Enhancing PROSPERA to Reduce the Poverty Disparity Within the Indigenous Populations of Mexico

by Stephannie Covarrubias

Background: El Error de Diciembre

In 1994, a few months after Ernesto Zedillo would step into office as the new Mexican President, the Mexico peso crashed. This was attributed to some of Ernesto Zedillo’s own actions in the month of December when he first took office, as well as unregulated privatization of the banking sector, lax regulation of the trade market, and the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which were left over from his predecessor, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. As a result, the United States, along with the IMF, the Bank for International Settlements, and private commercial banks, organized a $50 billion dollar bailout for Mexico in January 1995 [1]. In the aftermath of the crisis, Mexico experienced a severe recession and poverty levels increased from 13.54% to 19.13% by 1998 [2]. The crisis also exacerbated income distribution within Mexico, making it one of the top countries with highest rates of income inequality [3]. And unfortunately, for indigenous communities, as a pre-condition for Mexico to enter the NAFTA with the US and Canada, the Constitution was reformed in 1992 so that it could be allowed to privatize commercial ejido lands [4]. These lands had been remnants of one of the main causes of the Mexican Revolution, tierra and libertad (land and liberty), and were mostly inhabited and used by rural or indigenous peoples. This meant that ejidatorios now became illegal land-squatters and their communities, informal settlements. This would ultimately lead to El Conflicto de Chiapas in 1994, and further marginalization and disparity for many indigenous communities [4].

In order to tackle some of the now worsened poverty challenges faced by many of its citizens after El Error de Diciembre, the Government of Mexico conducted a pilot program in 1995 to test out a cash transfer program for the poorest households. The results of the pilot concluded that the government should improve and expand the program. Thus, in 1997, PROGRESA (Programa de Educación, Salud, Y Alimentación) was created to help break the “intergenerational cycle of poverty” [5].


PROGRESA was the first large scale conditional cash transfer program that significantly impacted the lives of impoverished peoples throughout Mexico. It would be the model that other poverty alleviation strategies would follow all over the world. PROGRESA was designed to replace many of the largely unsuccessful poverty alleviation programs from the past, like food subsidies, that ultimately had a hard time of actually benefitting their target populations. PROGRESA took on a revolutionary approach in order to help change individual behaviors within target populations by addressing poverty in a multidimensional way. PROGRESA recognized the importance of health, nutrition, and education for improving the economic potential of the very poor. In an effort to give individuals the autonomy to lift themselves out of poverty, the cash transfers were only made available under a strict set of guidelines that households would have to follow. Educational grants were used to help keep children in school upon achieving a minimum of 85% attendance. Larger amounts were awarded to children attending secondary school over primary school, since they experienced higher dropout rates. Further, in order to help alleviate gender inequalities within schools, larger cash transfers were awarded to girls in an effort to help keep them in school. Furthering this, the female head-of-household was the one that was awarded the cash transfer so long as she attended required platicas, which were educational classes covering a range of topics within health and family planning. Lastly, all household members were required to attend regularly scheduled health clinic appointments, varying by age and pregnancy status.

On initial review of the results, PROGRESA was found to be very successful in changing targeted habits and therefore affecting health outcomes among the poor. For example, attendance in secondary schools increased 20% for girls and 10% for boys. Further, PROGRESA children (12-36 months) were on average one centimeter taller than non-PROGRESA children. More still, PROGRESA children had a 12% lower incidence of illness than non-PROGRESA children [5].


PROGRESA existed between 1997 and late 2000, when it was rebranded by the presidential election to become OPORTUNIDADES until 2014, when it again was renamed and adjusted by the incoming president to PROSPERA. As of April 2016, the program targets 6.1 million households (25.5 million people). The program has maintained its basic components. PROSPERA now promotes financial autonomy through beneficiaries’ increased access to savings, microcredit, and insurance, as well as placing higher importance on older youths’ educational and vocational access through scholarships for vocational training and favoring their access to formal employment through the National Employment Service.

The Effect on Indigenous Populations

Indigenous populations in Mexico are amongst the largest in Latin America. Equating to about 10% of Mexico’s overall population [6]. Indigenous populations are more likely than other citizens to be poor, malnourished, and deprived [7] due to “cultural” and “geographic” factors faced by the poor [8]. Thus, it is of no surprise that indigenous households constitute a large proportion of PROGRESA/OPORTUNIDADES/PROSPERA beneficiaries. Before evaluation, it was considered that PROGRESA may not have been as beneficial to indigenous families as it was expected to be for non-indigenous families do to potential regional isolation and cultural differences. PROGRESA evaluations suggested that health status improvements may have been more noticeable for the non-indigenous participants, and health behavior improvements may have been more noticeable for the indigenous participants [9]. Taken as a whole however, PROGRESA/OPORTUNIDADES was shown to be just as effective, overall, in all aspects of the program design with both non-indigenous and indigenous populations [9].  Regardless of these initial effects, there were critical issues that needed to be addressed in later phases of the program in order to better benefit indigenous populations.

In 2009 the Mexican government signed a loan with the World Bank and due to the World Bank’s safeguard policy on indigenous peoples (OP/BP 4.10) it required the preparation of an Indigenous Peoples Plan (IPP), a document specifying how the World Bank funds would be used to ensure that indigenous populations would further benefit from OPORTUNIDADES [10]. The two main projects of the IPP that made the most impact were the Peoples’ Communication Plan (IPCP) and the Bilingual Promoters Project (BPP). The IPCP was intended to remove the language barrier faced by many indigenous families and encourage proper health education through the dissemination of materials in indigenous languages. The evaluations of the IPCP showed that the use of indigenous languages allowed for positive improvements by giving indigenous beneficiaries the dignified recognition and acceptance of their native languages while further allowing messages to be effectively communicated. Ultimately, this improved the rates of retention for OPORTUNIDADES households that primarily spoke languages other than Spanish [11]. The BPP pilot was created to address the issue of high personal turnover rates and develop a strategy for supporting personnel in their interaction with beneficiaries in regions with high percentages of indigenous communities. The training provided those who completed the program with a widely recognized skill’s certificate allowing them to enlarge their salaries within and even outside of the OPORTUNIDADES program. Evaluations of the BPP showed that personnel felt more confident speaking their native languages in public spaces as well as enhancing the perception bilingualism as positive skill set [12].

Suggestions for Targeting Indigenous Populations

Providing homogeneous services for all beneficiaries was initially thought of as a positive characteristic of the OPORTUNIDADES model by creating a strategy to avoid corruption and operational inefficiencies. Nevertheless, the homogeneity in service delivery as a one-size-fits all approach is what ultimately limits the impact of the program, especially for the indigenous populations. And while successful steps have been taken to more effectively target indigenous households, the disparity among indigenous households all over Mexico is still higher than for any other group. This is in part due to one fundamental problem; many of the poorest families and individuals aren’t even targeted through PROSPERA.

What the PROSPERA program is still missing is a critical component aimed at targeting the far off and isolated populations that face the most unequal and extreme poverty conditions. Without an initiative aimed at targeting the populations with little to no access of health care or educational services, the large poverty disparity will remain unchanged. A systemic change within PROSPERA needs to be discussed in order to make the most impact. Taking advantage of the ever-changing political body, it would be wisest to use presidential changes to lobby for the enactment of a sub-program within the PROSPERA aimed at targeting the most remote groups. While some groups do exist, they are not having the impact that a larger centralized program like PROSPERA could have. The goal could be to organize the existing bodies and create a larger centralized group within PROSPERA and mimic the initial idea of consolidating other poverty alleviation programs in favor of a larger and more powerful program. This would limit the amount of effort that it would require to create an entirely new program and rather, use the framework of an already effective and globally recognized program. Because PROSPERA has been widely recognized and evaluated throughout the globe, the addition of such a critical component could be heavily supported and documented for possible successes and potentially serve as an example for how to better recognize and uplift the impoverished indigenous communities throughout the world. While no one solution can completely eradicate the poverty disparity within Mexico or other countries, it is blatantly clear that not enough is being done in terms of poverty alleviation among the poorest of groups. And while PROSPERA has tackled the removal of intergenerational poverty for a large body of people within Mexico, PROSPERA is still inherently leaving out the populations of peoples who face the most entanglements of intergenerational poverty. If we are to help reduce the poverty disparity seen within the indigenous populations of Mexico, those within the PROSPERA management must reanalyze their homogenous approach to the treatment of indigenous groups. Only then, will any meaningful changes among the poorest of groups will be established and allow these peoples the sense of pride and autonomy to lift themselves out of the vicious cycle of intergenerational poverty.


Stephanie Covarubbias is a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley



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