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Opportunity for all

In a society where economic injustice has virtually become invisible because it assumes the form of massive and persistent poverty inflicted by faceless forces and institutions, the idea of justice for all rings hollow. When one listens to what poor people want for themselves and for their children, one rarely hears a cry for justice. What they ask for is far simpler: the opportunity to have a better life.

I was among a group from the Philippines that took part in a five-day study tour of the Oportunidades Program, Mexico’s version of the conditional cash transfer (CCT) scheme which has been running for some 13 years. The tour took us to two sites, Mexico City and Cuernavaca. Among many activities, we had the opportunity to observe an actual distribution of cash pay-outs to poor women and elderly, a mapping consultation where beneficiaries were asked to locate their residences on a map, and a health and sanitation seminar at a rural health clinic.

On the last day of the visit, we found ourselves sitting in a classroom of a technical high school listening to a dozen teen-age boys and girls, children of Oportunidades beneficiary-families, share with us their plans for work or study after they graduate. One girl said she planned to study to become a journalist, another wanted to be an accountant, and a third a nutritionist. A boy aspired to be a veterinarian, another a lawyer and still another an industrial engineer. They did not just talk about their dreams of a career, they spoke of where they intended to study and how they planned to support their studies. I was impressed by what I heard, struck by the tone of certainty and determination in their voices. These young adults, children of very poor families, have a plan to make sure that they, and the families they will have in the future, will not be as poor, or poorer, than their parents.

To break the intergenerational transmission of poverty is how Oportunidades has framed its goal. Indeed one of the things that became clear to me throughout the study tour is that the CCT, anchored on the principle of co-responsibility, is primarily a social protection program designed to enable the poorest families to achieve human development and secure a better future for their children despite their low incomes. Not all these families will be rescued from poverty. In fact, poverty alleviation does not figure as a prominent objective. Some families with young school-age children have remained in the program for as long as 8 to 10 years, which means that the families continue to be income-poor but their members are healthier, better-fed and educated. Unlike the Philippines’ Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program, which limits the cash support to families with school-age children to a maximum of five years, the Mexican CCT provides cash for poor families to keep their children in school until they graduate from high school. Additional cash is even given when students successfully complete high school. The incentive structure underscores the fact that the program is an investment in human capital. Completing high school increases the children’s chances of being employed and this is how the program achieves the goal of providing the poorest the opportunity to improve their lives.

“Vivir mejor” (to live better) is in fact the slogan popularized by the current administration inspiring all the programs of the Department of Social Development. One striking aspect of Oportunidades is that it is only one of a package of interventions designed to increase poor families’ chances of getting out of poverty. Economic programs for creating jobs and the efficient delivery of social services complement the CCT which has reached 6.5 million families as of 2010 in over 135,000 localities.

On top of the cash given as an incentive to keep school-age children in school and to get mothers and children to visit the health centers and attend the health workshops, Oportunidades provides food aid and nutrition support, electricity subsidy and cash transfers to the elderly. There are even unconditional cash grants given to families in hard-to-reach areas where there are no schools and clinics.

Unlike in the Philippines, the Mexican public and the politicians are not bothered by the idea that the CCT is a dole or a welfare scheme. It is accepted that resources, and huge resources at that, are devoted to social protection or welfare programs such as Oportunidades. Social protection is an entitlement of citizenship. Program implementers are not grilled by politicians and made to answer if the program has resulted in a reduction in the incidence of poverty. The public understands that human development enjoyed by all citizens is a goal in itself and ultimately benefits the whole society. It understands this to be a requisite for any society that aspires for sustained development and progress.

The program has been subjected to numerous external evaluations over the years conducted by reputable international, local and academic institutions. The results have shown unmistakable improvements in health, nutrition and education outcomes among poor families.

In the Philippines where poverty continues to be a serious challenge, investing in human capital and providing all citizens the opportunity for human development must be a clear priority. The Philippines has devised its own version of the CCT which now covers close to two million families. Let the debate not be on whether to have a program that democratizes opportunities or not but on how best to expand its coverage, improve its operations and what economic interventions must be put in place to enable the country to achieve the much sought-after goal of a better life for all its people.

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