An interview with Alejandro Escobar, a Christian who works at the Inter-American Development Bank, promoting economic and social development in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The Inter American Development Bank (IDB) defines itself as the main source of multilateral financing and expertise for sustainable economic, social and institutional development in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Although much of its work is focused on the public sector, it also carries out specific work with private actors: companies, micro-enterprises, investors.
Sometimes they are small projects that can be a driving force for positive change. And for this, the IDB forges alliances that facilitate training, investment and cooperation.
Alejandro Escobar has been involved in providing opportunities like these for almost 20 years, especially in the agricultural and food sectors.
He is an investment specialist for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) of the IDB office in Washington D.C. (USA) and often travels to Latin American and Caribbean countries to learn about projects and support their development.
As the son of the well-known missionary and missiologist Samuel Escobar, Alejandro has also inherited a sensitivity to those in need, and shares the vision that Christianity is not only a spiritual promise for eternity, but also a reality that, when experienced, transforms lives and communities.
[photo_footer] Alejandro Escobar. [/photo_footer] "I am focused on the private sector, working with small and mediumsized companies in the region; also with banks or microfinance institutions that assist the sector", says Escobar in an interview with Spanish news website Protestante Digital. This bank does not have a political profile, but rather a "technical" one.
Microfinance is financing small and medium-sized companies. In recent years, his work included focusing on developments that take care of the environment and apply technological improvements to enhance productivity.
"After Covid-19, there was an important leap in technology", he says after recently visiting some regions where "they are now using, for example, telemedicine". "Many rural areas in the region that now have an opportunity to access the digital sphere, which was not the case before".
— Alejandro Escobar (@alexagriculture) April 27, 2018
Although most of the IDB's budget goes to collaboration with administrations, the Bank has a section (Bid.Lab) which supports private projects. They invest throughout the continent with a special emphasis on agricultural and food production areas.
The food sector is gaining more and more importance in terms of foreign investment.
"South Korea's agri-food sector is interested in entering the region, and is looking for ways to invest. Japan and China are also showing more and more interest, so we are the bridge between companies there that want to invest and companies in these areas that need that investment to progress".
"We try to professionalise and strengthen cooperatives - such as the coffee cooperative, for example - by applying European models", explains Escobar. Such efforts have been carried out over the last 15 years.
"Many of the small and medium-sized cooperatives have not survived, but the large cooperatives, dairy, coffee, savings and credit cooperatives, have become almost private entities, with success in countries where regulation has not rejected them".
Another area of action is microfinance. The IDB supported small banks with loans "that have grown to become savings banks. We have worked hard on this since the 1990s, as it is a sector that has to be regulated, but which caters to popular sectors in an area where credit cards do not have the presence they have in the US or Europe".
At the same time, they are strengthening financial education, both for entrepreneurs and public administrations. "In countries such as Bolivia and Peru, there have been many conferences for finance ministries, so that they can see what others are doing. That regional integration is key for them to progress".
— Alejandro Escobar (@alexagriculture) June 4, 2018
In Latin American countries without a strong tradition of private investment, the situation is changing.
"When I was growing up in Argentina or Peru, the state took the initiative in everything. Now we know that it is the private sector that must do it, and the state must allow it to be done. Investments in alternative energy are coming from private sector companies”.
According to Escobar, "it is only a matter of time before this is applied in Peru, in the mining sector. That is where we see that civil society has grown. The voice of the average citizen, organised through NGOs, lobbies, pressure and research groups, is more present".
"It is true that there is extremism, but there is progress in terms of major policies. For example, in conservation issues, in countries like Brazil or Peru, there are forest conservation goals, and that should lead to measures. There is an understanding of where to go. There has been a maturity, but always with its challenges", he says.
In the midst of all this, the Bank finds it much more difficult to operate in some "countries that verge on political persecution, or expropriation".
Even so, whenever they can, they look for ways to support projects and "as long as there is respect for property, it is possible to continue". The IDB adheres to the parameters of the Organization od American States and emphasises that they "do not get involved in political issues".
Escobar believes that many local issues are similar across the globe. "In Spain, in Guatemala or in the United States, we are all wondering how to adapt to these extreme weather situations, or how to regulate the use of private information. The world is getting smaller and smaller, we can see what is happening everywhere".
At the same time, in Latin America and the Caribbean, there are still areas where there is work to be done. One of them is violence. "In this area we work more with governments than with companies. We work on the transparency of information and processes”.
"Some countries have taken a more heavy-handed, almost dictatorial approach, and other countries think they should do the same. Controlling criminal violence is an issue that needs to be addressed. It requires action, but civil society has its roles that must be put in place as well," Escobar warns.
They work to provide young people with "educational and technical alternatives that will give them prosperity so that they stay away from violence".
Another important issue is "women's development, where there has been a lot of progress. Almost all countries, unlike years ago, have a ministry that deals with those issues.
The growth of the evangelical community, both in the Caribbean and in Latin America, is evident. Escobar believes that "churches have an important role, with their call as a community and to serve the communities".
Furthermore, "there is a wide range of evangelical professionals, who might focus their actions outside the ecclesiastical area, and do so through NGOs or through their own work. This sector has grown in recent years, with evangelicals in positions of great responsibility”.
However, Escobar points out that there are some areas in which there is room for improvement.
First, "avoid dispersion: we must try to identify areas of work and promote action. I have come across evangelical leaders throughout the region who are involved at the highest levels of the private and public sector. Sometimes there is no space for them to express and meet each other.
Secondly, there is a risk for the church "to play a proselytising and political role. Social and civic responsibility should be promoted". He encourages churches to join the social debate where "they have a lot to contribute", but avoiding politicisation, because "the moment one aligns with a closed, political position, opportunities are closed".
Finally, Escobar believes that there are areas of interest in which evangelicals can play a role, but it is necessary to "be trained and well-informed" in order to respond to the global challenges to which many are seeking answers through faith.
"We must be open to participate in discussion forums, where we will not have the lead voice, but we can have a place to influence and build in a positive way", he concludes.
This article was produced for the Líderes Empresariales section of Protestante Digital, an initiative of the Gospel, Economy and Business (Tres-E) group in Spain.