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The story behind Oportunidades

By Peter Bate

If the paternity of a social program as large and complex as PROGRESA—now called Oportunidades —could be easily attributed, its fathers would be Santiago Levy and José Gómez de León.

These two renowned Mexican social scientists were the chief architects of what many observers consider one of the most successful poverty-alleviation programs in Latin American history. Levy, an economist, currently serves as director general of the Mexican Institute of Social Insurance (IMSS). Gómez de León, a demographer who headed Mexico’s National Commission on Population (CONAPO) and was PROGRESA’s first national coordinator, died in 2000.

Levy was an undersecretary in Mexico’s Finance Ministry in 1995, when President Ernesto Zedillo—himself an economist—put him in charge of a team that would draft a plan to address extreme poverty, which had risen sharply in the wake of the so-called tequila economic crisis. They quickly launched a pilot project in three cities in the southern state of Campeche, using the databases of beneficiaries of two existing subsidized milk and tortilla programs.

The pilot project had two features that broke with the tradition of Mexican social programs: the assistance consisted of direct monetary transfers instead of foodstuffs, and it required people in vulnerable groups (pregnant women, lactating mothers and infants) to get regular medical checkups.

Fateful partnership. The pilot project was a success. Most beneficiaries liked the cash transfers better than the subsidized food, and participants did meet their medical appointments. Nevertheless, the Campeche experiment was derided in the Mexican press, which lampooned the electronic cards used to distribute the modest stipends (the equivalent of about US$7 a month per family) as impractical in rural settings.

Levy’s team had more substantial concerns. While the project had improved nutrition and the use of health services, it did not involve education, a key element in building human capital. There were also concerns about the project’s ability to target the poorest people, who were concentrated in rural areas. Levy and his staff also saw operational problems, such as the need for better monitoring and inter-agency coordination. Before the project could be scaled up to a national level, all those concerns would have to be addressed.

As Levy’s team grappled with these questions, one of the members became interested in data on poverty and marginality that Gómez de León was gathering at CONAPO, the federal agency responsible for Mexico’s population policies. Gómez de León had been an advisor to Zedillo when the president served as budget and planning secretary in the early 1990s. Soon Gómez de León was invited to serve as a technical advisor and then a full member of Levy’s team, and he ultimately had a broad influence in shaping PROGRESA, a Spanish acronym for education, health and nutrition program.

Women first. The new program tied together several ideas shared by Levy and Gómez de León, who became good friends. PROGRESA would simultaneously address three key elements of human capacity building: education, health and nutrition. It would continue to provide aid in cash, not in kind. It would expand the conditions that families must meet to remain in the program. And it would put women at the center of the program by making payments directly to them, and not to fathers. (For a more detailed description of how the program works today, see link at right “A different kind of opportunity.”)

Gómez de León´s widow, María de la Paz López, a demographer who works for the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), said that PROGRESA reflected her late husband’s convictions about women as agents of development. “He believed women’s social role could be strengthened, in the eyes of their families and their communities, if they had their own income, even if it was derived from public assistance,” she said.

Gómez de León was also convinced that PROGRESA would need a new, more accurate “poverty map” in order to target the neediest families. Concerned that Mexico did not have adequate technical tools to find the poorest people in each district, he made it a priority while at CONAPO to improve the quality of Mexico’s marginality index, which aggregates a variety of social indicators. To that end, Gómez de León devised a points system that took into account various factors to objectively rank households. These rankings would ultimately form the basis for the transparent and nonpolitical system for allocating benefits that is one of the program’s hallmarks.

Always evaluate. Perhaps the most important aspect of Levy and Gómez de León’s vision was the importance of rigorous evaluation. The two men believed evaluations were a crucial tool, not only for fine-tuning the program’s operations, but also for generating credible information and empirical proof of its achievements.

The need to furnish such evidence went beyond the annual cycle of budget appropriations in the Mexican congress. In Mexico, as in most Latin American countries, poverty reduction programs rarely outlive a single administration. Levy and Gómez de León thought that if PROGRESA were to be evaluated by world-class experts, it could improve its chances for survival.

The planners also worried that PROGRESA would be identified too closely with the administration, so they went to great lengths to prevent its exploitation for partisan purposes. PROGRESA would be run by a new decentralized agency, which would coordinate with the ministries responsible for various government services (social development, health and education). Congress would establish the program’s budget, and its operating rules would be published annually, including the number of families that could be enrolled, the amounts of aid that would be offered and the requirements for beneficiaries. Before signing up any beneficiaries, PROGRESA would contact state and municipal authorities to keep them informed. Enrollment would cease several months before national elections, and no payments would be made in the weeks before voting days in any jurisdiction. Disbursements would be made directly by banks and the telegraph company, so PROGRESA agents would not touch a single peso of beneficiaries’ money.

Political hurdles. But before it could start operating, the program had to win political approval. In a paper he wrote in 2003 with IMSS director Evelyne Rodríguez Ortega, Levy recounts that PROGRESA faced opposition from many quarters. The new program was full of unconventional and untested features. It would involve a reallocation of resources from other social programs and replace entrenched ones like a generalized tortilla subsidy, affecting interests both in the public and private sectors.

Opposition political parties, mindful of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party’s tradition of patronage, were wary of a federal program designed to hand out cash. In order to build a consensus in favor of PROGRESA and persuade holdouts, the planners had to organize countless briefings and deploy vast amounts of technical information and statistical data. As a consequence, PROGRESA's launching was delayed until August 1997, the month following a mid-term election.

Gómez de León became PROGRESA’s first general coordinator and led its gradual expansion at the head of a minimally staffed agency. Even as the program started producing results, he had to weather all kinds of pressures, even from within the government and the PRI, his widow recalled. Previous social programs that had tried to combine various services had been foiled by a lack of effective cooperation among agencies.

However, López recalled that her husband could always rely on President Zedillo’s support to settle any controversy. “It was Zedillo who said [PROGRESA] was the guiding program, and that all other agencies had to conform to it, even if they were higher up in the political hierarchy,” she said. Another factor that helped PROGRESA was that Levy was the Finance Ministry undersecretary who literally held the federal government purse strings at the time.

Lasting legacy. Under Gómez de León’s stewardship, the program grew to cover nearly 2.5 million families in 2000, the year he died from cancer. He was 53. Obituaries recalled Gómez de León as an outstanding professional, a dedicated public servant, a kind boss, an inspiring teacher, a generous colleague and a cheerful friend. Above all, they describe a man with a passion for everything he undertook, from devising arcane statistical formulas to discovering the intricacies of Thai cuisine.

His widow says he kept working virtually to the end, editing a volume on the demography of Mexico in the 20th century even while he was in a hospital bed. He was also concerned about the future. One of the last papers he wrote was a chapter on population for a book on Mexico’s outlook for the year 2030, in which he speculated whether his country would be able to take advantage of the “demographic window of opportunity”—the temporary advantage of having a large and young labor force supporting smaller groups of old people and children.

Gómez de León’s influence can still be found in Mexico’s public sector and academic circles. In a speech marking his posthumous winning of the National Prize for Demography, Zedillo noted that Gómez de León’s work had shaped generations of Mexican social scientists. Two of his closest colleagues, Rodolfo Tuirán and Daniel Hernández Franco, are currently key officials in the Ministry of Social Development, which is responsible for the country’s social policies. Two universities, FLACSO and Universidad de las Américas, have created chairs named after him.

And, by law, all of Mexico’s social programs are now subject to evaluations.