|Definition: Negotiating access to public goods or services in a private manner|
|Keywords: Mexico – North America – Latin America – Public service – Access – Favour|
|Clusters: Market – Functional ambivalence – Gaming the system – Camouflage – Intermediation|
|Author: Tina Hilgers|
|Affiliation: Department of Political Science, Concordia University, Canada|
|Website: Profile page at CU|
By Tina Hilgers, Department of Political Science, Concordia University, Canada
| Gestión (noun; plural: gestiones; verb: gestionar) can be translated as management, but is used informally in Mexico to refer to negotiations for, or the processing of public goods or services in a private manner. A citizen or group of citizens negotiates with a politician or official to use their resources, knowledge, or influence to help them access public resources or programmes rather than having to undergo lengthy formal processes with uncertain outcomes. This is done on the understanding that the citizen(s) will then be indebted to the agent.
The word gestión comes from the Latin gerere, meaning to manage or conduct. It translates as relating to management and administration, usually in business, but may also be used in the context of politics. Sometimes defined as paperwork or red tape, the term is generally associated with business and political administration. Tramité (noun) or tramitar (verb) as the primary synonym means to process or to negotiate. The colloquial meaning of gestión cannot be found in a dictionary and rarely appears even in specialised publications. While gestión is found in Mexican media, English-language academic and mediatic treatments of the topic usually use the synonym clientelism. The compound gestión clientelista, or clientelistic management, is used in academic and media sources across the Spanish-speaking world, but in Mexico, the informal meaning of gestión (as discussed below) is common.
Gestión is, indeed, akin to clientelism and many other personal exchanges involving public resources. There are, however, important differences. Gestión refers to any instance in which someone tries to negotiate access to public resources, while clientelism is often understood as a long-term relationship involving a number of favours between a patron and a client (Auyero 1999 ). Similarities are found to vote buying (a one-time exchange of goods or money for the vote), and patronage (public sector job appointments in exchange for loyalty). These kinds of informal interactions exist worldwide, but with local variations in the vocabulary used, the norms governing the interactions, and the degree of social acceptability. Similar phenomena are found in Russian blat, Chinese guanxi, and Middle Eastern wasta. (See this volume). Mexicans use the term gestión to describe their day-to-day interactions with the state. Informal settlements may be required for a variety of needs. Examples found include roads needing to be paved or water to be supplied; peasant organizations seeking land rights; taxi drivers needing licenses; public employees requiring pensions, and entrepreneurs requesting permits: all involve negotiating (gestionar) to obtain a result.
While the gestión permeates politics, in particular its use provides resolution for societal tensions experienced by the lower classes. Mexico’s wealthy are a hermetic elite, economic opportunities are scarce, and since the start of the economic restructuring and austerity of the 1980s, social mobility has moved as frequently downwards as upward (Shefner 2008). Resource redistribution is inadequate. Policies and programs to improve access to decent nutrition, housing, health care and education are underfunded. It is particularly difficult for the poor – officially 46.2 percent of the population (CONEVAL 2014 ) - to meet their needs.
The poor know from experience that bureaucrats will be unresponsive to their demands and are uncertain regarding their position vis-à-vis the state; therefore they try to create certainty through personal appeals. Instead of struggling with the red tape of bureaucratic procedure and accepting interminable delays, they seek a person in a position of power with whom they can negotiate directly. For example, in one case a woman, who lived in a small self-built cinderblock house on an empty lot next to a low-rent apartment building in Mexico City, petitioned her municipality in vain for the installation of a streetlight in the alley connecting the property to the road (author interview 2004). When nothing happened she asked a local politician to negotiate (gestionar) for her. Shortly thereafter, lighting was installed. The woman reciprocated by becoming the leader of a committee, formed to convince her neighbours to be represented by the same politician in a politically lucrative bid involving the demolition of their homes as part of a plan to construct a new housing complex.
Although gestión meets immediate needs, it has negative consequences. Gestiones undermine transparency, merit, and equality. Citizens and officials evade formal rules for access to the state and its resources, decisions are made to benefit those from whom an obligation appears the most advantageous, and there is no control over where and how resources are allocated. Democracy is perverted as the ability of citizens to hold elected and appointed officials accountable is countered by the capacity of officials to force citizens to support them. (Stokes 2005). In addition, gestiones are exchanges that require the poor to show solidarity with elites, rather than with other citizens facing similar political and economic problems. Citizens put aside their ideological convictions to negotiate with officials whose political views they find objectionable, but whose intercession is necessary to satisfy an immediate goal. Holland and Palmer-Rubin (2015.) report that peasant organisations, critical of the state and desirous of an alternative political order, are nevertheless forced to negotiate with the state in order to retain benefits. The only way to maintain mobilisation is through direct benefits such as government subsidies. The same is true for urban organisations, which may have anti-system goals, but nevertheless find that they have to negotiate with officials to provide their members with the means for survival, which in turn allows the longer-term struggle for justice to continue (Shefner 2008). An unfortunate result of these processes is that horizontal networks and shared aims among citizens facing problems of inequality and marginalisation is undermined because of competition between them for access to officials (Montambeault 2015). The possibilities for social mobilisation are reduced and non-egalitarian systems remain stable.
Because of the adverse effects of gestión, educated individuals, as well as savvy politicians and community leaders disapprove of the word and the activities it denotes. Intellectuals and elites would prefer that the state and its agencies functioned on the basis of formal, transparent rules. Politicians and social leaders competing for votes at a local level are aware that the gestión is objectionable and not only avoid using the term, but may also go to great lengths in interviews to make clear that they shun the practice. Observation of their interactions with citizens however, reveals that gestiones are central to politics. Measuring the incidence of the phenomenon is thus difficult.
Individuals who are easily accessible for interviews and surveys – the middle and upper classes – may be highly critical of such exchanges, but unwilling to offer honest responses regarding their own behaviour as they are reluctant to appear in a negative light. People like Doña Alejandra, who regularly resort to gestiónes, are typically more difficult to access. They may be distrustful of interviewers, and may be loath to discuss the source of their resources for fear of losing privileges. Consequently, much available research on gestiones (and clientelism more generally) is based on ethnographic interviews and participant observation in particular locations. Researchers wanting to gather broader, survey-based data, try to avoid the sensitive elements of the issue by posing questions that do not target the respondent as an active participant in the behaviour. Respondents might be asked whether they have been offered something in return for their vote (AmericasBarometer 2011) or how corrupt they perceive various political institutions and state agencies to be (Universidad del Valle de México 2014 ). The results of such questions provide little certainty regarding the extent of public goods distribution that occurs through gestiónes. Nevertheless, the initiated hypothesise that little happens without a gestión in Mexican public services, particularly when the poor are involved (see Álvarez Prieto 2015 ).
- Auyero, J. 1999. ‘"from the Client's Point(s) of View": How Poor People Perceive and Evaluate Political Clientelism,’ Theory and Society, 28(2): 297–334.
- CONEVAL. 2014. ‘Medición de la pobreza,’ http://www.coneval.gob.mx/Medicion/MP/Paginas/Pobreza_2014.aspx
- Doña Alejandra. 2004. Author interview, Mexico City.
- Stokes, S.C., 2005. ‘Perverse accountability: A formal model of machine politics with evidence from Argentina,’ American Political Science Review, 99(03): 315-25.
- Holland, A. and Palmer-Rubin, B. 2015. ‘Beyond the Machine: Clientelist Brokers and Interest Organizations in Latin America’, Comparative Political Studies, 48(9): 1186-223
- Shefner, J. 2008. The Illusion of Civil Society: Democratization and Community Mobilization in Low-Income Mexico. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
- Montambeault, F. 2015. The Politics of Local Participatory Democracy in Latin America: Institutions, Actors, and Interactions. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
- AmericasBarometer. 2011. ‘Vote-Buying in the Americas,’ AmericasBarometer Insights: 2011, Number 57, http://www.vanderbilt.edu/lapop/insights/I0857en.pdf
- Universidad del Valle de México. 2014. ‘Corrupción en México: nadie se salva,’ 16 December, http://opinionpublicauvm.mx/blog/corrupci%C3%B3n-en-m%C3%A9xico-nadie-se-salva
- Álvarez Prieto, A. 2015. ‘La política popular en México: disyuntivas para la izquierda,’ Horizontal, 27 August, http://horizontal.mx/la-politica-popular-en-mexico-disyuntivas-para-la-izquierda