Read the transcript of our podcast interview with Toni Alva, our Global Project Director.
Hi Everyone and welcome to the new episode of the Acasus podcast series! My name is Melinda and I have a special guest today, Toni Alva. Toni goes without introduction being the former Minister of Finance in Peru. As minister, she led the implementation of Peru’s economic plan in response to the Covid-19 crisis and now we are lucky enough to have her on our team. Hi Toni, and welcome to the podcast! Great to have you! I was actually so excited about this podcast, I have loads of questions to ask you, so let’s get started.
You were one of the first female ministers in your country, leading the Ministry of Finance through a period of crisis. What was it like to be a woman in that position? What challenges did you face?
This year is the 200th anniversary of Peru's independence, and it is unfortunate that the country has only had three female ministers until now. I think that being a woman in a high position is definitely challenging in my country.
I was appointed Minister when I was 34. By that time I already had a decade of experience as a public servant, a master’s degree from Harvard and was in charge of the General Bureau of Public Budget, which is a really important position in the government.
The immediate reaction of some people was: “she is there because she will be the President’s puppet, she won’t be able to say no to him”. Other people said that: “she is there because her dad is a close friend of the president”. Neither of those two reasons were true.
Especially since you held the position of General Director of Public Budget I imagine you must have had to say no even to him before.
Even before I was Minister of Finance, I was the General Director of Public Budget. It is in that position that I really learned how to say “no”. For the authorities, the sky has no limit when it comes to the allocation of the budget, however, what they do not understand is that the budget is limited. I was so used to ministers, congressmen and even the President asking for a greater share of the budget without even considering the fiscal limitations. It is here where I learned the art of saying “no”, however, always while maintaining a respectful and composed tone, and backing up my “no” with technical reasons.
What was the message here? She was not appointed minister because of her own merits. Several years before Fernando Zavala was appointed Minister at the same age as I was but nobody doubted his capacities. Women often have to work double or triple to show that they have capacities and skills.
How did these inequalities reveal themselves during the covid crisis personally for you as a minister?
During Covid-19, we prioritized saving lives. We implemented an aggressive lockdown that made the GDP fall by almost 40% in April 2020. To respond, we put in place the biggest economic package in not just Peru’s history but in the whole of Latin American history. I had to explain this to the citizens. Every time I had an interview, I invested more than four hours thinking about the messages I wanted to communicate and the easiest ways to transmit them to the citizens. My benchmark was: “whatever I say, my grandparents should understand it”. It can be a real challenge for an economist to speak simply!
The thing is that, because of the effort and my amazing team, I think I had good interviews. Some friends told me: “my mom says it is the first time she has understood economics”. But while I was receiving these messages, at the same time I would also receive: “the color of your blouse does not match well with your skin”, or “you should wear more makeup, your eyebags are huge”. I am pretty sure that men are not judged the way women are. So we not only need to work double or triple, but we are also being judged for things men are not being judged!
And we still see this today in almost every country! You know this is a topic about which we could easily do a separate podcast alone.. But to get back to what you said about how you became a minister at such a young age with all its challenges and lessons.. I was wondering that having your public background and professional achievements as the previous Minister of Economy and Finance in Peru, what made you decide to join our mission? What was your drive when choosing us as I imagine there have been lots of options.
In countries with such inequalities as Peru, it is a privilege to have the opportunities to access good education and health. I felt I needed to pay back. I found in the public service the correct path to do this. The impact of public service on people’s lives is huge. All my professional experience before being Minister was in the Peruvian public service. I trained myself for that. I started as an assistant when I was 22 years old in the Ministry of Finance, and finished as Minister at 34 years old. I followed a journey of challenges, failures and achievements.
The first year of the COVID-19 pandemic was very difficult, professionally and emotionally. I felt like a Minister during a war, seeing how the economy was collapsing and also the daily casualties. Peru was the country with the highest death tolls due to COVID-19. We were also facing another pandemic – one of huge political instability that meant that I was impeached twice. It was then that I concentrated on dealing with everything one day at a time. I went to sleep everyday with the satisfaction that I and my team gave the best we could and did things with commitment to our country and while staying on the ethical path.
And then, almost one year ago, I started my day working as usual early at the Ministry and by the end of that day the president had been impeached by Congress. I was shocked. The next few weeks were very difficult for me. I questioned myself a lot whether or not all the effort was worth it. For four weeks I did not listen to the news, even though there was a huge political crisis. I did not want to put a lot of pressure on myself, in some way I was in a mourning of sorts. And one of the things I learned during the crisis was that mental health is really important. I took one month of vacation and then started to think about my future.
Those can be super powerful. What were the takeaways from that four-week period; what did you get out of this news-free recreational time-off?
Because of the political crisis and the difficult year, I understood the best for my professional growth was to gain experience outside the country. And then, an amazing opportunity in Acasus was there. I took the leap of faith.
I always thought that if you are not in government, Acasus is a great alternative to fulfil your purpose. I had the opportunity to work with Acasus as a client. Acasus is a talented team that cares about the problems faced by citizens. Acasus has a unique approach to building capacity in public servants, contributing to sustainability and undertaking interventions which drive progress.
The other huge advantage from Acasus is that they take your professional development very seriously. For example, in my first month here, I was trained in having difficult conversations. Providing feedback to improve your team performance is really critical. Can you believe in the Peruvian government, even though I had held very important roles, I had never been trained in managerial skills?
Wow, that is shocking to hear.
Now that I have been working for almost ten months, I can tell that Acasus has the best of the two worlds (private and public sector). You work hard for improving citizen’s opportunities but at the same time you do not deal with tough politics. Based on my experience, I can tell you that politics is a huge distraction from real work.
I believe you and even though we still have to deal with politics we navigate on these waters with the focus on the impact and the way that gets us to the impact. Which I believe is a different point of view and I like how you said Acasus has the best of the two worlds. So tell me a bit about the work you have done over here at Acasus. As you have been working on the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines with our teams in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Chad, DRC and Ecuador. What are the main differences between countries regarding the vaccine rollout?
I think there are two important factors that really influence the initial rollout: 1) whether or not the country had a platform for vaccinating adults, this is from an operational side perspective, and 2) willingness of high-level authorities to get their people vaccinated.
The rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine often faces gender gaps in these countries. And I think that the biggest challenge is that there are not enough women in high level positions who are better suited to understand challenges that women face.
Other women can understand if you do not feel comfortable with a male vaccinator touching your arm, or better understand the damage that rumours about the vaccine causing infertility can make. Women know better how to talk to other women and how to address their concerns and fears.
In some of these countries, when we tried to bring the issue to the table we realized that most of the people making decisions were men. In one country we tried to make the case to implement female vaccinator centers, run by women, with female vaccinators, that will serve women. One of the answers we received was that this policy was sexist. Can you imagine that answer?!!
Hm, I don’t want to, to be honest. I think it really shows that this is a problem
We also tried to shift the focus from supply to demand. Having vaccines available does not mean that those vaccines will get to people. For years we have only thought about supply and have implemented very innovative solutions for the supply side (example cold chain management) but we are still not thinking about demand-side approaches in the 21st century.
We have spoken with people and collected that information in a demand tracker, we have visited facilities and spoken with healthcare workers to learn more about their problems. The concerns for females are valid: there are no female vaccinators, the waiting time for getting the vaccine is too long… we need to make the system focus on the last mile of the public service provision, the demand.
Are there reasons to be hopeful? How can we overcome these obstacles?
I think that Covid-19 has also brought a lot of learnings about the role of women in leadership positions. Let’s think about the Jacinda Ardern or Angela Merkel. They communicated really well with their population and their leadership has been recognized. So, I think that we are winning some battles on this.
But things need to change more. Let’s think about basic issues of the health system. Think about maternal mortality. The fact that a health system is not able to avoid a woman dying when she is doing something so inherent to her – becoming a mother, is a catastrophic failure. This is a basic emergency that health systems should solve and we need to be focused on solving it.
But if we think about the root of these problems, you will definitely lead to family planning. The system has denied females the possibility to decide about themselves. We not only do not receive adequate family planning instruction during our lives, but even if you look at mainstream methods of contraception – for instance condoms, you realise how it is based on the willingness of the male using it. We need to be much more aggressive about implementing modern contraceptive methods. But do you see someone focused on that? Not really. In very unequal societies like Peru or the countries we work on, the most unprivileged do not have a voice and nobody advocates for them.
Could you share an example for our audience to better understand - as I imagine there are lots of situations that come to your mind when talking about this.
I have an example. I remember that when I was Minister, there were rumours that the president was going to ban alcohol to limit social gatherings and avoid the spread of COVID. You cannot imagine the number of whatsapp messages I received because of that. But nobody has ever reached out to me about improving learning outcomes in rural areas or reducing chronic malnutrition in the jungle areas in Peru. We need much more empathy in our societies and we need to understand that if we generate more opportunities for the less privileged, everybody will be better off.
I have a lot of hope from the new generation who are much more committed to social values and eager to raise their voice for these “invisible” populations.
Talking about the new generation.. Do you do a lot of work talking to young women about their futures? What message do you want to give them?
As I mentioned before, I think societies will be better if we have more women in leadership positions. But in some ways, societies are still conservative, and we are raised in a way that we have lots of fears and insecurities. Imagine a 17-year-old woman and a man with exactly the same skills and capabilities, I am pretty sure that the boy feels much more secure and empowered at that age than a girl. I understand that feeling because I have felt it when I was growing up.
So now, when I talk to young women, I give them the advice that I wish I received when I was their age. Because of their insecurities and fears, they are also likely to worry a lot about small things and being distracted with that. I think that being Minister in a crisis has given me a lot of perspective on what is really a problem and what is not. I remember the time when the Chief Economist of the Ministry of Finance told me “Toni, we have a problem. The GDP fell 40% last month”. That was really a problem!
And not even a small one.
I also think women need to be together, to open more pathways to other women. When I was appointed General Director of Budget at the age of 32, there was a huge “scandal” in the public sector because I was too young for the position. I was the first woman in that role. This was a unique situation where both the Deputy Minister and Minister were women. My direct boss, the deputy minister, was criticized for appointing me. Those were difficult times for me and a part of me and I was very scared. But two years later, when I was appointed Minister, I appointed Zoila Llempen as my replacement in that position. She was also 32 years old and nobody doubted her capabilities because of her age. I think it is a very powerful feeling – when you break the glass ceiling and you make space for others to grow out of it with you. It is difficult for the person that breaks it, but it is worthy when you look at all the amazing women that come after.
It must be really fulfilling to see that your sacrifices cleared the way for others and your efforts eventually paid off. It’s the kind of inner fulfilment that even though it might not be recognized immediately out there but nobody could take this away from you now. I want to talk to you about all of this for a few more hours and a gazillion other things but since our time is almost up, let me ask you something I ask everyone on the podcasts.
What is your fondest memory so far working with Acasus?
Currently, I am supporting the kick-off of a project in Pakistan that aims to improve health outcomes in primary healthcare facilities. I am really excited to be on the ground for this project and it is an aspect of the job that I really love.
Because of my physical appearance, many people think I am from Pakistan. A lot of people start talking to me in Urdu whether I am in the line for boarding a plane or even when I am at a grocery store. I think they get very confused when I answer in English that I don’t speak Urdu. I think I will definitely need to learn some Urdu if I want to stop disappointing people!
Thank you, Toni, for taking the time and sharing all these insights with us, I think what you said could open new discussions or at least make people think about what is truly important in a story and maybe even open more ways for compassion and empathy. I hope it will. Let’s do this again in the future! Thanks, Toni!
Thank you all for tuning in, especially in these times, let’s take Toni’s words with us and live a more compassionate life. If you want to listen to more podcasts, check our Spotify channel and, of course, follow us on social media for more content.