Thursday, February 2, 2023

“The pandemic produced a wave of great solidarity among the state’s partners”

Interview with Carolina Cerqueira, the Angolan Minister of State for Social Welfare

Ricardo David Lopes

Having presented last July the first voluntary report from the Angolan government on the Sustainable Development Goals to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, this initiative received a warm welcome from the international community that is attentive to the efforts the country has been making to improve the popular standard of living and strengthen the rule of law under a democratic state. In interview, Carolina Cerqueira reveals the priorities of the government led by João Lourenço for the social domain with a particular emphasis on health, education, employment, social protection, justice and economic growth, among others and explains the work that has been done while accepting there is still much to do in a country where combating poverty and investing in the qualification of citizens rank very much as the prevailing priorities.

You recently presented the first voluntary national report on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). What are the main challenges resulting from analysis of the main conclusions?

As priority fields in the social domain, we nominated human development, social support and protection, education, healthcare, employment, gender equality, justice and human rights, economic growth, professional training and the diversification of the economy within a context of strengthening the democratic rule of law: challenges we consider priorities for implementing the National Development Plan (NDP 2017-2022) and that remain current against the target of lasting development, justice and social peace.

Did the conclusions lead the government to change or to strengthen any of the priorities for social welfare?

Angola registers one of the highest birth rates on the African continent, having risen to 5.6% in the last five years and currently has a population of over 32 million inhabitants per year and with around a million children born per year. This is a major challenge that requires the strengthening of public policies, especially in terms of social welfare.

In effect, the world health crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, in conjunction with the fall in the oil price, forced us to take exceptional measures to mitigate its effects on communities, families and companies.

We furthermore consider that the situation prevailing, with drought in the south and southeast of the country directly and negatively impacting on the social structure and the stability of millions of families, the Angolan government has been reinforcing some of the social policies that mitigate the state of poverty still visible among the populations, guaranteeing employment, especially to youths, rehousing the populations and expanding the housing stock across the entire company through projects with state financing, the already known centralities that enable thousands of people to gain access to dignified housing, especially state sector employees and young persons in the main provinces such as Luanda, Bengo, Benguela, Huíla, Namibe Cuanza Sul, Uíge, Bié Huambo and Lunda Norte.

Furthermore, we continue to provide support for focused constructions in some provinces while simultaneously advancing with rehousing families afflicted by natural disasters in social housing, distributed free-of-charge by the state with the most recent project being Mayé Mayé, on the outskirts of Luanda, for the rehousing of 3,000 families.

There is an ongoing national program for combating multidimensional poverty, mitigating the effects of drought and eradicating illiteracy through structured programs of inclusion and social integration of the traditional and most unprotected communities in the rural areas and zones of greatest risk. The government’s plans adopt as their core target the provision of healthcare in every corner of Angola, public sanitation, the supply of drinking water, building social housing, actions to bring about the eradication of hunger and poverty while simultaneously continuing to prioritise areas such as education, gender equality, social protection, justice, human rights and the environment.

And which aspects most stand out for the positive and are most relevant in the report?

Life expectancy in Angola grew by 19 years between 2000 and 2019, rising from 42 to 61 years of age. And the Human Development Index advanced from 0.400 to 0.581 points over the same period.

The substantial progress made, especially in the fields of health and education as well as raising the number of beneficiaries of social protection alongside advances made in the representation of women across every level of society and politics are important references that the report highlighted with elucidative statistical data. Another important sign is the coverage of social protection and the rising number of citizens, emphasising the weighting of informal sector workers.

In general terms, the document shows how the politics and programs of the Angolan government place their priority on the poorest populations, the most vulnerable and those who have been left furthest behind through the results produced by the investments made in the social areas through means of the assertive programs and policies attributed budgetary funding.

“THE PANDEMIC, COUPLED WITH
THE FALL IN THE OIL PRICE,
FORCED US TO TAKE EXCEPTIONAL
MEASURES TO MITIGATE THE EFFECTS
ON COMMUNITIES, FAMILIES AND COMPANIES.”

What feedback did you get from your ECOSOC partners?

In general terms, there was positive appreciation among both ECOSOC members and the United Nations system that praised the fact of this having been the first time that Angola had presented its report on the state of application of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We received positive feedback about our presentation over the sharing of data as well as the references we illustrated about the current and future perspectives on implementing the SDGs.

The document refers to a high rate of poverty, standing in the region of 54%, aggravated by the pandemic context, but with the commitment to reduce this by half through to 2030. What are the general lines of this strategy?

The government aims to lower multidimensional poverty to 27%, half of the current level and prevent situations of hunger and other vulnerabilities that the country still faces, especially in terms of the key conditions for health, education, access to energy, water and basic sanitation and reducing gender social inequalities while taking into account the effects of climate change and the risks of natural disasters in a sustainable approach.

In order to change the current poverty index, the government of Angola is implementing inclusive programs and policies under the auspices of the PIDLCP – the Integrated Program for Local Development and Combating Poverty, which has already enabled the integration of over 60,000 persons in income generating activities, the Production Support Programs, and PRODESI – the Export Diversification and Substitution Program, which has thus far provided financing to 788 production projects.

There is a major impact on the domain of social inclusion through the Integrated Plan for Municipal Intervention that has, for example, undertaken the construction of 811 schools across the country, in addition to expanding the hospital network, transport infrastructures, water and electricity supplies in 164 municipalities, including in the most distant zones.

“WE HAVE BEEN STRENGTHENING
SOME SOCIAL POLICIES THAT
MITIGATE THE STATE OF POVERTY
STILL VISIBLE IN THE POPULATIONS,
GUARANTEEING EMPLOYMENT, ESPECIALLY
FOR YOUTHS, REHOUSING THE POPULATION
AND EXPANDING THE HOUSING NETWORK.”

The government has made significant efforts, redoubled in the meanwhile due to the pandemic, to expand social protection to the most vulnerable Angolans, especially through means of money transfer programs such as “Kwenda”. What is the current situation of this project and what are the next steps?

The “Kwenda” objective was to strengthen the capacity of the social protection sector to implement measures mitigating poverty over the short and medium term in order to boost the purchasing and financial capacities of families through support for paying rent among the poorest and, furthermore, helping to established a robust and efficient national system of social protection.

“Kwenda”, financed by the World Bank in partnership with the Angolan government, is under implementation over the 2019 to 2023 period and planning to support a total of 1,608,000 family households facing poverty and vulnerabilities.

At this moment, a total of 414,285 family households have been registered in 26 municipalities across 18 provinces, distributed across 101 communes and 3,681 villages and neighbourhoods.

The next steps foresee the deployment of 1,183 community and sanitation development agents across the country and the training of around 200 local technicians but there remain challenges…

Could you give an example?

For example, strengthening the productive inclusion of the families targeted through financing and economic and productive actions for their insertion into income generating activities, the municipal level of social action implemented through the Integrated Social Action Centres, which is ongoing, to approximate and expand social welfare services at the local level and strengthen the single social record in the years to come.

This should highlight how through payment via the Multicaixa system, applying the new technologies, modernisation has become a reality in rural areas and all the while guaranteeing transparency and efficiency as well as gaining the trust of the populations in the program, which has contributed substantially to improving the quality of life of the families included.

Health is one of the areas the government has prioritised, and even before the pandemic. What are the major achievements thus far in your opinion?

Within the scope of the measures adopted by the government in recent years, they highlight the increase in financing for the National Health Service (NHS), driving progress in the construction and rehabilitation of social infrastructures with considerable benefits for the health sector, endowed with the technical means and modern technologies, which brought about an expansion in the municipal sanitation networks, the launching of new, benchmark specialist services and investment in human capital.

The healthcare sector received special attention through the increase in investment which rose from Kz 388 465 188 031 in 2018 to Kz 841 566 888 377 in 2021. There was an effective rise in financing for health and rising in percentage terms from 4.01% in 2018 to 5.69% in 2021 taking into consideration the structural changes helping to strengthen the NHS from the foundations upwards in order to be better able to meet the needs of the population.

Another major state investment is for financing the total of 12 vaccines on the Angola Vaccine Calendar since 2017, formerly co-financed with GAVI, which shall enable a substantial reduction in the infant mortality rate.

There are also significant efforts being put into health sector infrastructures…

In order to increase access to health services, between 2018 and 2021, a total of 68 new health units have been built for three levels of care, leading to a rise in the number of NHS beds from 24,382 in 2019 to 29,912 in 2021. This has also particularly focused on the primary level of care, to be closer to the populations and responding to their needs, reducing the demands on general and central hospitals and also improving their service provision as well.

This should highlight how a total of 5,000 beds were acquired in 2020, of which 1,000 were for intensive care units across the NHS network. Hospital beds and intensive care units were expanded by five times on those existing in the period prior to the pandemic.

The national health network now counts on 3,164 health clinics, with 13 national hospitals, 32 specialist units, in 18 provinces, 166 municipalities, 10 non-profit private establishments (Missionary Hospitals), 105 maternal-infant centres, 640 health centres and 2,180 healthcare posts.

In the PIIM – the Integrated Municipal Intervention Program, this sector is overseeing 311 projects for the construction, rehabilitation, expansion and re-equipping of hospital units as well as the acquisition of ambulances and, following the implementation of PIP – the Public Investment Program and the PIIM at the provincial level, 23 health sector projects have been concluded.

In order to cut the number of patients sent abroad and all the costs incurred, there has been an intensification of efforts to improve hospital services and open up specialist facilities with high-tech equipment.

“AS THEIR CORE TARGETS,
THE GOVERNMENT PLANS
CONSIDER GETTING HEALTHCARE
TO EVERY CORNER OF ANGOLA,
PUBLIC SANITATION, THE SUPPLY OF
DRINKING WATER AND THE
CONSTRUCTION OF SOCIAL HOUSING”

Would you provide some examples?

Yes, six new haemodialysis units were opened for patients with Covid-19, hepatitis B and C and HIV/Aids, with three in Luanda – including a unit at the David Bernardino Pediatric Hospital -, Cabinda, Huíla and Moxico, while raising the patient service capacity by another 3,772 patients per week. Within the scope of Covid-19, there were six treatment centres built, with three in construction in Luanda, one in Cunene, one in Cabinda, one in Lunda Norte and another in Soyo, while another is in the conclusion phase in Benguela, and in Huíla and Uíge, there was the conversion and re-equipping of treatment units and with every province receiving the high technology means and equipment alongside the laboratory capacity to confirm cases being strengthened with the setting up of ELISA – three Molecular Biology and Serology laboratories in the provinces of Lunda Norte, Huambo and Uíge following direct investment from the Angolan state. Furthermore, in partnership with the oil industry, there was the installation of three laboratories in Cabinda, Soyo and Benguela, boosting the testing capacity to 15,000 tests. This functioning capacity greatly improved the care provided for all diseases transversally across the NHS.

Was there also any increase in staffing for this area?

The government has carried out enormous investment in boosting the labour force in this sector, with an increase of 25,465 (26%) new professionals resulting from the largest recruitment campaigns in 2018 and 2019 and ensuring an increase from 65,294 to 87,161 professionals.

Significant rises took place across all areas, especially doctors (2,399), nurses (14,179), diagnosis and therapeutics (7,138), hospital support technicians (797) and the general career regime (962).

Another landmark for health in Angola came with the expansion in the coverage for HIV testing to pregnant women, up from 465 to 625 units, in 2020. In the same year, access to retroviral treatments rose from 36% in 2018 to 71% last year.

What about the case of medication?

In relation to the medication and equipment policy, the government introduced exemption from customs duties for medication and medical equipment and devices, with new procurement policies ongoing for medication, nutritional supplements, biosecurity materials and equipment to strengthen the NHS.

Community participation, through the training of community development and sanitation agents, initiatives in the field of ethics and humanising health as well as improving maternal-infant assistance and the provision of care allied with combatting the great endemics are the major future challenges for the healthcare system at the national level.

How can these challenges be overcome?

Health and social wellbeing are priorities for the government of Angola that is correspondingly planning for gradual increases in public investment in this sector to expand access to services, professional youth training and the modernisation of equipment and the free supply of medication for the most common ailments afflicting the population as well as greater utilisation of new technologies for the populations to access the system.

Education, especially at the primary and middle levels has clearly been another government concern. School meals, the building of new schools and the refurbishment of those already existing, digitalisation and the training of teachers are some themes in this sector. Has civil society, especially the business class, been a partner of government in this field? In what ways?

In terms of social responsibility, various institutions, both public and private, particularly churches and civil society associations, especially the business class and banks, have collaborated with the authorities under the auspices of cooperation partnerships both for the construction of completely equipped schools and for financing school attendance programs so that, in a gradual fashion, we may get all children studying both in the urban and the rural contexts.

I would like to mention the World Bank support, with a total value of USD 250 million, for financial school inclusion, in particular for girls.

In terms of school meals, this academic year saw the emergence of various well-intended initiatives by some companies and institutions in order to guarantee them to increasing numbers of children attending schools across the country, support that comes alongside the many voluntary initiatives that are contributing to inclusion and social justice, reducing regional asymmetries and boosting equality of opportunity for all children, especially the most disadvantaged through a fairer provision of solidarity.

I would like to highlight the support for the training provided for young females facing vulnerable situations through attending science and technology programs equivalent to secondary school teaching that began in October and continue to July 2023. A total of 610 grants are financed by the African Development Bank and the government to benefit vulnerable girls with the objective of minimising school dropouts and contributing to the empowerment of women.

Are Angolan business leaders and civil society showing more solidarity towards social causes now than they were before the pandemic?

With the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and the impoverishment of households and the general worsening of the social situation, there was a great wave of solidarity from among the state’s partners, especially in the social welfare, health and education sectors, which led them to associate with the government’s initiatives in providing for over five million people facing situations of vulnerability and extreme poverty across the entire country.

A theme to which the government – and yourself as minister in particular – has also focused attention on and that you have already mentioned several times is the promoting of gender equality. If the path towards gender equality stretched 100 Km, at what point on the route would you say Angola is at?

I would say we are going at high speed, up a mountain with obstacles that are only overcome through assertive state policies, laws that protect and provide rights to women and their self-determination.

Currently, women account for 29.6% of the seats in parliament. In central government, the female presence in leadership roles stands at 39%, with 12% of Secretaries of State, 22% heading provincial governments, 19.5% of vice-governors, 25.6% of municipal council leaders and with females holding 27.4% of senior diplomatic posts. In the legal system, over a third of public prosecution magistrates are females who make up 38% of employees in the sector and 31% of lawyers.

There are still cultural prejudices and difficulties of various magnitudes that need overcoming through constant education and equal opportunities in every domain in order to effectively guarantee a louder voice on more occasions for women and better representation in the decision and policy making structures. I would predict in the future, young people and the girls of today assume, with determination and merit, the continuation of the intransigent defence of the rights of women.

“LIFE EXPECTANCY
IN ANGOLA GREW BY 19 YEARS
BETWEEN 2000 AND 2019, RISING
FROM 42 TO 61 YEARS OF AGE.
AND THE HUMAN DEVELOPMENT
INDEX ADVANCED FROM 0.400
TO 0.581 POINTS OVER THE SAME PERIOD.”

The social areas of governance are wide reaching and highly interdisciplinary. Has this articulation of efforts among different ministries been strengthened over the course of the last eighteen months of the pandemic?

The articulation of efforts and the alignment of initiatives have been very praiseworthy and we have taken on, through the delegation of powers, the orientation of the Social Commission sessions of the Council of Ministers, the consultative body to the executive power of the President of the Republic, João Manuel Gonçalves Lourenço, and through other inter-ministerial commissions set up to promote and constantly consult and align the different departments and ministries in the social area in order to jointly deal with the matters making up the social domain and other issues in the national interest that are subsequently submitted for the appreciation and approval of the Council of Ministers.

You served as Minister of Culture before accepting this new challenge in the government. Does combatting the pandemic undermine the government’s capacity to support this sector?

The artists and creatives were one of the many classes deeply impacted by the pandemic due to the prevention measures for countering Covid-19, with very sharp reductions in their public interventions and live performances even while there have emerged impressive initiative through access to the digital market and to new technologies, which enabled them to adapt with a spirit of resilience and innovation to the demands of the national market and respond to the challenges imposed by the health crisis, creating leisurely spaces through diverse cultural expressions conveyed by television and the other media.

Attracting foreign direct investment is another need for every country and Angola has been implementing measures to bring in structural projects in various areas. Does it make sense for international investors to share these concerns over inclusion and other social aspects?

We would note with satisfaction the increase in interest from foreign investors in such crucial fields as education, healthcare, professional and technical training, especially in the field of innovation and scientific research as well as in tourism, environment and culture.

What is your biggest dream for Angola?

A long lasting peace, the consolidation of democracy and a prosperous and safe future for all Angolans, particularly so that the young generations can achieve their full potential.

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