By Susan Pick
With all the ambitious international goals and targets that developing countries have committed to, from poverty reduction to universal education and access to health care, we’ve observed a not uncommon response by the governments: too strong a focus on the public image of the new programs, not strong enough a focus on making the programs truly accessible. Here’s an example to illustrate our point: On a daily basis, Mexicans are exposed to immeasurable social development propaganda from government agencies. The propaganda is unavoidable because these messages are disseminated via commercials on public transportation, highway billboards, TV and radio, and posters in the most rural communities. Some of the current hot topics of these campaigns are diabetes and childhood obesity, nonviolence toward women and anti-corruption laws.
“Vivir Mejor” (“Live Better”) is the federal government’s umbrella strategy behind many of these flashy ads, and its aim is to eliminate extreme poverty and promote sustainable human development throughout the country. The rainbow-colored logo is impossible to miss and is stamped on nearly everything the government is involved with. “Vivir Mejor” social development campaigns share with the public the services they are entitled to. A man that never got the chance to study when he was young is now completing his secondary education – and you can do the same, for free! A smiling woman is receiving free prenatal health care –and you can sign up for it as well, it’s simple! In addition, many of the “Vivir Mejor” campaigns encourage the public to exercise their rights. This involves procedures like signing up for government health insurance, filing a report in the case of sexual harassment, and requesting information from the government’s transparency portals.
Making people aware of their rights and the social programs they can benefit from is indispensable…in theory. How can these types of public campaigns possibly be inefficient? Why aren’t poor people in Mexico seeking health care or going back to school or reporting abuse of their basic human rights? The first problem is most obvious: there are incredible structural barriers to accessing social services in Mexico; widespread corruption and absurdly bureaucratic procedures prevent Mexicans from registering for social programs or filing reports when their rights are violated.
The second problem is less obvious, but its solution is essential for Mexico to achieve its development objectives: there is a severe lack of civic engagement in Mexico. The lack of participation in public affairs that this implies results in the absence of social action and citizen monitoring, as well as the underutilization of government programs. The unengaged citizen lacks psychological preparedness for accessing his or her rights and seeking opportunities for personal development. Some examples of psychosocial barriers to participatory citizenship include the internalization of feelings of inferiority, a lack of intrinsic incentive to bring about change, and insufficient communication and team work skills. All of these factors are directly related to what’s been labeled “low intensity citizenship” in Mexico (Ochoa Espejo).
The solution to the problems we mention lies in the development of an individual’s personal agency. In other words, she needs to feel empowered and entitled to make changes in her life. If social programs were designed to facilitate the acquisition of psychosocial tools like assertive communication, autonomous decision-making, and critical thinking in addition to classic welfare services, citizens would become participatory agents of change. Once engaged, the everyday citizen has an incredible power to put social and legal pressure on his or her government and hold it accountable for making the advertised services more efficient and accessible.
The missing ingredient, civic engagement, must be promoted at all levels of government in order for the social programs themselves to change in nature. Of course, it’s easier for the government officials to publicize a luxurious clinic than an empowered adolescent, a newly built school than teachers who know how to use participatory teaching strategies. But the opportunities for social development are in place. “Vivir Mejor”, though it exists within an environment of bureaucratic and psychosocial barriers, represents a starting point for the empowered citizen to contribute to its reform. Now the Mexican government must do its part and abandon its tradition of excessive devotion to loud advertising. Resources should go toward strategies for encouraging participatory citizenship so that individuals have the tools to both seize the social development opportunities and also demand improved services.
Mexico’s development depends on whether its citizens truly become agents of change in the next four years. Under international political pressure to meet the established UN Millennium Development Goals in the next four years, it is essential that Mexican social development programs become inclusive and functional rather than promotional. The Mexican government, and all governments with the historic tradition of “development shortsightedness” have an ideal opportunity to establish a new image for themselves, one that relies on less “in-your-face” campaigns, and more on empowering citizens to engage in the process of their own social development.
Susan Pick is a Professor of Social Psychology at the Faculty of Psychology of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. She is author and coauthor of over 270 works, has received numerous awards, holds the highest level in the National System of Researchers, and is also the former president of the Interamerican Society of Psychology. She is author with Jenna T. Sirkin of Breaking the Poverty Cycle: The Human Basis for Sustainable Development. Read her previous OUPblog post here.