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[Case Study] Fundar

Submitted by on August 13, 2010 – 2:55 amOne Comment

Fundar, says its website, “was created in January 1999 by a group of leaders from different disciplines, with the objective of developing schemes for citizen participation.” Budget analysis, especially the monitoring of public spending, was the original focus of the organization, but as the years have gone by Fundar has added several other areas of emphasis, including governance and human rights, local power, transparency, and legislative monitoring.

Even before transparency and open government became such hot topics in the United States and Britain, Mexican President Vicente Fox made waves in 2002 when he pushed forward his country’s first freedom of information law which requires government agencies to publish in a routine and accessible manner all information concerning their daily functions, budgets, operations, staff, salaries, internal reports, and the awarding of contracts and concessions. (A clear analysis of the law was published by Kate Doyle the day it was passed.) Transparency researcher John Ackerman, while underlining the effectiveness of the law, still observes that “attention to appeals is not equal throughout all government agencies and access to financial information is severely limited.”

While the law itself is aggressive and firm — every government agency is required to set up a liaison office to handle access to information requests and must respond within 20 working days — most agencies were not given proper technical training (or resources) to systematically publish relevant information online. Mexican citizens, therefore, depend on organizations like Fundar to act as an intermediary between confusing and poorly managed public information and the complicated process of improving policy to better serve the needs of as many citizens as possible. Fundar has requested, analyzed, and published financial information related to reproductive health, oil revenue, and HIV/AIDS prevention programs. Most recently they have focused their efforts on bringing more transparency to the Mexican government’s agricultural subsidy programs.

The Issue:

The guarantee of subsistence farming for small scale farmers was a major rallying point during the Mexican Revolution at the beginning of the 20th century, and was built into the 27th article of the Mexican Constitution, which transferred land ownership to peasants and established the ejido concept of cooperative land cultivation. However, in 1992, with the aim of increasing agricultural productivity to bring down food prices, the Mexican government amended the constitution to allow for the privatization of communal land. Major agricultural companies bought up plots of land that were formerly owned by small farmers. They purchased machinery to industrialize food production, much of which headed north for export to the United States.

Up until the late 1990’s the Mexican government encouraged the production of basic crops like corn and beans by fixing prices and limiting imports. With the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which came into effect in 1994, Mexico replaced price and import controls with two new programs, Alianza and Procampo. Alianza provided subsidies and incentives for farmers to invest in machinery and irrigation systems in order to increase productivity. Procampo provides direct income transfer subsidies to basic commodity farmers, with the goal of reducing food imports from the United States — especially corn, which is heavily subsidized by the US government.

In other words, Alianza and Procampo were created to encourage the domestic production of basic crops for the national market while modernizing farms that cultivate tropical fruits, nuts, vegetables, and sugar cane, which can be sold for a greater profit in foreign markets. In 2007 Vicente Fox’s successor, President Felipe Calderon announced an added USD $16 billion agricultural subsidy program to help Mexican farmers deal with the phasing out of the last agricultural tariffs allowed under the North American Free Trade Agreement the following year.

In accord with Mexico’s Freedom of Information Act, the Secretary of Agriculture, which manages Alianza and Procampo, is to make publicly accessible all relevant information about the subsidies they distribute so that Mexican citizens can monitor their effectiveness. But the agency, it seems, was not given instructions as to how they should publish that information. As a result, though much of the information is available on the website, it is published in confusing Excel tables that are then embedded in Microsoft Word documents, or even password-protected PDF’s. It would be more than a full time job to wade through all the documents with the goal of monitoring the effectiveness of the subsidies, or to make recommendations as to how the programs can be improved.

Strategy

In 2008 Fundar, in collaboration with ANEC and researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, decided to create a public website to provide more clarity and transparency around agricultural subsidies distributed by the Mexican government. In its own words, the website is:

an effort of civil organizations and academic institutions to cast light on the destination of financial support toward the national agricultural sector. This site provides information to feed debates around the topic. We are convinced that all discussions about public affairs should be based on timely and high quality information about the use and destination of public funds.

To create SubsidiosAlCampo.org.mx, Fundar first had to extract the detailed subsidy information that was embedded in Microsoft Word and PDF documents that are available on the websites of ASERCA and SAGARPA. That information was then inserted systematically into a database that can be sorted by state, municipality, year, concentration, subsidy program, and food type. A Flash-based map directs users to each State-based portal. In Jalisco, for example, we learn that farmers received $11.5 billion in subsidies from 1994 – 2008, the fourth largest state recipient of agricultural subsidies in Mexico. The top ten percent of subsidy recipients in Jalisco receive as much as the bottom 53 percent.

The website analyzes subsidy data from 1994 – 2008, however, a new version of the website is set to launch in September that will include 2009 information from a greater number of subsidy programs. In addition to using the filters to search for general patterns around agricultural subsidies at the municipal, state, and federal levels, you can also search by name to discover how much a particular farmer or company receives in federal subsidy support.

What they found:

  • 171 billion pesos (USD $13.5 billion) have been distributed through Procampo and Ingreso Objetivo from 1994 – 2008.
  • Ten percent of recipients receive 57% of all subsidies; $96 billion pesos over 15 years.
  • The top ten percent of beneficiaries received, on average, $16,046 pesos per year between 1994 – 2008. The last 80% received, during the same period, just $964 pesos per year.

Use of Digital Media

So far there is not much to point to, beyond the website itself, regarding Fundar’s use of digital media to spread awareness about the information they uncovered in their analysis of Mexico’s agricultural subsidies. The website does link to a blog, but it only has eight posts and has not been updated since February, 2009. We are told that, as of today, only 2,092 people have visited the blog. For the most part the blog posts do not link to other sources, organizations, or bloggers who are writing about the issue.

While Fundar does have a Twitter account, it is rarely used in relation to Subsidios al Campo. (On February 15 the Fundar Twitter account did link to Evangelina Hernandez’s excellent investigative piece in El Universal about poor enforcement of new subsidy rules that were put into place in April, 2009. However, Bit.ly tells us that only 33 people clicked on the link, and that it was only re-tweeted by one other person.)

Fundar also has a Facebook account (though not an organizational page) with nearly 5,000 friends where they re-publish their Twitter posts and where contacts posts messages of solidarity (and, occasionally ice cream cones).

While Fundar has yet to really take advantage of new media as a platform to garner interest and spread awareness about the project of Subsidios al Campo, its work more traditional media outlets is a model for any organization interested in mainstream media diffusion. Researchers and communications staff at Fundar work with journalists to better understand how to analyze the Subsidios al Campo database in order to find irregularities, corruption, and stories that are worth reporting. El Universal has been especially active in using the database as a source to find stories related to subsidy corruption. They have even created a special page dedicated to Corrupción en el Campo (“Corruption in the Countryside”).

By collaborating with mainstream media organizations, Fundar researchers can point professional journalists to strange irregularities in the database that require on-the-ground, investigative reporting. Journalists also benefit with easy access to a wealth of information that has led to provocative headlines, such as “Procampo [subsidies] benefit drug lords and the Agricultural Minister.” So far, most mainstream media coverage has, in fact, been provocative, but little of it has helped inform debate about how the subsidy programs should be reformed. Some readers might even come away from the coverage with the conclusion that the subsidies should be cut altogether, which would be a major blow to small scale farmers who depend on the subsidies for survival. Another related article from El Universal, “53% Spend Their Subsidies on Food,” also reveals Mexican mainstream media’s tendency to focus on controversy rather than contextualization. The article points to a study by the Auditoría Superior de la Federación (ASF) which found that, of 1,937 surveyed subsidy recipients, 53.7% spent most of their subsidy money on food rather than investing in farming equipment. But the article does not mention that Procampo is a direct income subsidy intended to help small scale, basic commodity farmers; nor does it quote government officials or experts about how the subsidy program can be reformed to encourage sustainable rural development in Mexico.

A notable exception to the more sensationalistic coverage of agricultural subsidy corruption is Ignacio Alvarado’s February 2010 piece, “Ingreso Objetivo: a lot of money for very few people,” which serves as a model for journalistic reporting on the issue.

While Subsidios al Campo has inspired a wealth of mainstream media coverage in Mexico, and to some degree in the English-language press, what is still lacking is informed contextualization and debate about how the subsidy programs ought to be reformed to create a national agricultural industry that both meets the basic commodity needs of its citizens and the export aspirations of agricultural companies. Clearly the lists of subsidy recipients must be purged to remove politicians and drug lords from federal support programs that come from taxpayer money. However, beyond the obvious, Subsidios al Campo should serve as a starting place for an important debate about how Mexico should structure its agricultural industry for the 21st century.

Next month Fundar will launch a new version of the Subsidios al Campo website along with an in-depth report that looks at the impact of trade liberalization and government subsidies on Mexican agriculture and food prices. This provides Fundar an opportunity to take better advantage of new media as a networked platform to spread information and advocate for agricultural policy reform.

Suggestions:

The public debate around federal subsidies of corn in the United States grew largely out of the local food movement, and books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. In fact, an entire feature-length documentary was made in 2007 about the issue of US corn subsidies. For Fundar to attract major attention to a topic as technocratic as federal agricultural subsidies it must latch on to Mexico’s own burgeoning local food movement. (In 2007 Puebla was chosen as the host for the International Slow Food Congress.) To convince busy citizens that this is a topic they should care about, Fundar and its allies should partner with well known restaurants and chefs that use locally cultivated products to collectively explain the importance of creating policy that encourages the local production of diverse food types for a national market rather than merely promoting industrialized agriculture focused on exportation.

Non-technical:

  • Organize a fundraiser event at a well known restaurant that uses locally produced food from small scale farmers. Invite journalists to help reframe the debate as one around food rather than just corruption. Invite politicians and decision-makers to become better acquainted with the topic.
  • Create several Sourcemaps of popular supermarket snacks in Mexico, as well as locally produced food, to reveal the environmental costs of importing food rather than consuming local food.
  • Point out that taxpayer money is currently subsidizing the production of food sold in American supermarkets rather than bringing down the price of locally produced food at your neighborhood tianguis (farmer’s market).
  • Write a round-up of what other bloggers and Twitter users are saying about the issue every two months.
  • Help network farmers’ groups to collectively craft a coherent advocacy campaign with clearly defined policy reform goals.
  • Work with influential bloggers and Twitter users to develop a strategic online campaign to spread more awareness about sustainable rural development and local food production. The campaign should ultimately pressure politicians to change specific policies.
  • Work in partnership with a graduate class at a university in Mexico City that can help analyze data and write monthly blog posts about what they find. They will likely share their work on their own blogs, Facebook accounts, etc.

Technical:

  • Upload all data from the database to Google Fusion Tables where it can be downloaded, analyzed, and visualized by anyone.
  • Build a more dynamic map-based visualization that is not built in Flash. Consider using Managing News as an open-source platform to visualize the data dynamically on a map.
  • Create a separate Twitter account and follow relevant organizations, activists, bloggers, policiticians, etc.
  • Ask students at the University of California, Santa Cruz to help translate the website and its content into English.
  • Create sexy infographics – similar to those found at Good Magazine – to help explain the importance of reforming the agricultural subsidy programs.

At this point I won’t make any further suggestions about the Subsidios al Campo website itself as Fundar is only three weeks away from launching a brand new version. We will re-visit the new website and the project in a couple months.

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