MEXICO CITY, November 10, 2010 - Antonio Montes, 17, dreams of becoming a chef as soon as he finishes 'la prepa' or high school next year, and for his two siblings in his care to join him in the growing ranks of Mexican young professionals.
Shared by millions of young Mexicans, dreams of becoming "someone in life" don't always come to fruition, but Montes is confident his will thanks to a simple word that he carries around as his personal mantra: 'Oportunidades', the widely successful conditional cash transfer program that, as its names suggests, has spurred human opportunities for him and the poorest Mexicans.
Entering its 13th year of operation, Oportunidades has helped a quarter of Mexico's population of 100 million gain access to quality nutrition, health and education services in what has quickly become a model program across the region and beyond. As a commitment to its continuing success, the World Bank this week provided US$1.25 billion in additional financing to support Mexico's social protection endeavors for 2011-13, thus raising its total contribution to Oportunidades to almost US$3 billion.
The success of Oportunidades relies both on the program's ability to effectively fight poverty while cushioning the effects of the recent global financial crisis, say World Bank experts.
"As Mexico's economic perspectives improve following the crisis, Oportunidades has proven to be a good investment in human capital, which is essential for sustainable and inclusive social and economic development," said World Bank Director for Mexico and Colombia Gloria Grandolini.
Oportunidades revolves around a simple but powerful idea: providing incentives for people to help themselves. Beneficiaries receive a bimonthly sum on condition their children attend school and get regular medical checkups.
Results have been very encouraging, say Mexican authorities and experts.
Since Oportunidades was launched in 1997, high school enrollment rates have risen 33 percent and high school drop-out rates have fallen 20 percent, according to government data. A recent survey shows that students on Oportunidades have done much better in math and reading than classmates not benefitting from the program.
According to Mexico's social policy monitoring council Coneval, one fifth of Oportunidades-sponsored students currently make up 30 percent of the best-performing students which "demonstrates that despite their adverse conditions, Oportunidades students can obtain above average scores," concludes the report.
On the health and nutrition front Oportunidades has also made significant progress.
Preventive healthcare appointments -key to reducing disease- grew by 35 percent across the country over the last decade. In addition, children in rural areas were ill, on average, 70 days less during the year while more than 90 per cent of pregnant women have received pre-natal care, according to World Bank Human Development expert Christoph Kurowski.
Focus on gender
Kurowski noted that Oportunidades places a renewed emphasis on gender to equalize access to opportunities in education and labor markets and to pre-empt gender-based discrimination. About 97 percent of cash incentives are given to female parents while education incentives are vigorously promoted among female students, the expert said. "It balances out disadvantages of girls in accessing education," Grandolini said.
The Mexican government has also ensured that indigenous populations - among the country's most vulnerable- benefit from Oportunidades. Recent government data shows that about 1.5 million indigenous households -or 7.5 million people- are on the cash transfer program, which has contributed to reducing ethnic inequality and poverty in rural areas, government officials say.
"Oportunidades both in metropolitan rural areas is contributing to breaking the intergenerational transmission of poverty in Mexico which is why it constitutes the centerpiece of our social protection efforts," said national Oportunidades coordinator Salvador Escobedo.
Oportunidades successful story in Mexico is being mirrored in other parts of the region. In Colombia, Familias en Acción helps 1.7 million families, while Brazil's Bolsa Familia supports 11.2 million families. In Peru Juntos ("Together") is being strengthened to expand its services which help thousands of rural families overcome problems.
Overall, in fiscal year 2010 the World Bank stepped up its commitment to Latin America and the Caribbean, approving $13.9 billion in new loans. Support to the region represented almost one fourth -or 24 percent- of the Bank's total lending worldwide, with most loans directly supporting social endeavors in human development (25 percent), urban development (15 percent), environment (10 percent) and social protection (7 percent).