Analysis of “Familias en Acción” and its impact on Colombian elections

Monday, June 14, 2010

Global Exchange led an observation mission in Colombia in February 2010. The mission was integrated by 22 observers from 7 countries and visited municipalities in Antioquia, Córdoba, Valle del Cauca and Santander to conduct interviews with different social actors, including representatives of political parties, local grassroots organizations, and government officials.

One of the main complaints received by the mission concerned the illegal use of a social welfare program called “Familias en Acción” by civil servants and local politicians for electoral purposes. These complaints served as the motivation for this study. The methodology behind this study relies on statistics to compare the growth of Familias en Acción to the results of the elections to congress held in March 2010 and the first round of the presidential election held in May 2010.

The study also documents complaints of manipulation filed by citizens before the National Comptroller’s Office and other local and regional offices. The study reviews poverty statistics based on the criteria established by the national poverty survey and statistics on internally displaced individuals (IDPs). All the data used comes from official statistics.

Nature of welfare subsidies.
Since 1997, more than 30 countries have implemented programs that use conditional monetary incentives, normally supported by multilateral lending institutions such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. These programs transfer small amounts of money to low-income families if they meet certain criteria, such as regular health checks and school attendance.

“Familias en Acción” was developed as a tool to invest in human capital in Colombia. It relies on small economic incentives or “conditional subsidies” for families in extreme poverty that belong in Group 1 of Colombia’s poverty survey, “Sistema de identificación para potenciales beneficiaries de los programas socials” (SISBEN). This survey classifies individuals in different tiers to determine who qualifies for different types of social welfare programs such as health care, education and housing subsidies. Since its inception in 2002, Familias en Acción has grown from 320,000 families in 620 municipalities to 2,228,443 families in 1,187 municipalities.

Main findings
-Problems to gain access to social programs such as “Familias en Acción”.

Complaints have been filed with the national and provincial Comptroller’s Office regarding access to government-funded social programs. Audits by the Departamento Nacional de Planeación (National Planning Department) reveal irregularities such as mediation by community leaders, use of false information that allows individuals above the minimum income to access social programs, and participation by SISBEN administrators and municipal authorities in the selection process, ignoring the technical criteria established by the law.

-Uneven application of “Familias en Acción” SISBEN 1 in some municipalities.

There is correlation between poverty rates and the number of “Familias en Acción” beneficiaries by department, as well as in the large cities, but not in small towns and villages.

-Uneven access to “Familias en Acción” among IDPs.

Some municipalities with a large number of registered IDPs have fewer beneficiaries than some municipalities with a much lower number. For example, there are 2,011 registered IDPs, but only 80 beneficiaries in Bahía Solano. In Pensilvania, there are 1,595 registered IDPs and 438 beneficiaries.

-Correlation between the growth of Familias en Acción and electoral results.

Statistics show parallel growth between the number of Familias en Acción beneficiaries and the electoral results of the parties in the ruling coalition for congressional elections and the first round presidential election. This parallel growth is stronger in the municipalities where the mayor comes from one of the coalition parties. The study found 26 municipalities where Partido de la U candidates won the elections for city hall, and its candidates for Senate and Congress received the highest share of votes in the primaries held on March 14. In these municipalities, the Partido de la U presidential candidate Juan Manuel Santos received more than 60% of the vote. The number of Familias en Acción beneficiaries in these municipalities grew from 19,404 in 2006 to 46,526 in 2010.

Global Exchange thanks Colombian society as a whole for supporting efforts to monitor potential manipulation of social welfare programs. Based on our findings, we make the following recommendations.

-We advise the Colombian government to make efforts to avoid participation of civil servants in politics, to encourage citizens to file complaints and to make sure that state institutions such as Unidad de Reacción Inmediata Electoral (URIEL) have the physical, human and institutional resources to fulfill their mission independently.

-We advise Colombian citizenry to reject political pressures that compromise the exercise of their free will during elections.

-We advise the Departamento Nacional de Planeación to strengthen the mechanisms that make the SISBEN survey as transparent as possible in every municipality and encourage citizens to report manipulation and illegal acts by the civil servants who run the program in every municipality.

-We advise the directors of Acción Social to engage in an aggressive information campaign to educate beneficiaries on the origin of the funds, so that they can vote freely.

-We advise the electoral authorities and the Attorney General’s office to look into the process of selection of beneficiaries for national welfare programs so as to ensure proper application of eligibility criteria.

-We advise international organizations and multilateral lending agencies to broaden the concept of risk analysis to include political manipulation of welfare programs, and require such analysis as part of application, implementation, impact and follow-up reports.

-We advise Colombian social organizations and academia to analyze the incidence of social welfare programs on election results. Examples of programs to monitor include SISBEN, Red Juntos, housing programs, Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje (SENA), and Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar (ICBF), among others.

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