Essay: Dotson

Auditing Mi Familia Progresa: Transparency and Citizenship in Guatemala  |  by Rachel Dotson

Shortly after taking office in 2008, President Álvaro Colom, of the center-left party UNE, announced the initiation of Mi Familia Progresa (Mifapro), an ambitious poverty reduction program aimed at investing in the human capital of Guatemala’s poorest families. Based on the conditional cash transfer model that has spread through most of Latin America since the mid-1990s with the support of the IADB, Mifapro distributed benefits to women conditional on their compliance with “co-responsibilities” related to their children’s health and education. During his campaign, Colom’s promise to implement Mifapro secured him the following of rural voters that was critical to his electoral victory. From its inception, the program was subject to intense criticism from political opponents who accused Colom and First Lady Sandra Torres, Mifapro’s coordinator, of clientelism and a lack of transparency.

In March 2011, when Sandra Torres announced her intention to run for president against right wing ex-general and Partido Patriota candidate Otto Pérez Molina, Mifapro once again became a focal campaign issue. While Torres attempted to use the program to position herself as an advocate for Guatemala’s poor, critics successfully framed the public debate around the program not in terms of development or poverty reduction but in terms of efficient and transparent public management. They did so, in part, by mobilizing a discourse of transparency that emphasized the rights of taxpayers, calling on Guatemalans to fulfill their responsibility to audit government spending. Central to this discourse was a transparency-based concept citizenship that, while premised on the notions of universal rights and responsibilities in relation to information, worked to reinforce longstanding forms of exclusion.

Transparency Politics in Guatemala

A glance at the headlines of the Prensa Libre, Guatemala’s national paper, reveals the extent to which questions of transparency have come to dominate public discourse around everything from social policy to elections to criminal investigations. Public figures lament Guatemala’s consistently low rankings by Transparency International and cite the dearth of transparency as both a cause and a symptom of Guatemala’s weak democracy, political immaturity, and lack of economic development. In the 2011 elections, “transparency” took a close second place to “security” as the dominant campaign buzzword. The right-wing Partido Patriota’s success in discrediting the Colom administration for lacking transparency was critical to their electoral victory. Congress recently considered at least eight transparency bills, and a Secretary of Control and Transparency was recently created to audit all government departments.

Transparency talk has even filtered down to everyday conversation in the highlands where I have been doing fieldwork since 2011. In the town of Nebaj and the surrounding area, I have frequently heard people on all sides of the political spectrum cite a lack of transparency as the cause of Guatemala’s political and economic woes. While calls for increased transparency in Guatemala are often aimed at politicians and government agencies, Guatemalan citizens are also portrayed as having a key role to play in transparency efforts. As transparency is viewed as both the means and the end of democratic governance, citizens are increasingly defined as taxpayers with rights and responsibilities in relation to public information.

Citizen-Taxpayers and Social Audit

During the 2011 election season, Vice Presidential candidate Roxanne Baldetti gave a speech in Nebaj to an audience of mostly poor, rural Ixil women. She urged them to think of themselves as taxpayers. “Every time you buy something in the market, even if they don’t give you a receipt, you are paying taxes!” As taxpayers, Baldetti went on to explain, these women should be personally outraged by the lack of transparency in Mifapro. This statement was, on the surface, a gesture of inclusion: all Guatemalans are taxpayers and therefore all have the right to information. In making it, however, Baldetti failed to acknowledge that many of the women in the audience related to Mifapro not as taxpayers but as recipients, with cash transfers making up one third to one half of their household income.

Women waiting for Mi Familia Progresa

The notion of the citizen-taxpayer invoked by Baldetti and others implies the right to demand transparency and a concomitant set of responsibilities related to fiscal oversight. Transparency discourse positions Guatemalan taxpayers not as victims of a corrupt government, but as active and vigilant citizens, responsible to ensure appropriate use of public funds. In Guatemala, as elsewhere, increased transparency is often portrayed as achievable through the practice of audit. One of the main ways in which citizen-taxpayers are to exercise their responsibilities is through the practice of social or citizen audit (auditoria social or auditoria ciudadana).

Rather than relying on government agencies or NGOs to monitor public spending, citizens are to demand information from their government in order to audit directly. According to one columnist in the Prensa Libre, “A social audit is a process of citizen oversight (fiscalización ciudadana) that permits a population to evaluate the actions of a government…verifying their social efficacy and ethical behavior in relation to the objectives of the nation.”[1] Another columnist, referring to the 2011 elections, explained that “So, the citizenry, after casting their vote, is obligated, not in the next four years but immediately, to organize themselves and begin a process of social or citizen audit, first to ask for the accounts of the political parties and the previous authorities and begin the process of auditing the new authorities.”[2]

While citizens are called to audit various spheres of government activity, the concept of social audit was invoked most frequently in relation to Mifapro, as critics of Colom and Torres called on taxpayers to demand the information necessary to audit program administration. The scrutiny of the social audit was to extend beyond program budgets and policies to the everyday lives and choices of individual recipients, as taxpayers were encouraged to pursue their legitimate “right to know” how their money was being spent and with what results.

According to transparency advocates I interviewed in Nebaj, including NGO workers and elected officials, making Mifapro more transparent would require at least three types of audits. The first would involve checking Mifapro rolls against UNE party rolls to find out if political affiliation had been used as a criterion for recipient selection. Second, auditors would go to the homes of those recipients listed to find out if they were indeed poor and if they had been receiving Mifapro transfers. Third, auditors would check to see if children in these families had gained weight and advanced their schooling in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the program in reaching it increasing human capital. Of course, in order to perform such an audit, citizens would need access not only to program accounts, but also to the information of individual recipients.

Recipient Information and the “Right to Know”

From the program’s inception in 2008, political debate around Mifapro focused largely on the question of access to recipient information. A seemingly unlikely coalition of right-wing politicians, transparency advocates and human rights activists came together to demand the names and identification numbers of all recipients so that the program could be audited. Because citizens as well as government officials had the right and responsibility to audit, this information was to be made available not only to the proper officials, but also to the general public as well through publication on the Mifapro website.

Torres refused to turn over the information on the grounds of recipient safety and confidentiality, suggesting that the disclosure of names and addresses would violate recipients’ rights to privacy and make them vulnerable to robbery as they traveled to and from the Mifapro payment events. Critics did not necessarily deny that turning over information could have harmful consequences for recipients, but instead positioned citizens’ rights to information as more basic and primary than recipients’ rights to confidentiality. In August 2010, congressperson Rosa María de Frade, with the support of Acción Ciudadana, Guatemala’s branch of Transparency International, presented a complaint against Mifapro administrators to the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission for refusal to turn over the names of Mifapro recipients. De Frade claimed that by withholding recipient data, administrators were violating the “fundamental right” of any Guatemalan to access information and “ignoring the rights of the population by preventing them from conducting a social audit” of Mi Familia Progresa.[3]

By defining citizens as potential auditors, Mifapro’s critics were able to portray the withholding of recipient information as a violation not only of bureaucratic procedures, but also of the rights, even the human rights, of all Guatemalans. The logic underlying these critiques was that taxpayers, rather than recipients, were the primary stakeholders in Mifapro, and that access to information, rather than access to resources via state assistance, was the more fundamental right of citizenship. This logic failed to take into account those Guatemalans whose primary stake in the program was not how tax money was spent, but their access to the means of survival that the program offered.

Largely absent from the conversation were the incredible wealth and income disparities and the staggering rates of poverty and unemployment that presumably made Mifapro necessary, as well as any possibility that the program would have a real impact on these problems. Rather, public debate in Guatemala seemed to position the efficient and transparent administration of Mifapro as the program’s main goal. The discrepancy between the interests of “those who pay” and “those who receive” is evident in an assertion I heard from several middle class non-recipients in the Nebaj area: that no Mifapro at all would be better than a poorly run, politicized, non-transparent Mifapro.

While social audit is rhetorically central to transparency-based concepts of citizenship, it is important to note that it is rarely, if ever, taken up as a citizenship practice. In my time in Guatemala, I was never aware of anyone traveling to a rural community to verify eligibility of Mifapro recipients. However, this does not indicate that concepts like taxpayer rights and social audit have no social or material effects outside the realm of electoral discourse. Rather, transparency discourse provides a new idiom and a new source of legitimation for existing forms of social exclusion.

In calling for social audits, politicians and public figures provide official sanction for the scrutiny of the every lives and choices of the poor. In Nebaj, I frequently heard the language of audit, transparency, and taxpayer rights invoked by non-recipients as they casually assessed the legitimacy of claims to public assistance or scrutinized the behavior of women presumed to be Mifapro recipients. For example, as I walked through Nebaj’s market with Maria, a middle-class ladina shop owner, she pointed to a group of Ixil women trying on shoes. “You know that they just received their Mi Familia Progresa and they are spending our money. The money is for their children, not for shoes.” Maria’s self-identification as a taxpayer meant that the women in the market were spending her money, which gave her the right to monitor and assess their spending choices, and by extension their parenting. Maria’s deployment of the language of taxpayer rights provides just one example of how discourses of transparency and related notions of citizenship, while portrayed as universally empowering and democratic, can work to reinforce longstanding forms of exclusion along lines of race and ethnicity, class, and rural-urban identification.


[1] Karen Muñoz
. 2010. Diputada De Frade Presenta Recursos contra el Mineduc por Mifapro. Prensa Libre, June 27.

[2] Kajkoj Máximo Ba Tiul. 
2011. Auditoría Social. Prensa Libre, September 10.

[3] Olga López Ovando and Leonardo Cereser
. 2010. CC Retira Reserva de Datos de Mifapro. Prensa Libre, March 1.

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