The Paraguay Conference at Harvard showcased the best of Paraguayan creativity—young people who are rethinking urbanism, agriculture, and technology; young people who are answering urgent social and political questions in Paraguay with solutions that are applicable across the globe; young people who are unabashedly showing why nerdiness is cool.
With standing-room-only space in the conference venue and more than 7,500 live views via multiple Facebook streams, the “Beyond Perceptions” Paraguay Conference at Harvard University was a clear win for its organizers, a group of scrappy and committed students in the Boston area. Academics from North America and Europe, government experts from Paraguay, flew in for the event, but the real stars were the young Paraguayans who presented on their research, their innovations, and their vision for a future Paraguay. The title of the conference was more than just a theme—it was the thesis that the organizers were arguing.
Rather than framing Paraguay according to the standard tropes, the participants demonstrated how Paraguay is (not just “can be”) a source of important analysis and experimentation. Cities across the globe face the challenges confronting Asunción: climate change and environmental degradation, an uncertain center, new migrants living in precarity as the rural countryside experiences land pressures from agribusiness and changed weather patterns. The Friday night panel presentation with National University urban design professor Juan Carlos Cristaldo and Mario Villalba of Red Paraguaya por Ciudades Sustentables—and important engagement from the audience, notably policy specialist Rob Watson—showed how Paraguay’s capital (and by extension, other cities in the country) has already been a key participant in the Sustainable Cities movement and in the Cities Alliance partnership.
Asunción has experienced a revitalization in the last few years. One key issue raised was how to keep that momentum going and how to extend its reach beyond just the principal cities of the country. The answer from the group conversation? Change has to be institutionalized, not just implemented.
Paraguay has traditionally depended on agriculture for growth, a reality that multiple presentations tackled with a sustained argument: innovation beyond agribusiness is key. Jazmín Gustale and Andrea Burt showed how economic transformation might be done from the perspective of government commitment to innovation (the former) and through the work of supporting the growth Certified B (“Sistema B”) corporations which have social mission as part of their bottom line (the latter). Gerardo Blanco, founder and director of G.I.S.E (Energy Systems Research Group) at the National University Polytechnic, spoke about how Paraguay should harness its electricity surplus and its demographic bonus of having such a young population to transform both sources of energy into development.
But even when talking cattle, the presenters pushed the public to think different. Walter Sandoval Espinola, a Ph.D. graduate of NC State (side note: North Carolina’s Research Triangle has a vibrant community of Paraguayans as well as Paraguayanist scholars, if I may say so myself) and postdoc at Harvard, is making cow dung a hot commodity. Clostridium beijerinckii, a bacterium commonly found in cattle feces, fights climate change by capturing carbon and can produce a biofuel. Remember, there are two cows for every person in Paraguay. And Paraguay is the top 7th exporter of beef on the planet. This has the potential to be a green game-changer worldwide.
As a conference at a university, education was front and center. Not just “in spite of,” but because of the many challenges in education facing Paraguay, some serious edu-innovation is coming out of the country. Obama Foundation Scholar Gabriela Galilea and Harvard LLM candidate Magdalena Augé have created and implemented Okimo’s machine learning reading assessment tool via a Paraguayan NGO Pymétrica to test how (and even whether) school kids read. Okimo’s award-winning technology is about to be used in India. Again, the lesson here is that Paraguay is producing leading solutions to local and global problems.
I’ve only mentioned a selection of the excellent speakers here for the sake of the focus of this post, but there’s much more that was addressed by equally impressive participants: gender, inequity, fiscal versus monetary policy, scientists who moonlight as filmmakers (or vice versa), education access, renewable energy, regulation… and, perhaps most importantly, the impressive cultural production of the country (borí borí + the Goya Award nominated film 7 Cajas).
The remaining work to be done is to let the talented young people of Paraguay take the reins and bring their contributions, which are being recognized globally, home.
Friday, April 12th
5:00 pm – 6:20 pm Unleashing Urban Innovation in Paraguay: Challenges and Opportunities
This panel seeks to promote a dialogue and call to action around urbanism and regional planning in Paraguay. We will discuss topics such as urban planning, rural migration, unregulated land use and urban sprawl. Additionally, we will explore how these tensions promote institutional opportunities and challenges to addressing issues of social, economic and environmental justice in Asuncion’s Metropolitan Region. Panelists will identify emerging approaches to urban transformation across a variety of domains and key elements for an inclusive and sustainable cities agenda in the coming years.
Anaclaudia Rossbach- Regional Manager for Latin America and the Caribbean at Cities Alliance
Dr. Yves Schoonjas- Professor at the University of Leuven (KU Leuven), Belgium Belinda Tato- Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Co-founder of Ecosistema Urbano
Jose Luis Vallejo Mateo- Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Co-founder of Ecosistema Urbano
Mario Villalba- PhD Candidate in Urban Development and Governance, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Netherlands
Moderator: Juan Carlos Cristaldo- Director, Center of Research, Development and Innovation, National University of Asunción, Department of Architecture, Design and Arts; Harvard Graduate School of Design Class of 2013
7:00 pm – 9:00 pm A Tribute to Paraguayan Art and Culture
Screening of the movie 7 Cajas
Q & A with Directors Tana Schémbori and Juan Carlos Maneglia
Saturday, April 13th
9:45-10:00 Setting the Stage, an Introduction to Paraguay
Dr. Benjamín Fernández Bogado, Executive Director Fundación Libre; Associate Director 5 Días Financial Newspaper; David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies Visiting Scholar (2008); Harvard Nieman Fellow (2000), Harvard Kennedy School Class of 2000
10:05 am – 11:20 am The Role of Public Institutions, Civil Society and Social Entrepreneurs in Advancing Inclusive Economic Development
This panel will explore emerging cross-sector trends and contributions to inclusive economic development in Paraguay. It will present an analysis of public policies that have led to Paraguay’s unprecedented macroeconomic growth, positioning it as one of the strongest economies in Latin America despite the unfavorable economic and financial regional environment. At the same time, we will discuss the challenge of social inequality and policy perspectives on how to leverage this economic success to reach citizens at the bottom of the pyramid. Additionally, the panel will introduce perspectives from emerging social entrepreneurs, B Corporations and civil society that are transforming communities both domestically and abroad.
Andrea Burt- Executive Director, Sistema B Paraguay
Dr. Daniel Correa- President of the Banco Nacional de Fomento
Dr. Carlos Fernández Valdovinos- Former President of the Central Bank of Paraguay Jazmín Gustale- Senior Innovation Advisor, Presidential Delivery Unit of Paraguay
Moderator: Raúl Duarte- Harvard Kennedy School PhD Candidate 2025; Harvard Kennedy School MPA-ID Class of 2019
11:45 am – 1:00 pm Reimagining Social Inclusion through Civic Collaboration
This conversation will present innovative approaches to social policy, educational transformation and community development through civic engagement. We will explore how public and private institutions are investing in citizens and leveraging their insights to tackle multidimensional poverty, reform public education and create a knowledge economy that addresses pressing public problems. The panel will discuss the challenges of advancing human development outcomes in Paraguay and evidence-based solutions that bridge social capital, close opportunity gaps and promote collective well-being. We will highlight local and global best practices with the potential to inform public policy, philanthropy and approaches to collective impact in the social sector.
Dr. Alejandro Adler- Associate Research Scientist, Center for Sustainable Development at the Earth Institute, Columbia University
Cecilia Rodríguez Alcalá- Senior Advisor for Social Policy and Innovation, Ministry of Finance of Paraguay
Stephanie Manciagli- Assistant Manager for Poverty Stoplight International Replicas, Fundación Paraguaya
Dr. José Molinas- Academic Director, Instituto Desarrollo (Development Institute); Former Minister of Planning for Economic and Social Development of Paraguay
Moderator: Rob Watson- Director of Student Programs, Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School; Harvard College Class of 2009; Harvard Graduate School of Education Class of 2018; Harvard Kennedy School Class of 2021
2:20 pm – 3:50 pm Itaipu Renegotiation Treaty: Harnessing Paraguay’s Sustainable Development
In the advent of the 2023 renegotiation of the Itaipu Treaty, several options arise as possibilities for Paraguay’s electricity surplus. The economic inflow entailed by the upcoming conditions pose a twofold discussion; on one hand the complexities and opportunities of the energy trade agreement being negotiated, and on the other exploring the best alternatives for the newly available resources to drive development in a sustainable, inclusive and consistent manner. In a context of growing energy demand and limited infrastructure, is industrialization the best option? What are the decisive variables? This panel will focus on answering these questions.
Gerardo Blanco- Professor at the National University of Asunción, Director of GISE, Founder of the Think Tank CRECE
Pedro Ferreira- President of National Agency for Electricity Administration (ANDE)
Dr.Christine Folch- Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Environmental Science and Policy at Duke University; Harvard College Class of 1998
Moderator: WilliamH.Hogan-Raymond Planck Professor of Global Energy Policy at Harvard Kennedy School
4:10 pm – 5:10 pm Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Paraguay’s Future
Paraguayan students and scholars living in the United States will present short 5-minute TED Talk style presentations. Each speaker will present on a diversity of interdisciplinary topics related to Paraguayan issues and opportunities for collaboration.
Federico Mora- Executive Director of National Postgraduate Scholarship Program Becas Carlos Antonio López
Magdalena Augé- Harvard Law School Class of 2019
Ricardo Careaga- M.S. Candidate, Northeastern University
Bianca Cordazzo- Harvard College Class of 2021
Raúl Duarte- PhD Candidate, Harvard Kennedy School of Government
Noah Espinola- Emerson College, Class of 2021
Gabriela Galilea- Obama Foundation Scholar, Columbia University
Walter Sandoval- Postdoctoral Fellow, Harvard University Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology
Julio Diarte- PhD Candidate Architecture. Pennsylvania State University | Penn State · Stuckeman School
Dana Vera- Smith College Class of 2019
Jimena Vallejos- MPA Candidate in Development Practices, Columbia University
5:10 pm – 5:20 pm Conference Closing Remarks
5:30 pm-7:30 pm Reception