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GUATEMALA: All Candidates Jump on the Social Programmes Bandwagon

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Sep 1 2011 (IPS) - Although he is accused by the opposition of failing to live up to his promises of transparency, job creation and security, Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom has received praise from all sides for his government’s successful social programmes.

In fact, giving the programmes continuity and improving and expanding them is a key pledge of all 10 candidates running for president in the Sept. 11 elections, regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum.

“The social programmes will continue; we will keep them, and improve them,” the candidate of the conservative Patriotic Party, retired general Otto Pérez Molina, says in one television spot.

The right-wing candidate is leading the polls, with around 40 percent support.

Other presidential candidates, like Manuel Baldizón of the populist Libertad Democrática Renovada (LIDER – Renewed Democratic Freedom party), and 1992 Nobel Peace laureate Rigoberta Menchú, who is running for the left-wing Broad Front coalition, have also promised to maintain the Colom administration’s social programmes.

“Social Cohesion” was launched in April 2008 as the humanitarian arm of the government of Colom, Guatemala’s first leftist president in 50 years, who took office in January 2008.

It groups a number of different programmes: Mi Familia Progresa (My Family Is Making Progress), Bolsa Solidaria (food aid), Comedores Solidarios (subsidised cafeterias), Escuelas Abiertas (schools open on the weekends), Becas Solidarias (solidarity scholarships), Mi Comunidad Produce (My Community Produces), Todos Listos Ya (a youth music programme) and Todos Juntos por el Lago (Everyone Together for the Lake).

As of July, the government had channelled 900 million dollars into the Social Cohesion programmes. Today the various initiatives reach some one million low-income families living in 308 of this Central American country’s 333 municipalities – in other words, all but the wealthiest districts.

Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, with half of the population of 14 million people living in poverty, and 17 percent in extreme poverty, according to U.N. figures.

The benefits provided by the different initiatives are varied and complementary in nature. While the Bolsa Solidaria provides staples like beans, rice, corn flour and cooking oil to the poorest families, Mi Comunidad Produce grants loans to women for productive enterprises.

The Comedores Solidarios are cafeterias that serve breakfast and lunch for a token amount, the equivalent of 13 and 40 cents of a dollar, respectively, while Todos Juntos Ya is a programme that teaches music to youngsters and creates youth bands and orchestras.

Escuelas Abiertas consists of keeping schools open on weekends, so students can study the arts, like dance and painting, while the Becas Solidarias are grants and internships to students.

Todos Juntos por el Lago, meanwhile, is an initiative aimed at cleaning up Lake Atitlán in the southwest department (province) of Sololá.

Conditional cash transfers work

But without a doubt, the most important initiative is Mi Familia Progresa, a conditional cash transfer programme that absorbs nearly half of the Social Cohesion budget.

Mi Familia Progresa, which is similar to programmes carried out in other countries of Latin America, like Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica and Uruguay, provides poor families with children with a monthly cash stipend of just under 40 dollars, conditional on school attendance and up-to-date medical checkups and vaccinations.

The cash transfer programme has begun to show results, according to recent studies.

“Immunisation rates among children under two in the beneficiary households were up to 15 percent higher than among children in other households,” concluded a 2009-2010 impact evaluation of Mi Familia Progresa by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health (INSP).

In addition, the children in the families that receive the cash transfer got sick “between nine and 12 percent less” than youngsters from families that did not receive it, adds the report coordinated by Juan Pablo Gutiérrez of the INSP’s evaluation and surveys research centre.

And in education, the impact assessment found that school enrolment rates were up to five percent higher among children between the ages of seven and 15.

“The programme is having a positive effect on the living conditions of the beneficiary families, and in that context, it is important to continue this effort,” the expert concluded.

An evaluation of the programme presented Aug. 25 by the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) was also positive.

The study describes Mi Familia Progresa as “a great chance to generate far-reaching changes in future opportunities for Guatemala’s poorest families. Preliminary evidence shows positive effects in gains of well-being and growing coverage.”

Miguel Székely, director of the Institute of Educational Innovation at the Institute of Technology and Higher Education in Monterrey, Mexico, who led the study, said it was necessary to give the programme a strong legal foundation, adjust the monthly allowance for inflation, and create mechanisms of transparency and evaluation, in order to continue perfecting it.

Concerns and allegations

Some concern has been expressed about the social programmes. “They should become a state policy, so they don’t disappear and are not manipulated,” said Higinio Pu Cach, of the Wajxaquib’ noj’ (“wisdom” in the Quiché Mayan language) indigenous organisation.

The activist told IPS that he was worried that the social programmes, especially Mi Familia Progresa and Bolsa Solidaria, could be held hostage by political interests. He alleged that “sometimes the aid is only granted to those who belong to the governing party.”

Nineth Montenegro, a lawmaker with the leftist Encuentro por Guatemala party, who is perhaps the most outspoken critic of the way the social programmes have been implemented, told IPS that they are used in a chaotic, politicised fashion.

She said, for example, that between 2008 and 2010, some 250 million dollars were taken from the ministries of education, health and the interior to finance the Social Cohesion programmes.

Montenegro also said the programmes had been manipulated for political gain. The assistance “is given to the poor, but they are asked to campaign and they are extorted to vote for one party,” she maintained, adding that “a party is using the state for personal interests.”

According to the legislator, the social programmes served First Lady Sandra Torres, the former coordinator of Social Cohesion, as a springboard for her thwarted presidential candidacy.

However, Torres was disqualified by the Supreme Court from running for president because although she divorced her husband in April, she was his wife during most of his term.

Torres purportedly divorced Colom to get around a constitutional article that bars family members of the president from running for the office of chief executive.

Nevertheless, Montenegro said the social programmes should continue to be implemented, albeit in a more orderly fashion, with mechanisms guaranteeing transparency, and with clearly defined structures grouped in a single institution.

If the presidential candidates live up to their campaign pledges, Social Cohesion will be adopted by the government to emerge out of the coming elections.

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