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[Case Study] Alternativas y Capacidades

Submitted by on July 25, 2010 – 12:43 amOne Comment

Alternativas y Capacidades was founded in 2002 with the mission of “contributing to Mexico’s social development by strengthening civil society organizations and grantmakers, working towards a favorable environment for their professionalization, promoting their advocacy capacities and encouraging inter-sectorial collaboration.” Civil society in Mexico is still relatively incipient compared to other countries like Brazil, which has thirty times more registered non-profit organizations despite having only twice the population and 1.5 times the GDP. Philanthropic culture – especially from the business sector – is also weak in Mexico. Despite impressive efforts by the Mexican Center for Philanthropy (CEMEFI) to spread a culture of giving, most philanthropy still takes place informally within local church and family networks. Mexican telecom magnate Carlos Slim (now the world’s richest man according to Forbes magazine) famously poked fun of the philanthropy of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in 2007, saying that businessmen can do more good by building solid companies than by “going around like Santa Claus” donating money. (“Most recently, he linked up with former US President Bill Clinton and Canadian mining figure Frank Giustra to launch an anti-poverty campaign in Latin America, and in March pledged $6bn for his three charitable foundations,” writes the BBC in its profile of Slim.) Carlos Slim is not the exception to the rule; in fact, most Mexicans are skeptical of the effectiveness of civil society organizations. “Instead, they are perceived as a means of obtaining government resources or evading taxes,” according the A&C website.

Two recommended reports about the development and current state of philanthropy and civil society in Mexico are David Winder’s 2004 “Innovations in Strategic Philanthropy – Mexico” and Alternativas y Capacidades’ own report on the development of community foundations and study of corporate philanthropy. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation also has a good general introduction to community foundations as local vehicles for philanthropy, grantmaking, and leadership (available in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian).

Alternativas y Capacidades aims to strengthen and professionalize civil society in Mexico by working with 1) non-profit organizations to strengthen their public advocacy work, 2) businesses to develop corporate social responsibility programs, and 3) government and politicians toward providing a favorable regulatory framework. This is all done through a series of workshops in Mexico City and a collection of guides, case studies, and reports, including:

  • Establishing your non-profit organization in 16 steps
  • Manual for public advocacy work
  • 11 steps for donor professionalization
  • Public funds for non-profit organizations
  • Reflections on the management of regional development
  • Community foundations in Mexico: a detailed panorama
  • Corporate philanthropy in Mexico
  • Analysis of “Coinversión”, a public grants program.
  • Institutional strengthening for non-profit organizations
  • Legal and financial challenges for non-profit organizations
  • Accountability in the allocation and use of public resources by civil society organizations
  • Mexico case study: civil society and the struggle to reduce maternal mortality

All publications are available for download as PDF’s from Alternativas y Capacidades’ website, and a few have been translated into English.

A recent focus of Alternativas y Capacidades’ work has been in public advocacy, the strategy of influencing politicians and decision makers to change laws and other government policies to advance the mission of a particular organization or group of people. Their “guide to identify allies and develop coalitions for public advocacy” offers activists and organizations a framework to help decide if it is more worthwhile to, for example, serve the health needs of a community directly by setting up a local clinic or if it is more effective to develop an advocacy campaign so that the government improves its health service.

Beyond producing guides and case studies, Alternativas y Capacidades is part of the National Network for Inclusion and Quality in Education (Red ICAE), which was founded by Services for the Youth (SERAJ) to advocate for more inclusive and better quality public education in Mexico.

The Issue

According to a 2006 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Mexico ranked last out of 30 countries in reading, math, and science proficiency. Yet in 2004, writes George W. Grayson, Mexico’s disbursements on education as a percentage of national income (6.4 percent) surpassed that of all other OECD nations with the exception of Denmark, Iceland, Korea, New Zealand, and the United States. Two years later and its education spending reached 7.1 percent of GDP. Mexican taxpayers deserver higher quality and more inclusive education given the considerable amount of their annual investment in the education system, but the Mexican National Teachers Union has more political power than the Public Secretary of Education and is impeding the necessary reforms to prepare Mexican students for the 21st century job market. As a result many parents pay for costly private education that limits their own entrepreneurial prospects.

In fact, most independent observers and researchers agree that the relationship between the Mexican National Teachers Union and the Secretary of Education is the greatest obstacle to improving the quality of education in Mexico. “For Mexico’s teachers, jobs are things to inherit or sell, and they’re on strike to keep it that way,” reads a 2008 headline from the Houston Chronicle. A report by George W. Grayson for the Center for Immigration Studies calls controversial union president Elba Esther GordilloJimmy Hoffa in a Dress.” Teachers and school heads, writes the Economist, are accountable to union leaders, not the education ministry. One blogger quipped that this is just one more example of ordinary citizens who are exploited by union bosses in search of power, in this case Elba Esther Gordillo who has faced frequent allegations of corruption.

The Mexican National Teachers Union, the largest trade union in Latin America with over 1.6 million members, is an important reminder that we cannot simply judge the impact and effectiveness of an organization based on the presentation of its website. Online we are treated to a number of articles, videos, and slideshows that promote the union as a positive force in teacher’s training, administrative professionalization, and at-home self-education. They use Facebook to network their members who frequently leave short messages of solidarity, and have recently begun using their YouTube account to distribute amateur videos about their work in schools.



Alternativas y Capacidades and SERAJ are helping Red ICAE to develop a coalition of organizations in Mexico interested in advocating for improved public policy related to education. Organizations forming part of the coalition include Incidencia Civil por la Educación (led by ACUDE-Hacia una Cultura Democrática), ProEducacion, Observatorio Ciudadano de la Educación, Alianza Cívica, and Propuesta Cívica, among others. The development of a cohesive public advocacy campaign with so many independent voices and agendas is no easy task, but Alternativas y Capacidades has already created a step-by-step procedure in their “Guide for identifying allies and building coalitions for public advocacy.” This is their chance to turn counsel intro practical guidance, but they couldn’t have chosen a more difficult objective: for decades aspiring politicians and leaders have been promising education reform packages, but the quality of education has continued to deteriorate, mostly because of the obstructive relationship between the teachers union and the and government authorities who have yielded their oversight power.

Use of Digital Media

The National Network for Inclusion and Quality in Education is still defining its common message and campaign strategy while it sketches out a communication strategy, including the use of digital media. Alternativas y Capacidades is working with US-based Common Cause to better understand how blogs, Twitter, and Facebook can be used to reach and inform influential voices and decision makers. But Monica Tapia is realistic about the limits of online advocacy in a country where only an estimated 25% of citizens have internet access, and a small, elite minority are heavily active on Twitter. She recognizes that most participant organizations in the coalition are not yet savvy in the use of digital media. Hands-on workshops will first be necessary in order to take advantage of online tools to coordinate the groups and spread a common, orchestrated campaign.

Screen shot 2010-07-24 at 7.51.PM.jpg

The growth of internet access in Mexico according to World Bank indicators.


Earlier this year Renata Avila published a case study at the Technology for Transparency Network of the #InternetNecesario movement, a decentralized online campaign that mostly took place on Twitter to protest a three percent tax increase on internet access. Tech-centric bloggers and Twitter users quickly became a vocal and influential army of researchers and activists. They compared internet access costs and speeds across the world, and developed easy-to-understand talking points to explain the advantages of low cost internet access. In my comment on the case study I asked: “Is there a way to take the lessons learned and platforms created during #InternetNecesario and use them in a systematic way to hold Mexico’s Congress accountable in all of their work, beyond just internet tax policy?” That is the challenge facing Alternativas y Capacidades and the National Network for Inclusion and Quality in Education. How can they stir up the same anger, energy, and enthusiasm that carried the #InternetNecesario movement from a Twitter discussion to the development of innovative platforms to an eventual debate in the senate that led to the overturning of the tax?

One strategy is to organize a series of informal “EduCamps” in which participant organizations in each of the twelve represented states meet with local influential bloggers, Twitter users, and technologists to brainstorm ways that digital media can be used to improve advocacy for better education at both the state and federal level. At the very least, this promotes the transfer of knowledge about technology and the need for education reform between the two groups. Attending bloggers can also help provide more attention and publicity to the cause. It will be difficult to turn education reform into a topic that is attractive the mostly young and middle class population that is most influential online, but then again few would have guessed ten years ago that intellectual property reform would have become the cause célèbre for the North American digerati.

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