abusometro Billboard erected in Mexico City in August highlighted wasted education salaries.

Electronic billboard counts off the waste

Advocacy group highlights salaries paid to missing teachers: some retired, others died

What one man describes as “the robbery of the century” is now on display in Mexico City in the form of a giant electronic billboard.

The robbery? Education funding that is diverted or stolen which, using figures from a government census, is estimated at 35 billion pesos a year.

The “abusometer” was erected by Mexicanos Primero, an education advocacy organization whose president says, “The corruption is massive.”

It was educational reform that made the data available. Last year’s federal census of schools and teachers came up with some alarming figures: salaries were being paid to teachers and administrators who were not actually showing up for work anywhere. Some had retired, some had even died and others were working for their unions. The total number of no-show educators was 298,174.

Mexicanos Primero came up with their estimate of the total wasted by multiplying that figure by an average monthly salary of 10,000. The organization says the money lost could be used to fund the construction of 24 schools a day, or pay at least 17,000 pesos a month to every teacher.

Situated at a busy intersection on the Periférico Sur 349, the abusometer began counting on the first day of school, August 17, adding up peso by peso the waste of educational funding. There is also a website and a Twitter hashtag, #abusometro.

A report in yesterday’s New York Times observes that the campaign is a sign that civil society in Mexico is getting more sophisticated, but also highlights a divide between a growing and digitized middle class — which expects transparency, data-driven decisions and speedy results — and an old guard in government that still relies largely on secrecy and paperwork.

“Citizens have learned that democracy offers many ways for them to voice their views, even in forceful and assertive ways,” said Rubén Gallo, a professor of Latin American culture at Princeton University. “This, combined with a Latin code of honor, means that shaming a corrupt politician through inventions like the abusómetro is a perfect combination of the new — democratic awareness — and the traditional — a code of honor, in which an enemy can be publicly humiliated.”

Mexico’s educational standings compared to other countries are not good, yet spending on education in relation to Gross Domestic Product is higher than many. Spending on staffing accounts for 93% of the total, more than any other country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The same teacher and school census also revealed that many school facilities are substandard; 18,000 don’t even have electricity.

The government has not responded to the abusometer but a professor of Latin American studies at the University of Texas thinks officials might be moving carefully because the transparency offered by the census is something people aren’t used to.

Luis Urrieta Jr. said the bureaucracy not only needs to be held accountable for the corruption, but to enact the changes necessary to overcome it, making for a delicate balancing act.

The situation is delicate to begin with. Teachers in the states of Oaxaca and Michoacán have been the most militant in their protests against education reform. Indeed, Oaxaca teachers are marching today in the Zócalo in Mexico City, and have been conducting ongoing protests in Oaxaca city since reforms were announced.

Teachers’ positions have been sold or passed down among families in a system based upon nepotism and patronage, and some families are receiving the income of dead relatives. Cutting off the flow of money could spark more, serious protests, which could be the reason for proceeding with caution, says Urrieta.

Mexicanos Primero is asking the government to take action in four areas: make public the census database, bring order to the teacher payroll by January 1, pay only those who teach and develop a system for information and education management.

The man behind the abusometer wants to see action. “They know . . . they have a massive problem,” says González. “They just need the political will to change it.”

Sources: New York Times (en), Animal Político (sp)

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