Poverty is one of our worst blemishes and also one of our greatest mismatches. Beyond the quotidian polemics (similarly originating from political, ideological, or, simply, conceptual differences), I doubt that poverty is not a cause that all Mexicans would wish to defeat. In contrast with other controversial themes, in this one the differences do not lie in the objective, but rather in “the how”. Marcel Proust once wrote that “the journey to discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes”. With this focus, a group of Mexicans has come together to procure a novel route toward combating poverty.
In the struggle against poverty, there are many conflicting postures and many angles and perspectives to be found. A first discrepancy resides in the function of the government as cause and response: some perceive the solution as originating in public spending aimed at equalizing conditions and to conferring material opportunities on those who are poor. Although many agree –with more or less caveats- with this very simplistic diagnosis, the proposals to address the issue vary greatly: for example, the Solidaridad was a spending program by means of which the government constructed local leaderships and transferred funds to families, all with an inevitable client-oriented logic. In contrast, its successor program, Oportunidades, privileged the decision of families in the use of resources and eliminated all sources of dependence. The former program granted funds through the leadership, while the latter, from a suite of comparable, objective criteria. But in both cases, it involved the government employing public resources to modify the families’ material reality. In combination with improvement in the localities’ physical infrastructure (streets, electricity, water, drainage) and attention to education and health, these programs focused on reducing poverty by changing the environment and consumption potential of the target population.
The previous paragraph might suggest that there is agreement among scholars, activists, analysts, and public officials with respect to what to do. However, the contrary would be closer to the reality. The mismatches not only refer to how much to spend or to how to spend it, but to who should exercise control over the expenditure, and above all, what role corresponds to the authorities. In addition to the fight against poverty, Solidaridad had an evident political objective: that of creating mechanisms for the strengthening of local leadership that would contribute to stabilizing urban zones that, as the result of migration from the countryside, had created districts with a high degree of divisiveness and the potential for instability. That this leadership could in addition contribute votes was not of scant interest. On its part, Oportunidades was conceived of as a State policy that did not create opportunities to develop political clienteles, although, indubitably, its promoters entertained hopes that a decrease in poverty would translate into votes.
Neither of the two ways, in itself, is good or bad. What is paradoxical is that both were shored up on at least a meager realistic supposition. I refer to that of education. Solidaridad as well as Oportunidades mandated that the children of families who benefited from the programs would go to school, where the objective was to break the chain of poverty that implied that children from poor families continued to be poor because they did not develop the human capital necessary for incorporation into the formal economy. That is, reasonably enough, education was contemplated as a natural mechanism to break with the historic determinism of poverty. Unfortunately, it was never recognized that much of the educational system that we have is explicitly devoted to preserving poverty, dependence, and political control. Perhaps this explains, at least in part, how it is that programs as distinct (and even dissimilar) achieved raising the consumption levels of the most impecunious families of the country but did not do away with, or begin to do away with, poverty in the nation.
A recently published book affords a perspective that suggests that the main problem resides not only in the manner in which the public spending is exercised or who exercises it, but above all, in the way in which the individual participates in the process. In Breaking the Poverty Cycle: The Human Basis for Sustainable Development*, Susan Pick and Jenna Sirkin propose that it is not sufficient to resolve the context or the milieu within which poverty is generated and preserved, but rather, it is necessary for persons to take control of their lives and to be capable of making decisions that allow them to break with the vicious circle. The book narrates not only a technique, but also a history of decades of experience of a Mexican institution devoted to doing exactly that: to developing public policy programs designed to generate alternatives and to developing the capacity to make decisions in informed, autonomous, and responsible fashion. The programs that the book describes have advocated that people stop being the objective of poverty-fighting programs in order to become the agents of change that make the programs successful. The implicit proposal of the book consists of adding the dimension of individual choice to poverty-fighting programs that are not contemplated in traditional economic development theories or programs.
In other words, the authors, who launched their model by attacking other human development themes, found that the transformation of persons into agents of change, into individuals capable of talking charge of their lives, is not only possible, but that when this takes place within the context of the availability of resources, such as those comprising the central component of programs such as Solidaridad and Oportunidades, the potential of breaking with poverty multiplies dramatically. It is evident that, independently of the political or ideological perspective of the politician or party promoting a determined perspective for combating poverty, this objective requires vast public resources. What this book demonstrates is that success is not possible only with public resources, that it requires the modification of the context within which the individual functions: that is, it requires that the individuals themselves take charge of the programs. This clearly will not appeal to those who are aiming to develop electoral clienteles or to those who prefer statist solutions because they are just that, but it opens up an extraordinary opportunity for those who see in the citizenry –and in the development of a responsible and decided citizenry- the future of the country.
*Oxford University Press