Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, the Andean-born shoeshine boy who became the elected leader of his country last May, spoke of the enormous challenges of fighting extreme poverty and revamping the economy of Peru during a public address at the Kennedy School ARCO Forum Saturday (April 13) afternoon.
“I have a responsibility to do everything in my power to free my people from poverty,” Toledo said. The recipe for doing that, he asserted, lies in improving the nation’s social structures, especially its educational system.
“I am the walking evidence of what education can do,” the Stanford-educated Toledo said. “I obtained my freedom from poverty thanks to education. And there is no better investment a country can make than to invest in the minds of its people.”
Elected just months after former President Alberto Fujimori resigned in disgrace, Toledo told the forum audience that his nation faces many difficult days ahead as it attempts to rebuild its democratic institutions and raise the standard of living. Currently, 54 percent of Peruvian citizens live below the poverty line.
“Poverty conspires against democracy,” he said. “And in order to have the economic resources to invest in health, education, and justice, we need to establish stability – social, economic, and legal stability.”
That won’t be easy, Toledo admitted. The nation has been mired in recession for four years, although there are signs it is recovering. “Our economy has now stabilized and we now have some slow growth, but we still have a long way to go.”
Toledo spoke passionately of the need to invest more extensively in Peru’s social structures. “We need resources not only to invest in our economic sector, but in health, education, and justice as well.” His action plan calls for more trade, debt relief, and decreased military spending to free up precious money for other programs.
“There is no better weapon to win the battle against poverty than investing aggressively in health and education,” he stressed. “And to do that, while being economically responsible, implies (that the country) must reprioritize its public expenditures.”
While many of his decisions have been politically unpopular, Toledo promised to push forward with his agenda in Peru. “I’m stubborn,” he exclaimed. “I have made a set of economic priorities and we are going to be persistent.”
Toledo’s ARCO Forum appearance was co-sponsored by the Harvard Institutional Development Conference and the Institute of Politics Student Advisory Committee.