Over the past decade, Panama has often been in the international spotlight thanks to robust economic growth rates that consistently outrank those of its neighbors in Latin America and the Caribbean. On Wednesday, the country received a different kind of attention after taking the top spot in the Gallup-Healthways Global Well-Being Index for the second year in a row.
The index, which uses public surveys to assess factors such as health and sense of community, found that 53 percent of Panamanians were thriving in three or more of five key areas (social, financial, physical, community and purpose), and were more likely to have positive perceptions of purpose and physical well-being than the residents of any other country.
Amid talk of a potential “economic miracle,” Panama’s position on the list offers a different perspective of the country’s success. But is there a connection between the country’s economic achievements and the satisfaction Panamanians feel in their daily lives? Indeed, Panama’s broad economic gains over the past several years—the country averaged an annual growth rate of eight percent from 2003 to 2013—may suggest a correlation between its citizens’ sense of well-being and economic prosperity.
High levels of investment, notably in infrastructure projects like the Panama Canal expansion and Panama City’s metro rail, a first for Central America, may affect residents’ sense of where their country is headed. Panama attracts the highest level of foreign direct investment (FDI) among Latin America’s smaller economies and ranks first in the region in FDI as a proportion of GDP. This type of growth means a greater likelihood that the government will spend more on social programs, healthcare and education.
Still, the extent to which Panama’s high level of well-being is driven by this economic success is difficult to ascertain, and there may well be other explanations. One is the neighborhood: countries from the Americas took 11 of the top 20 spots in Gallup-Healthways index, and according to Gallup, the “residents of many Latin American countries are among the most likely in the world to report daily positive experiences such as smiling and laughing, feeling enjoyment and feeling treated with respect each day.”
Whatever the cause, the country certainly has room for improvement. Panama ranked ninth out of 17 countries in Americas Quarterly’s 2014 Social Inclusion Index, losing points for the government’s lack of efforts to report on socio-economic indicators and leaving it tied for last in protecting LGBT rights. Corruption remains a stumbling block, as does a large income gap. After a focus on economic growth under the previous administration, President Juan Carlos Varela, who was elected last year, has promised to make improving social inclusion a priority. If he follows through, one can expect Panama to see even more success in the well-being of its citizens.