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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


The knot at the end of the rope: Violence, hope, and transformation in El Salvador and Mexico

By Ariana Markowitz, on 11 December 2018

I spent an afternoon in August with a group of young men in a skate park on the outskirts of San Salvador, El Salvador. The park was part of a larger recreational complex and more people drifted in as the hours passed. The day was stifling and even if shade in the park was limited, at least sometimes there was a breeze in the air, unlike inside the low-income housing blocks that ringed the park and the shacks that climbed up the surrounding streets, splintering into a labyrinth of dead-end alleys.

The young men in the skate park told me story after story about police and gang brutality. At one point I asked them to draw a picture of a place or a situation in which they felt unsafe, uncomfortable, or anxious and another place or situation where they felt the opposite. One person stared at a blank piece of paper for 10 minutes, unable to think of any time or place where he had ever felt safe. Another drew an imaginary safe place where there were no abuses of power, people interacted as equals, homes were dignified, and greenery was abundant. After leaving the park later that day, a taxi driver told me about almost joining a gang some 15 years earlier, but changing his mind at the last minute based on the somber regrets of someone who had decided to go through with it. Later that night on my way home, I saw a body on the street. No one stopped and when I slowed down to get a closer look, my car was almost hit from behind.

A drawing produced by one of the young men in the skate park. In his words, “What makes me feel unsafe, uncomfortable, or anxious is the police, corruption, murders, and interpersonal violence.”

This situation is part of what is driving Central Americans, especially from the so-called ‘Northern Triangle’ countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, to flee, seeking a better life or, in some cases, a life at all in the United States. More and more the migrants and displaced people are traveling in mass because most of their journey is through Mexico and the Mexican state has repeatedly demonstrated its unwillingness or inability to protect asylum seekers’ human rights, leaving them vulnerable to opportunistic people and cartel violence while they travel, often with babies and children in tow. The poor treatment of migrants and displaced people is an extension of the Mexican state’s similar unwillingness or inability to protect Mexican citizens’ human rights. Nearly 250,000 Mexicans have been killed in the last 10 years and there are more disappearances now in Mexico than there were under the dictatorships in South America, including the still unresolved case of 43 students disappearing in 2014, apparently at the hands of state security agents with assistance from organized criminal groups under the protection of military forces. Just like I saw in El Salvador, poverty in Mexico is both a driver and a result of violence, and decades of repeated abuses have corroded Mexicans’ confidence in each other and in their government. Several years ago when I was documenting police reform in Mexico, I was struck by how government insiders and partners recalled processes that were difficult but ultimately successful while outsiders saw failures and suspected conspiracies.

Amidst so much darkness, DPU’s Étienne von Bertrab has opted to look for light. A few years ago he began developing what is now Albora, an initiative that traces Mexico’s “geographies of hope” through identifying, studying, documenting, and showcasing transformative projects throughout the country. Spotlighting this work demonstrates the that there are other ways to develop, progress, and grow, ones in which no one mistakes violence for a solution, where access to water and other natural resources is universal, where citizens are informed and engaged, and where everyone strives for the greater good.

Luis Domínguez, an engineer working for Agua para Siempre, has dedicated decades of his life to assisting communities fight soil erosion and restore river basins in the impoverished Mixteca region.

One such project is Agua para Siempre (‘water forever’), established 30 years ago by a then young couple, who decided that they would defend and support their poorest compatriots. They landed in the Sierra Mixteca in the Mexican state of Puebla, an arid and fast-eroding area that had been and continued to be hollowed out because of migration to large Mexican cities and the United States. With time, the couple understood that access to water was fundamental to addressing poverty and migration, so they began to study pre-Hispanic methods for soil retention and cultivation and advocate for their re-adoption in surrounding communities. Today, their organization, Alternativas y Procesos de Participación Social, AC (‘alternatives and social participation processes’), has 300 people and thousands of local partners who are seeing the fruits of their sustained efforts. Communities are beginning to have access to water all year for small-scale cultivation, animal husbandry, and human consumption, and hundreds of small cooperatives have begun to produce amaranth, a pre-Columbian pseudo-grain that, like quinoa, is high in protein, vitamins, and minerals. Reversing previous trends, migration is falling, as is child malnutrition, thanks to the inclusion of amaranth in local diets.

The search for transformative initiatives also brought the Albora team, which includes five DPU alumni, to Mexico City where a Mexican historian and novelist, his family, and a dozen others have formed the Brigada para Leer en Libertad (‘brigade to read in freedom’). The brigade has cultivated new readers through facilitating horizontal and informal access to authors, expanding the availability of books, and creating free places to read. So far, they have gifted or sold more than a million books at an affordable price to girls, boys, women, and men in a country where the high price of books makes bookstores elitist and inaccessible and public libraries are few. To that end, the brigade also establishes libraries, with a recent campaign resulting in the donation of nearly 70,000 books. These books have become the basis for carefully curated collections in formerly empty libraries in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. The brigade promotes reading for pleasure but also as a political act—an essential step towards the full exercise of conscious citizenship.

Free public gatherings are central to the Brigada’s book fairs in which women, men and children engage in dialogues with authors about their work and about the Mexican political conjuncture and ways out of the crises.

These projects and others are harnessing the power of hope to fuel alternative visions of their society. They demonstrate the fundamental importance of restoring and cultivating hope, necessary for active citizenship, and united, powerful communities, not just in Mexico or El Salvador but everywhere where injustice and inequality construct blocks for us to stumble over. The projects challenge us to look beyond our cynicism and apathy.

Before I left the skate park in August, one young man told me that he was glad I had come. “Most people don’t come looking for us, and the people who do don’t listen to what we have to say,” he said. “I hope you’ve been able to hear us and that the stories of our lives help you do your work.”

To learn more about Albora and contribute to its crowdfunding campaign, active until Tuesday, 18 December and only funded if it reaches 100% of its goal, go here.

Ariana Markowitz is a PhD student at DPU researching how fear and trauma manifest and become defining characteristics of urban landscapes. Taking cues from this damage, especially in marginalized communities, she looks for alternative ways of repairing frayed social fabric and healing.

From theory to practice: Real life social policy for development

By ucfummh, 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.


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!

Ecobici, Equity in Mobility?

By Tina Ziegler, on 25 January 2011

Post written by: Susana Arellano, DPU alumna 2009

Mexico City has long been known for the environmental crisis that is undergoing. Part of the proposed solution is Plan Verde, a 15 year strategy that the local government along with NGO´s and the private sector has launched to tackle issues in areas such as water and solid waste management, climate change and mobility. This last one includes improvements on the subway system, new bus routes and the introduction of the bicycle as a feasible way of transport in a culture where the car has long been privileged by city planners.http://www.mexicocityexperience.com/travel_center/getting_around/ New bike lanes and education programs certainly called for attention at a local level, but Ecobici made it to the headlines worldwide as the first bike-sharing program in Latin America. A year from its launch it raises questions on its future existence and its success as a program that claimed an opportunity for equity.

On February 2010, the public-private partnership between the Ministry of Environment (Secretaria del Medio Ambiente) and Clear Channel implemented Ecobici. An investment of 75 million pesos (£3.8 M) from the government along with publicity spaces for the enterprise, resulted in 85 stations and 1,114 bicycles. The bike-sharing program is similar to those currently working in other countries such as Italy, France and Spain. An annual fee of 300 pesos (£15.5) gives the users an unlimited number of 45 min rides along the four benefited neighborhoods: Condesa, Hipódromo Condesa, Juárez, Cuauhtémoc and Roma Norte. For those who know Mexico City the appointment of such area immediately leads to one of the following reactions: either it seems the most obvious selection, as it did to most of the middle/high class, or, as activists and NGO´s expressed, it is once more a clear example of the iniquity that prevails on most urban plans. The government explained that its intend was to reach the population that commutes to work and facilitate their journey after the bus or subway. It is certain that these neighborhoods, recently gentrified, have a high density of retail and commercial area; however, it is inevitable to notice that the dwellers are mostly those with high acquisitive power. Surveys demonstrate that other areas in the city register similar or higher commute rates, such as the boroughs of Tlahuac, Iztapalapa or Xochimilco where the majority of the population is from low income backgrounds. So why this specific region?

Map of bike stations in operation and available bicycles

Ecobici at first glance seems the kind of project countries of the global south are striving on in order to become world class cities. The beneficiaries of the program are those located within the most visible areas of the city to middle/high income classes, tourists and to the rest of a globalizing world. The implementation of a project which has been successful in developed countries is perceived as a definite way of moving forward. However, the models cannot be replicated, especially in a context with such high inequality levels and where opportunities seem unreachable for the majority of the population. Ecobici, with few variations from its counterparts in Europe, required a demographic that could also resemble a lifestyle closer to the one from the global north. Most of the people who reside in the area fit in the profile. They are credit card holders, which was required to become a member, and had already started to embrace a culture of bicycle mobility. It was almost a won bet. Thus, it is natural to question if this large investment from public funds, which seems only for the most privileged, is capable of being part of a larger transformation towards equity in mobility.

I believe Ecobici is able to offer more to those in Mexico City. The decision of starting the program in that specific area may have seemed unjust, but it is also unfair to stereotype it as a bourgeois project and not acknowledge its potential. The location was the opportunity to have a successful precedent, therefore allowing it to move forward. By reaching approximately 22,000 users instead of the 24,000 predicted, its success on the last year has pushed it to already expand into the historic downtown district. Ecobici could be the opportunity to have a public transport project that grants freedom of mobility to those with little possibilities otherwise. Public transportation, as Diana Daste mentions on a previous post, can go beyond inclusion from a liberal perspective and into social development. Ecobici could bring closer work, education and recreational opportunities, while at the same time improve the health of a growing Mexican obese population. A government official after the launch of the program declared that cycling generates citizenship, as it claims equity of rights between those in motorized vehicles and the cyclers. Therefore, why not use Ecobici as a program that recognizes as citizens those who have been long neglected.

Ecobici in Mexico

Change and more possibilities are underway. The extension predicted for 2012 will be 180 stations that could start to reach Buenavista and Tlateloco, areas recognized for their cultural wealth, mix income populations and tradition on social movements. The procedures to become a member have been adapted so users no longer have to be credit card holders, but can make use of the service by presenting their phone bills. Free education programs such as “Bici-Entérate” (“Bike-Inform”) continue to grow and to attract more people eager to use the bicycle as their main transport. Traffic regulations have been modified to recognize the cyclists as citizens with rights and responsibilities. It seems Ecobici can become a program for Mexico City instead of a copycat. Great potential can be appreciated and in the near future decisions on where and whom to reach will be key.  Its permanence as part of a healthier Mexico City will depend on the embracement from the population of cycling as alternative for mobility. As well as, on the outcome of the current struggle from the government to achieve a sustainable program and from NGO´s and community groups to have it become public policy. What Ecobici has accomplished today is not enough, but hopefully it is just the start towards the bicycle as a tool for equity in Mexico City.