Yesterday, when we closed the doors of the Hewlett Foundation’s Mexico City office for the last time, it was with a sense of admiration for the work done by the talented staff and grantees over the past dozen or so years – and a sense of promise about the work yet to come. Let me use this space to explain why we made this change and what it means for the community of grantees we support.

The Hewlett Foundation office in Mexico City—our only office aside from our home base of Menlo Park, California—was set up in 2001 to support the U.S. Latin American Relations Program (USLAR Program). Over four years, the USLAR Program invested about $21 million in work to “strengthen and foster cooperation among institutions in the Americas in order to address common hemispheric challenges.”  This included grant making in environment (mostly fresh water management), democratic governance, migration studies, economic research, and studies of justice reform and rule of law in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Mexico.

The USLAR Program achieved a great deal. To give just a few examples: Together with the Ford and MacArthur Foundations we funded a fellowship program that supported hundreds of Mexicans in graduate programs in the U.S. Technical information produced by Hewlett Foundation grantees on rule of law was adopted for the major reform to Mexico’s justice system in 2008. And the Emmy Award-winning documentary Presumed Guilty crystalized several years of research and data collection by our grantees. 

Over time, the USLAR Program evolved into lines of work under the Environment Program, including significant efforts around public transportation and air quality, and the Global Development (now Global Development and Population, or GD&P) Program. 

The Environment Program has had some great successes. Let me just say if you’re one of the many people who uses Mexico City’s Ecobici bike share, you’ve experienced the end results of their work first-hand. In addition, grantee organizations helped to develop the Metro Bus system in Mexico City. The first corridor was opened in 2005 and it has now five more corridors with over 100 km of dedicated and efficient bus lanes. This system moves 700,000 passengers a day. Grantees also helped to create the conditions for the approval of the first fuel economy standard for new passenger cars in Latin America. This will come fully into force in 2016 and will save not only emissions but also cost for Mexican consumers.

In Global Development and Population, our major emphasis has been to support greater access to information about public laws, budgets, spending, and service delivery quality, and to fund efforts by citizen groups to use that information to hold governments at both federal and state level accountable for living up to their many commitments.

The successes of our grantees are too many to mention, but include contributions to:

  • Laying the groundwork for passage of Mexico’s federal Freedom of Information Act.
  • Achievements in public sector transparency, including availability of better budget information, improved rules governing the use of public funds (such as performance-based budgeting systems), and a pioneering framework for impact evaluation of social programs.
  • The Mexican Farm Subsidy Database that highlighted the reality that farm subsidies were not always going to their intended beneficiaries.
  • Projects like Mejora Tu Escuela, that uses publicly available information about schools to help citizens make decisions and take action.
  • Bringing together diverse organizations into a community of practice, in which new and exciting collaborations have resulted from on-going information-sharing and trust-building.

It was, in fact, these sorts of successes that inspired the Hewlett Foundation to engage at a much larger scale in the field of transparency and accountability, now with a geographic focus on East and West Africa.

So, why leave? Well, first of all, we are not leaving altogether. We intend to continue to make grants in Mexico around challenges in transparency, accountability and civic participation. Mexico has consistently demonstrated that it is an incubator for innovative thinking, with the potential not only to make significant advances for the Mexican population but also to influence the field far beyond its borders. Just this year, for example, as Mexico is the co-chair of the Open Government Partnership, there are a vast number of opportunities to demonstrate new international leadership. We see that, we appreciate that, and we intend to continue to provide support to a thriving community of organizations working on these tough issues. In addition, the Environment Program intends to continue making grants in Latin America on climate change mitigation via partner organizations and re-granters.

But we are ending our physical presence there because, like everyone else, we have to make tradeoffs in how we deploy staff and other resources. We don’t have the option of expanding the number of staff, and we see great value in having more Program Officer time and attention dedicated to grants in other regions. We believe the strong relationships we have in Mexico—and the relative proximity that permits frequent travel—will keep us in touch with what’s going on, while freeing up some resources to pursue our ambitious work on transparency, accountability,  and participation globally and in Africa. Moreover, by having staff work simultaneously on a portfolio in Mexico and in other parts of the world, we can be more efficient in transmitting lessons and ideas back and forth.

I’ve been tremendously impressed with the understanding and cooperative spirit of our grantee community as we’ve consulted over the past year about this change. I have no doubt that the excellent work and the open, dynamic collaboration we’ve enjoyed until now will continue—and deepen—as we move to this new way of working together.