Instead of all those complicated, multi-year Honduran development projects, why not just give poor people money?
The Bono 10,000 program takes that approach. Families - supposedly the poorest - get 10,000 lempiras a year, about $500.
That’s big money. Many people work full-time for $2,000 a year or less. When it’s Bono time, trucks full of campesinos head into Copan Ruinas and other centres, several families, moms, dads and kids, standing in the back of each pickup.
This year, smiling politicians from the governing party have been on hand to give out the money, and remind recipients who to vote for in Sunday’s elections.
The Bono program is a good primer in development issues.
Start with the whole short-term, long-term challenge.
International funders like projects that promise long-term change. Helping families grow new cash crops, or working with communities so they can hold government accountable.
Frontline workers with Honduran agencies know the people in the communities and see their immediate problems. They will sometimes settle for short-term fixes - money for a dozen bags of better corn seeds and some fertilizer.
The Bono 10,000 program tries to promote long-term change. Parents have to promise to send their children to school and adopt some preventive health-care practices. Healthier children are expected do better in school.
And there is some program money to expand access to education past Grade 6. (Access to education past Grade 6 is only available in one-third of rural communities. Education quality is dismal.)
The Bono program has only been in place since 2010. But the Inter-American Development Bank, one of the big funders, has done an evaluation that seemed positive. Participating families spent more. That’s unsurprising, but it did help the local economies. Children of participating families were somewhat more likely to go to school. Also good.
But there are problems.
Like politics, corruption and inefficiency.
In a country where 74 per cent of the people live in poverty and 47 in extreme poverty, identifying the target group for the Bonos is difficult.
But there are complaints of favoritism and politicization, especially in this election year. Smiling politicians are on hand to give out the Bonos to big crowds, sometimes with tragic results.
The Bonos, for example, are supposed to go to 200,000 poor families this year. But the government has decreed that the families of people in the army, police and fire departments should get the payment. That could be up to 30,000 families.
It’s a political gesture and a way to take money that’s supposed to be supporting social development and use it to cover government expenses. (The army, police and firefighters are poor; police are paid about $150 per month.)
In another political gesture, one of the three serious contenders for the presidency has pledged to extend the program to 800,000 families.
Which raises the whole question of sustainability, another big development issue.
The IDB is the main funder of the program, and almost all the money is in the form of loans, not grants.
Every year the Bono 10,000 program runs, Honduras goes deeper in debt. The program, at current levels, is adding $100 million a year that, theoretically, will have to be repaid. (Theoretically because the government is effectively broke and its capacity to repay debts highly doubtful.)
The debt is fine if the program is going to bring healthier, better educated people and future economic gains. But that’s not likely without other big changes - less corruption and crime, half-decent roads, better schools.
Then there’s the related dependence issue, which features in any development discussion. Is the Bono program helping families build bettrer futures? Or is it encouraging them to count on someone else to come along and give them some money?
There are no simple answers. It’s easy to warn against the risk of dependence when you’re in a developed country talking about aid theory. It’s harder when you’re looking at a population where 31 per cent of all kids under five are malnourished. Long-term solutions alone are going to come too late for them.
The Bono 10,000 program looks mostly like a useful stopgap, especially if its administration and equity are improved.
But Honduras needs a lot more profound structural changes - better schools, less corruption, a functioning justice system, adequate infrastructure if it’s not to be perpetually dependent on such short-term aid.