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Agustin Escobar describes the progamme's aims - and its pitfalls...
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Santiago Levy: "Progresa is Mexico's way of doing first things first"
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Friday, 15 October, 1999, 12:30 GMT 13:30 UK
Mexico's welfare revolution

John Egan enjoys a meal with analysts - and beneficiaries - of the new cash welfare system
By John Egan

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A welfare revolution is taking place in Mexico, and the country's staple food, the humble tortilla, is at the heart of the changes. The price of tortillas used to be fixed - but this universal subsidy benefited rich and poor alike. Now it has been abolished, and the Mexican government is using the money saved (more than 500 million pounds this year) to target benefits at the poorest of the poor. HREF=" ">Listen to the programme in full

Almost one in three Mexicans doesn't have enough food to eat. In an effort to break the vicious cycle of poor nutrition, bad health and inadequate education, the government is giving direct cash handouts to women in the most marginal rural communities. This new social welfare scheme is called Progresa.

Buenavista is still a poor and remote settlement: the weekly market travels in on horseback
The majority of Mexico's poorest people live in country villages like Buenavista. Situated at about 7,000 feet above sea level in Michoacan State, the village is home to 62 families. It has no paved roads, no running water or proper sanitation. Apart from this subsistence farming, there's no work in the village. Most of Buenavista's menfolk leave for up to six months at a time to work illegally in the United States. The money they send home is crucial to the survival of the village.

According to Agustin Escobar, a professor of anthropology from Guadalajara, Progresa is different from other forms of social welfare. "The government conducted a special poverty census and is now making cash payments directly to women. The level of benefit, between 20-35 pounds a month, depends on the number and age of the children in a household" says Escobar.

In communities where the average weekly spend on food is 6, this extra cash is very significant. Previously, these poor people got no direct welfare benefits from the State.

Emma Garcia explains Progresa's effects
Fifty year old Emma Garcia is typical of the women who receive Progresa benefits. Every day in her smoky dirt-floored kitchen, she cooks about 250 tortillas for her large extended family. The money from Progresa means she can afford to buy better food for her children. "We can have meat twice a week now", says Emma.

But there are strings attached. Women are obliged to have regular medical check-ups and their children have to go to school rather than work in the fields.

An estimated 2.65 million rural households like Emma's receive money from Progresa. And there are signs that the program is working.

Eugenia Pineda Herrera works as an educator for the programme
Already Eugenia Pineda Herrera, a mother of three, sees major improvements in the health of the children of Buenavista. As part of the Progresa scheme, Eugenia trained to be the village's health visitor. Her job is to weigh and measure all the children and to give food supplements to those who are underweight. Malnourished children are referred to the local health clinic.

Progresa's emphasis on education means more girls are attending school
Santiago Dias, who teaches in Buenavista's simple two-room schoolhouse, now finds that attendance is up. "Because they are better fed, the children can concentrate for longer periods. And knowing that their mothers' benefits depend on their being at school, the children seem more eager to learn," says Dias.

But while Progresa is a financial boon for poorer families in the countryside, it does nothing for Mexico's nine million urban poor. And critics argue that while it's clearly good for children to attend school for longer, Progresa doesn't create jobs for them to go to after leaving.

Julio Boltvinik, a sociologist at the Colegio De Mexico, says that poverty has been getting steadily worse in Mexico for the past two decades. "Undoubtedly the younger generation is better educated," says Boltvinik, "but nowadays they're still doing the same jobs as their parents did but for even less money.

The spiritual father of Progresa is Mexico's Deputy Finance Minister, Santiago Levy. He rejects suggestions that Progresa patronises poor people. "Compared to giving a kilo of tortillas or a litre of milk as we used to do in the past, Progresa delivers purchasing power," says Levy, "But even poor parents must invest in their children's' futures, that's why the strings are attached."

Mexico has a bad record when it comes to welfare programmes. In the past they've been manipulated for political gain by the ruling party. Surprisingly, Progresa has so far escaped political interference. But President Zedillo is seen as the programme's patron, and the temptation for him to hijack it for electoral gain in advance of next year's general elections will be intense.

That's the potentially fatal flaw. If Zedillo loses power, it's likely that Progresa will be sacrificed. Then we'll never know whether it could have broken the vicious circle of poverty that blights the lives of so many millions of people in rural Mexico.

Also in this edition of Crossing Continents: how a lawless 'narco culture', worshipping drugs and illegal wealth they bring, is spreading across Mexico, and an exploration of the history and culinary potential of the cactus.

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Links to more Crossing continents stories are at the foot of the page.

Links to more Crossing continents stories