Mexican NGOs Continue to Struggle with Federal Funding Cuts

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's government pursuing expensive mega-projects as environmental, social groups try to make ends meet.

Mexico’s social and environmental groups have had their work cut out for them since the election of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO for short) just over a year ago. López Obrador ran his left-wing campaign on the promise that he would expand social programs to help the vulnerable. He won in a landslide and took office in December 2018. In February 2019, however, he declared that the government would no longer fund NGOs.

photo of mexican biosphere reserve
Mexican NGOs say that public funding cuts are adding an additional challenge to their work, whether to protect natural areas like the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve (pictured) or to help vulnerable populations. Photo by Pablo Leataud .

In 2018, these austerity policies impacted nonprofit organizations to the tune of roughly 6.2 billion Mexican pesos (approximately USD $321 million), which is the amount they received in 2018. There’s no indication that funding will be reinstated in 2020. So how has Mexican civil society been coping with the loss of hundreds of millions of US dollars in income over the past year?

It’s been a major adjustment, to say the least. The Mexican federal government has historically supported its civil society to undertake important work through donations, subsidies, agreements, and social co-investment programs delivered by different public agencies and Indesol (the National Institute for Social Development). Government departments, such as the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT), have also historically worked closely with civil society groups to support vulnerable communities and ecosystems.

Nevertheless, the President is cutting out the “intermediaries.” Although there are good people involved, he says, civil society is not free of commercial interests, misuses public resources, and has roots in conservatism. Instead of giving money to organizations, his administration announced that it would distribute funds directly to individual beneficiaries and vulnerable groups, including scholarship students and victims of domestic violence. This decision to cut back organizational support and funnel cash directly to citizens, sometimes in brown envelopes, has been vehemently criticized by NGO leaders and organizers as irresponsible. Others support his decision, arguing that too many corrupt civil society organizers were using the money to fund extravagant lifestyles.

Environmental groups are among those impacted by this divisive political maneuver, which has added yet another obstacle to their work under the administration. Their challenges have been compounded by budget cuts to environmental governmental bodies. The National Commission for Forests (CONAFOR) and the National Commission for Natural Protected Areas (CONANP) (both bodies are branches of the SEMARNAT), have been subjected to major cutbacks under both López Obrador and the previous administration as well. So has the National fund for Natural Disasters.

“We’re in a crazy new situation where civil society has to fill the gaps left by government,” says Laura Perez-Arce from Grupo Ecológico de la Sierra Gorda, an Earth Island project that advocates protection of the Sierra Gorda mountains in central Mexico.

The lack of funding hit particularly hard during wildfires in Mexico last spring, the worst the country had experienced in more than a decade. Several protected areas, including Chiapas’ La Encrucijada and Quintana Roo’s Sian Ka’an Reserve, were impacted by the blazes. Some ecologically-minded organizations tried to assist with fire-fighting and recovery efforts as communities awaited support from the federal government.

During the wildfire season, Senator Ana Lilia Herrera Anzaldo, founder of Mexico’s Group of Parliamentarians for the Environment, described government funding for environmental programs a matter of “life or death.” “Nature does not forgive,” she added, speaking with El Sol de México.

In addition to his claim that NGOs misuse funds, the López Obrador administration has cited austerity as a justification for withdrawing federal funding. But many point to his spending elsewhere as evidence that this isn’t the case. His administration has invested in huge mega-projects such as the Maya Train, the construction of an oil refinery in the Dos Bocas port of Tabasco, and six refinery renovations financed predominantly by AMLO’s government. Such industrial projects are expected to cause yet more ecological damage. Greenpeace has concluded that the environment is “not a priority” for the Mexican government.

It’s not just environmental groups that have been impacted by the cuts. Juan Martin Perez, director of the Network for Infant Rights in Mexico (REDIM), says that many organizations that help low-income communities, the homeless, the incarcerated, and those with medical problems have been impacted as well. “These organizations support the most vulnerable communities that are forgotten by the government,” he says.

“Civil society has had to restructure all of its long-term economic plans,” adds Alain Pinzon, member of the Citizen’s Council for HIV and STIs. “There is the risk that some NGOs may stop operating since the support granted by the state was completely vital for the continuation of their work.”

Non-governmental groups have indicated that they trying other methods to raise funds, including everything from online crowdfunding to hosting events to selling products.

“We organized a concert to gather funds, have been working unpaid, received donations, and forged alliances with suppliers, but the most important is that among all [NGOs], we support one another,” says Wendy Figueroa, director of the National Network of Refugees.

Such in-kind and grassroots support will be important while the future remains uncertain. The government’s 2020 budget does not allocate any monetary resources to civil society. Instead, it allocates 17.5 million USD to open ten baseball academies while a treatment program for cervical cancer patients without social security has had its funding withdrawn .

Laura Garcia Coudurier, executive director of the Seed Foundation, an association that helps finance social organizations, says many Mexican NGOs are in crisis: “Those that work with public money are having a very bad time. The most affected have been the small ones, for example indigenous handicraft cooperatives, women’s refuges, and community organizations that work on sexual and reproductive health.”

Larger NGOs like Grupo Ecológico de la Sierra Gorda have long relied on non-government grants and private donations from the international community in addition to government funding, so have been less affected by the domestic policy changes.

Many working within the NGO sector readily admit that corruption and wasteful bureaucracy has been an issue in a minority of organizations. But they are critical of the “extreme” way the President is dealing with the problem. Instead of withdrawing all funding indiscriminately, there should be efforts to identify and penalize misuse of public finances on a case-by-case basis, they say.

“Otherwise it’s like a parent punishing all of their children without finding out who caused the problem,” says, Pati Ruiz Corzo, founder of Grupo Ecológico de la Sierra Gorda. “By doing this, the government is not just losing arms and legs, it’s losing hearts and minds.”

“Civil society is necessary,” agrees Perez-Arce. “It’s people who are always there, not policy.”

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