In new case study commissioned by the International Budget Partnership, Guillermo Cejudo shows that civil society organizations can bring about public spending reforms even when governments and vested private interests resist and oversight institutions don’t follow through. You can also click here to watch a great short film about the campaign.
The Subsidios al Campo campaign brought a large amount of new information about government subsidies into the public domain by means of an online database visited by more than 6.7 million people to date. They also managed to shift the public debate about agriculture subsidies from a focus on their overall size to a discussion of how equitably they are distributed – directly against the interests of powerful agricultural interests. In this way they arguably raised the bar against those seeking to benefit unfairly from subsidies. The campaign also strengthened the position of sympathetic officials within the agriculture ministry who ultimately managed to introduce a series of important reforms to the program.
The Mexican government has been implementing new agriculture policies, of which the Procampo subsidy program is a central component, for almost two decades. To finance this policy priority, rural development spending in Mexico grew from 120 billion to 176 billion pesos between 2004 and 2007. The effects on rural employment and livelihoods have however been limited. A World Bank study shows that public expenditure in agriculture is so biased to the rich that it cancels out almost half of the intended redistribution effect.
What Subidios al Campo did
Responding to this unsatisfactory situation, Subsidios al Campo (“farm subsidies”) was a collaborative project by a civil society organization (Fundar), a peasant organization (ANEC), a group of academics and technical experts (Environmental Working Group). The goals of the project were to make easily accessible information publicly available and to inform the public debate on Mexico’s rural development policies in general and the farm subsidy program in particular.
The campaign used Mexico’s freedom of information laws to obtain official data on the recipients of agricultural subsidies and analyzed and disseminated its findings widely through a user-friendly website (www.subsidiosalcampo.org.mx). The information available on the website includes amounts of money received by individual recipients, as well as aggregate information by municipality, state, or region. It is also possible to compare information from different years, across states, and between programs.
In a second phase, Jonathan Fox and Libby Haight, supported by the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars and funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, invited a group of academics and policy experts to analyze the data provided by Subsidios al Campo. The goal was to stimulate a more informed debate about farm subsidies and agricultural policy in Mexico.
In a first phase, the Subsidios al Campo website showed that there was a considerable investment in the rural areas, with a bias towards big producers. The database showed that:
- From 1994 to 2008, the wealthiest 10% of beneficiaries received more than half (57%) of resources; of which the top 20% accounted for 73% of resources.
- The top 10% of beneficiaries received, on average, 16,000 pesos per year; while the bottom 80 percent got, on average, only 964 pesos per year.
On the basis of the second phase research, journalists from El Universal, one of Mexico’s leading national newspapers, revealed information regarding the inequality reinforced by the subsidy program, the flaws in its design and other unintended consequences derived from lack of proper verification procedures (such as drug dealers and politicians receiving subsidies).
The Ministry of Agriculture reacted by initiating a cleanup of the recipient list and modifying operating rules to limit the unequal distribution of the subsidies. In order to counter the inequalities highlighted by Subsidios al Campo, the new regulations established a minimum amount of 1,300 pesos for small producers and a ceiling of 100,000 pesos for any single producer. New rules for updating the Procampo recipient list were also published to create a “single registry” system with data on recipients and geo-referenced data on land..
Despite these successes, problems remain with the implementation of Procampo. The new regulations announced by the agriculture ministry are not systematically implemented and subsidies are still unequally distributed. Despite their stated intentions, oversight bodies like the Congress, the ministry of public administration and external auditors have not acted to ensure thorough implementation by the Agriculture Ministry.
Stage one success. What next?
Subsidios al Campo succeeded in improving the transparency of farm subsidies, and its analyses indentified an unfair concentration of subsidy recipients in the wealthiest 10 percent of farmers. In this way they sparked an important public debate that started a process of reform to address these abuses.
Cejudo’s case study concludes that the success of the campaign demonstrates the power of increased transparency and improved public debate. He also highlights the importance to advocacy campaigns of directly engaging academics, journalists, and beneficiaries in order to disseminate research findings and recommendations.
At the same time, the case study shows the limits of transparency reforms in contexts where powerful interest groups resist change, government institutions are reluctant to modify the status quo, and accountability mechanisms are ineffective. The campaign reached its stated goal of increased transparency and greater public debate. A second phase of advocacy efforts would need to engage with these vested interests in order to drive home the benefits of the reforms and to improve the lives of the rural population.