|Definition: Exchanging favours to solve problems and satisfy needs|
|Keywords: Mexico – North America – Central America – Latin America – Ties – Economies of favours – Favour – Problem-solving – Intermediary – Personal network – Influence – Leverage|
|Author: David Arellano-Gault and Luis Jair Trejo-Alonso|
|Affiliation: Public Administration Department, Centre for Research and Teaching in Economics, Mexico City|
By David Arellano-Gault and Luis Jair Trejo-Alonso, Public Administration Department, Centre for Research and Teaching in Economics, Mexico City
| Etymologically, the term palanca has a Latin root palanga, in turn related to a Greek root phálanx or phálangos. Literally, it denotes a wooden roller or trunk, used to move large weights off the ground or to slide boats off the sand into the sea. In our case, the term lever can be better associated with Archimedes’ saying ‘give me a place to stand, and a lever long enough, and I will move the earth'. A lever, with a suitable point of support, can move (almost) anything.
Following this logic, palanca is a widely recognized in Mexico as an informal social practice of exchanging favours. Due to its informal nature, palanca lacks an established definition, yet there are studies aimed at understanding it, either through proverbs and popular sayings (Zalpa, Tapia and Reyes 2014) or through semiological analyses of how persons attribute signs and meanings to the practice (Arellano-Gault 2018). Palanca is associated with exchanges of favours between people who know each other directly, connect through an intermediary or an ‘acquaintance of acquaintances’ in order to solve a problem or satisfy a need. It is a problem-solving tool that triggers an intervention of someone in position to resolve a particular problem faced by an individual, group or family.
The problem-solver generally maintains an expectation of reciprocity for the favour given, a reciprocity that does not necessarily need to occur immediately and to be pecuniary or material. In this sense, the recipient of the favour becomes indebted to the problem-solver, and generally in a very ambiguous manner. The recipient’s obligation needs to be negotiated and communicated in a subtle way: sometimes explicitly, but more often implicitly, depending on custom, situation, and magnitude of the favour delivered.
Expectations of reciprocity create durable links between people based on mutual obligation or duty to provide support and share their influences and resources with other persons, creating a de facto network of acquaintances sharing different palancas. This network is based on the existence of people who, depending on circumstances, are, or are presumed to be, in position to intervene and help to ʻfind a wayʼ, finding ʻthe correct routeʼ (by bending the formal rules or allowing an exception) in order to resolve a problem or need of a member of the network. Palanca is not exclusive to Mexico. Variations of the practice exist in other countries of Central and South America.
Generally, in Mexico, it is assumed that individuals in positions of high influence achieve such positions, in large part, due to their abilities to use palancas and build networks through them. Persons are taught to ‘invest’ in strengthening their networks in order to make them grow in size and influence.
Palancas spread across all strata in Mexican society. However, this does not mean that palanca becomes an equalizer in life chances. The bigger and more resourceful the networks of palancas are, the more advantages they provide to their members. People in higher strata of society have access to more potent palancas.
The practice of palancas requires people, regardless of strata, to acquire certain skills, usually involving smart and cunning inter-personal capabilities. A cunning person, cunning in this sense, will invest time and resources to nurture the persons in their network: inviting them for lunch, sending a postcard in Christmas or in birthdays, or organizing dinners to connect different people. All of these activities are made in a systematic and constant manner. Depending on the context of the favour asked, palanca involves different rules of etiquette, norms of reciprocity and engagement, and compliance with non-written codes of honour.
Palanca is an old and well-established practice: some propose traces of it can be found in the colonial era in the sixteenth century (Lomnitz 2000). Traditionally, the art of using and maintaining palancas is learned informally, within families, in neighbourhood meetings, and in the development of friendly relations in schools and colleges. The ways of communication, etiquette, initiation, development and termination are transmitted by word of mouth, through day-to-day social relations, and reproduced through social norms and peer pressure.
Palanca is possible when an individual has a position of formal influence. This position allows a person to intervene in or influence the allocation of resources or entitlements; to modify organizational or legal decisions; and thus makes such a person an important asset in a network of people who support each other by exchanging favours. The reason people usually give for using palancas is generally to bypass or speed up a high number of regulations or excessive demands imposed by organizations or bureaucracies in attempting to resolve a particular problem. A typical example would involve a person needing emergency medical care in a public hospital in Mexico. Unless the family finds an acquaintance with a degree of influence to could intervene and speed up the process, the person would need to wait for a long time. If palanca is successful, individuals will be attended to and treated sooner than those without palanca, who cannot help but follow the formal procedures and obey the rules. Paradoxically, in Mexico, a family that follows rules and procedures and is unable to bend the rules is considered a failed family and has reasons for shame.
People justify palanca, since it allows a shortcut to circumvent formal procedures and obtain products, services, licenses or permits needed for solving problems. It is usually not perceived as illegal to search for palanca. Social norms in the context of formal inefficiency can make it a legitimate or justifiable action. Palanca does not seek revolt against the formal rule itself, but against the fact that the formal rule does not work out in practice.
Just as any social relationship, palanca is to be cultivated, maintained and supported by rules of etiquette and norms of reciprocity. The etiquette involves a know-how of managing access to influential persons, mastering skills of asking them for a favour, and taking care not to put those persons at risk, for instance. It is essential not to show the instrumentality of the requested favour: issues of ‘payment,’ material or not, and often simply a moral obligation to reciprocate the favour in the future, must be agreed with great tiento. If certain codes of conduct are not followed, and a payment offered or insinuated for the favour is received in a wrong way, palanca might become suspect and qualify as close to being illegal or corrupt.
The palanca is a contradictory mechanism. Similar to the Russian blat, the Chinese guanxi or the Brazilian jeitinho, palanca in Mexico is considered a balancing mechanism that restores justice when formal institutions malfunction. The justification is that when the authorities do not offer services or goods efficiently, it is fair to use palancas to use it for solving personal or family problems. However, there is less awareness among Mexican people that palancas can produce a contradictory social effect. It can perpetuate inequality, since those with more palancas have informal and opaque advantage over without or those with only few or low quality palancas. The dark side of palanca is that the most influential leverage networks can be highly exclusive, usually permeable only to those with the most money and resources. Nevertheless, for a wider public, palanca remains a healthy and functional mechanism, because it is an important source of hope (Nuijten 2003): every person can obtain and use acquaintances in theory and therefore, has the potential to obtain and use palancas.
There is also little awareness in Mexico regarding the victims of palanca (Arellano-Gault 2018). The consequences of ‘jumping the queue’ in medical treatment are most pronounced for people without levers waiting for their turn to receive medical treatment according to the formal rules.
Finally, it is necessary to point out that there is a relation between palancas and systemic, structural corruption: palancas construct parallel, informal ways that legitimate bending rules to obtain advantages and resources. There might be a blurred (perhaps cynical) border between what people in Mexico defines as ‘honest’ palancas and corrupt ones. This is an uncomfortable truth in Mexican society. Palancas are an insightful clue for understanding the persistence of corruption in countries like Mexico.
Arellano-Gault, D. 2018. ‘En México, la vida es una consecución de palancas. Escapando del monstruo burocrático kafkiano: palancas y corrupción’, in Peeters, R. and F. Nieto (eds.), Burocracia en México, Mexico City: CIDE
Lomnitz, C. 2000. Vicios públicos, virtudes privadas: la corrupción en México. Mexico City: Ciesas-M.A. Porrúa
Nuijten, M. 2003. Power, community and the state: The political anthropology of organisation in Mexico. London: Pluto Press
Zalpa, G., Tapia, E. and Reyes, J. 2014. ‘El que a buen árbol se arrima… Intercambio de favores y corrupción’, Cultura y Representaciones Sociales 9 (17): 149-176