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From theory to practice: Real life social policy for development

By Maria Huerta Urias, on 19 February 2016

When I was undergoing my masters degree in Social Development Practice at the DPU, I was consistently amazed by the insight that development gurus provided when discussing and critiquing the design of public policy for development. As a student, reading about government policy was comfortable because you could deconstruct, isolate variables and analyze government performance by focusing on issues regarding diversity, identity, and the importance of planned intervention. We usually come to the easy conclusion that it is (sometimes) inefficient, separated from the reality of those in poverty, swamped with bureaucratic nonsense and overall unable to perform correctly. However, we usually look at this from a distance and perhaps we lack insight into how public policy is designed and the complexities of its execution.

 

In January I joined the national Ministry for Social Development in Mexico City, as a senior advisor for the under secretary. This is by far the most challenging professional opportunity I´ve had and is one that requires lots of work, dedication and most importantly, patience. Why? Because there are many things to be considered before any work is actually done. It’s attempting to reach the most people in poverty, with the most cost-efficient programmes, whilst balancing a complex political agenda….AND at the same time, attempting to put into practice all the knowledge gained from other development experiences and from my brand new masters award. It sounds tricky right? Well, it is.

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So far, this is what I have learned.

Lesson one: In Mexico, public social policy is understood as the norms, institutions, programs and resources that are designed to improve livelihoods. It is meant to be a tool for the promotion and protection of basic social rights, but in reality it translates into each government undertaking a set of compromises that match the current political agenda.

There is a long-term national development effort that can be traced all the way back to the 1910 Revolution and to the recognition of social rights in the Constitution of 1917. For years, the social agenda has been woven into the very fabric of government institutions in this country, but it is constantly changing, shifting priorities and strategies depending on the political arrangement. The implications of this are that once a particular government ends, a new administration starts all over again. New priorities, new strategies. There is no continuity in this “long-term development effort” except for a few successful exceptions which are worth mentioning on a different entry.

Lesson two; “Cost-efficient and viable programmes that reach the most people living under the poverty line”… Cost-effective is not a sexy concept in the world of social development. We analyze and deconstruct loads of other more profound concepts, like power dynamics or citizenship. In practice however, while all of these profound concepts are essential, cost-efficiency becomes a priority to public policy. I learned this recently when I had to define with a group of experts where to open 200 community dinners for women and children that lack access to nutritious food. So I work for hours putting together all the social variables that ought to be considered, from the figure of mothers as caregivers and how that ought to change and include other roles, to the complexity of food chains and power relations. I sit down to discuss this strategy and the main issue is, where can we reach the most people with the most cost-effective operation. No need to say more.

Lesson three; in a public institution, everything is urgent, it needs to be done as soon as possible. So when cost-effectiveness meets viability, then that´s it. The policy gets designed and it operates under those two principles. More profound, long term considerations are harder to incorporate, not because they are considered less important, but because there is a utilitarian formula at place. Reach the most people, other aspects will eventually be introduced. I learned this whilst performing an evaluation of a Woman’s Centre in one of the poorest areas in the country. I had exactly 4 hours to conduct an evaluation of the social impact of this place and report back. My evaluation would determine important things at a higher level. 4 hours. Is it cost-effective, is it reaching the targeted population, is it viable to keep? Of course I had a file with a vast number of considerations that I learned in the Practice module of my Masters degree, but only got to use very few of them.

Lesson four; however difficult it its to incorporate the knowledge from my previous experiences and from my master degree, I recognise the privileged position I´m in. To work in these issues is to be able to impact thousands of people who live in the most poverty stricken areas in the country. What a great responsibility right? So this is why I started my entry by saying patience is the most important lesson. By having patience I will hopefully learn how to play this game, how to match the political agenda with the life agenda of those we work with, not for. How to match what is cost-effective with what is profound and sustainable. Of course, having been in this job for less than two months, any ideas and suggestions on how to do this would be greatly appreciated!

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