A project like this raises a great deal of ethical questions. I will discuss some of the main ethical aspects I have identified and reflected upon in this section. This project was designed and implemented by the author, so I will not argue that I took advantage of something that was going to happen regardless or would have anyways been done by someone else. I welcome feedback and suggestions on issues I have not raised. Although we are trying our hardest daily to avoid any negative consequences, together with my implementing partner Participando por Mexico, I asume full responsibility on any negative consequences or externalities that a project like this can have on the communities in Yucatan.
An initial ethical concern relates to the possibility of overworking local bureaucracies with an overflow of requests. It is important to note that many of these programs were designed to be quite vague, very likely also designed to benefit party interests and distributed in a discretionary way. Although this statement is closer to common knowledge than proven fact, requesting what is by law entitled to citizens seems to outweigh the costs of overworking bureaucracies that fail to justly provide these benefits in the first place. Overworking bureaucracies with requests by real individuals to programs that a large proportion of the population is eligible for is a consequence of the existing discretionary and inefficient policy design and thus not a serious ethical concern for us.
One of the most important concerns as designing this project was creating the false expectation (among citizens) that the gestores will deliver welfare benefits and goods. Anecdotally, whoever comes into these communities offering information about social programs usually does so with the intent of providing the benefit. We, however, must be extremely clear that what we bring is information and assistance, not the benefit itself. This warning was printed on all materials we distribute and repeated continuously during the training sessions and supervisor visits to localities. During the training of gestores, I believe this concept was well understood, precautions have been taken to minimize misconceptions and prevent community gossip that we came to ‘provide goods’.
Another concern involves the possibility that a short term intervention like this one can disturb the ‘social tissue’ (tejido social) in a community. There is a possibility that preexisting linkages existing between citizens and comisarios, mayors or partisan brokers are severed, causing unintended negative consequences for the functioning social structures in the community. This concern is based on the treatment having an effect on these relationships, but more importantly it is based on many (theoretical and empirical) unknowns about what characterizes broker-client relationships and their correlation to social cohesion and social capital within communities. To address this concern, I have consulted with many local political actors and local and national civil society organizations based in Mexico that have worked for years closely with communities where brokerage structures are prevalent. None of them argues that existing partisan brokers contribute to betterment of social tissue in their communities, however many have mentioned other types of intermediaries and social leaders that do. Of those that I consulted, all agreed that it would be highly unlikely that the gestor ciudadano would disturb preexisting relationships with local social leaders in a way that might disrupt beneficial relationships or social tissue. Additionally, we asked all of the gestores in the training sessions if they had fears or worries about their work in this respect, none seemed concerned. We closely monitored this possibility throughout the intervention and found no real danger.
Notwithstanding the low probability of social tissue disruption, I highlight two main aspects of the intervention that mitigate the risk of social tissue disruption. First, and most importantly, this intervention is providing public and highly relevant information about existing social programs that most citizens of Yucatan have no idea exist. Second, the gestor ciudadano is a member of the community, which means that the information and know how will remain in the community, should anyone wish to make use of it. Additionally, together with other Mexican civil society organizations, we are building an electronic version of the information we provided. Using the results from this study as evidence, we plan on pursuing an agenda to increase transparency in the provision of information about local level social programs. In sum, I believe the clear benefits of added information and knowhow on navigating the state outweigh the potential negative consequences.
Another very important concern in the Mexican context is that gestores ciudadanos become object of harassment in their communities, especially if there is a partisan intermediary that feels their job is being usurped. We believe this to be a minor risk, Yucatan is the safest state in Mexico, when measured by the number of homicides for each 100 thousand inhabitants. In fact, Yucatan’s crime levels are almost half of that in the US (2.7 vs. 5.2 homicides per 100,000 in the US, as measured in 2015). Among the population, perceptions of insecurity are also the lowest in the country (according to the National Survey of Victimization and Perceptions of Public Safety). Furthermore, after extensive fieldwork and numerous interviews with experts in the state, we have assessed that the risk of harassment to the hired intermediaries is minimal to null.