agence Française de Développement (AFD); Carlos Felipe Jaramillo, vice president for the Latin America & the Caribbean Region of the World Bank Group; and Alicia Garcia Herrero, chief economist for Asia Pacific at Natixis.

Participants noted that the region had been growing at very low rates before the pandemic, falling into the so-called “recovery paradox,” where growth driven by consumption is not enough to overcome the decline in the region. The informal sector suffered the most by the sharp downturn caused by the pandemic. While the Chinese economy was the first to emerge from the crisis, China’s current cyclical and structural slowdown reduces demand for commodities that have been important drivers of growth in the region. Panelists agreed on the urgent need to close the digital gap, bolster digital banking and to reduce the black economy.


The first day of the conference concluded with an exchange between: Ambassador Thomas Shannon, co-chair of the Inter-American Dialogue and former US undersecretary of State for Political Affairs; Alberto Fernandez, president of Argentina; Iván Duque Marquez, president of Colombia; and Laurentino Corrizo, president of Panama. Ambassador Shannon asked about their priorities to promote economic recovery and reconstruction amidst the pandemic, the educational strategies to face ongoing challenges, and the possibilities of a green economic recovery. The presidents outlined the lessons learned during the pandemic and expressed support for promoting democratic practices. Furthermore, they agreed that by working together, with a renewed commitment to social equity and democracy, the region will be able to make considerable progress. 


The second day of the conference began with a panel moderated by Luis Felipe López-Calva, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean, United Nations Development Programme. Lopéz-Calva led a discussion on the main challenges that could jeopardize attaining the sustainable goals of the region. He was joined by: Epsy Campbell, vice president of Costa Rica; Anita Bhatia, assistant secretary-general and UN Women’s deputy executive director; Óscar Gamboa, minister counselor at the Embassy of Colombia in Washington DC; María Claudia Lacouture, executive director of the Colombo American Chamber of Commerce; and Karim Lesina, executive vice president, chief external affairs officer for Millicom.

During the exchange, panelists agreed that there is a need to act at the local, national, and multilateral levels to establish more productive, inclusive, and resilient development, establishing the “new normal.” The pandemic was a major setback to achieving the SDGs. The recovery needs to emphasize targeted approaches to women, indigenous peoples, afro descendants and other excluded groups as well as digital innovation in building trust and accelerating growth.


Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, moderated a panel on challenges to democracy and the recent political unrest in Latin America and the Caribbean. Panelists included: Denise Dresser, professor of political science at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México; Oliver Stuenkel, associate professor of international Relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation; Lucia Dammert, professor of international relations at the University of Santiago de Chile; Patricia Politzer, assemblywoman at the Constitutional Convention of Chile; and Claudia Paz y Paz Bailey, director of the program for Mexico and Central America at CEJIL.

Panelists agreed that democracy in the region is deeply troubled. In recent years, democratic institutions and the rule of law have deteriorated. In this context, participants examined region-wide trends and shared their perspectives on the impact that Covid-19 and the economic and social crises have had on political developments. Focusing on five specific countries, panelists reviewed the upcoming election cycles, the status of checks and balances, polarization, social discontent, populism, and democratic backsliding based on each country’s sociopolitical and economic reality.


The 25th CAF conference ended with a discussion on the urgent need for climate action as Latin American and Caribbean countries are on the front lines of climate change. Moderated by Kim Osborne, executive secretary for Integral Development at the Organization of American States, the panel featured: Selwin Charles Hart, special advisor to the UN Secretary-General on Climate Action and assistant secretary-general for the Climate Action Team; Fiona Clouder, regional ambassador for Latin America and the Caribbean for COP26; Benigno López Benítez, vice president for Sectors and Knowledge at the Inter-American Development Bank; Daniele Violetti, senior director Programmes Coordination of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); Ana Cristina Barros, senior advisor for Sustainable Infrastructure at the Climate Policy Institute; and Javier Manzanares, deputy executive director of the Green Climate Fund.

Panelists shared their concern about the state of the climate crisis in the region and analyzed the best ways to move forward, including focusing on both green and blue investments, shifting to lower carbon energy, and reassessing land use. The future of climate action in Latin America and the Caribbean is tied to elections and democracy, so citizens can give feedback to governments and voice their concerns. The role of civil society and government in climate action was discussed, as well as expectations for the COP26 conference and the critical importance of translating words into constructive action.

Author: Gastón Ocampo, Program and Database Assistant in the Office of the President.