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The social program Progresa breaks extreme poverty cycle in Mexico

Social programs such as Progresa in Mexico, a program that transfers income to poor families in rural areas in exchange for sending their children to school, will help countries meet the goals of the heads of state of the recent Summit of the Americas, which set the year 2010 as the deadline for universal, quality primary education for children and access to secondary education by a minimum of 75 percent of youth, according to international experts.

The heads of state at the summit in Quebec agreed that investing in education, nutrition and health for poor children is the key to break the vicious cycle of poverty.

"The Program of Education, Health, and Nutrition, Progresa, has not only contributed to improving incomes of poor rural families by about 20 percent, but, in only three years of operations, it has also increased primary school attendance by 1 percent," said Nora Lustig, principal advisor and chief of the Poverty and Inequality Unit of the Inter-American Development Bank.

"Secondary school attendance has also increased by 5 percent in the case of males and nearly double for women," Lustig added in an opening address today at a meeting of experts at the IDB headquarters in Washington, D.C.

"All this has been achieved at a relatively low cost," she added. The budget for Progresa, which was nearly 800 million dollars in 1999, represented then about 0.2 percent of the gross domestic product of Mexico.

The program, which was evaluated in its initial stage by the International Food Policy Research Institute for the period 1997-2000, consisted of an integrated package of measures to break intergenerational transmission of poverty. Experts considered the program a model initiative that could be adapted to reach low-income urban, as well as rural, homes.

The educational component provides scholarships to mothers who regularly send their children to school. The amounts are determined by factors such as the income the child could have received if he or she had worked.

Progresa offers basic health care and preventive medical attention, education in health and hygiene, and food supplements and transfers tied to assistance by health services.

One of the most innovative aspects of the program is the provision of assistance exclusively through mothers, giving them greater bargaining power and ensuring a more efficient use of resources.

The meeting, organized by the Poverty and Inequality Unit of the IDB, was attended by government officials, representatives of international organizations, academics and civil society.

Presentations were delivered by Professors Paul Gertler, Paul Schultz y Petra Todd and by the following experts of the International Food Policy Research Institute: Emmanuel Skoufias, Michele Adato, David Coady, Agnes Quisumbing and Marie Ruel. They evaluated mechanisms for focusing the program and the impact on consumption, education, health and nutrition, as well as on child labor, work incentives, and the status of women.

Experts and representatives of the public and private sectors analyzed the impact of the program, which is important for its magnitude and for the rigorous evaluation it has undergone.

In addition to Mexico, other countries have launched this kind of program. Among them are the pioneering Bolsa Escola of Brazil, the family allowance program of Honduras and the Network of Social Protection in Nicaragua. For the latter two projects the IDB provided $45 million in financing for Honduras and $20 million for Nicaragua.

These programs can reduce the unequal access to education in Latin America and the Caribbean, where the poorest 20 percent of the population have attended an average of four years of school, while the wealthiest 20 percent have attended 10 years.

Recently the United Nations International Labor Office and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development have declared these programs key instruments for fighting poverty and have suggested that they also be carried out in other continents, especially Africa.

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