“Foundations” is a series of informal question-and-answer sessions with employees and others affiliated with The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to give them an opportunity to explain their work.
C. R. Hibbs is the program officer and managing director for the Hewlett Foundation’s Global Development Program office in Mexico City, where since 2004 she has overseen grants to organizations that work to promote government accountability and transparency. In recent years, much of that work has centered on using the Mexican government’s freedom of information act, which establishes citizens’ rights to government information.
Before joining the Hewlett Foundation, Hibbs was a program officer at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego, where she specialized in environmental and migration issues of the U.S.-Mexico border. Hibbs has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a master’s degree in Latin American Studies from the University of California, San Diego.
Now nearing the end of her term with the Foundation (which imposes limits on the term of program officers), she reflects on that work, its progress, setbacks, and surprises.
What did you envision your work to be when you started in Hewlett’s Mexico City office, and how has that changed?
When I started, nearly a decade ago, it was an entirely different program. I started working in the since-closed U.S.-Latin American Relations Program, where we did a broad range of grantmaking. For example, among other things, the Program worked on the environment and rule of law in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico.
As we rethought our work, we asked fundamental questions: Should we be working in Mexico? And if so, where could a U.S. foundation with resources like ours make a difference? At the time, I was very intrigued that the Mexican federal government had passed a freedom of information law. I thought there might be opportunities there. That was 2004. And that’s when our work on transparency and accountability began.
How did the work proceed?
It started with our funding the work of Mexican grantees to strengthen and expand citizens’ access to government information through these laws. Often these efforts have taken the form of monitoring the use of public funds intended for the poor to ensure this money is used appropriately. Tracking data about who receives government farm subsidies is one good example.
You’ve said elsewhere that grantees coming together to create a community to work on the issues was crucial. Why was that?
There was a practical aspect to it at first. We were new to these issues, and they were easier to learn if we brought everyone together. We started by meeting the people who had worked to pass the federal freedom of information law. They had begun efforts to ensure it was being implemented. There also were groups using the law to get information in different subject areas, like health and the environment. And other organizations were working to extend the federal law to the states.
These different communities of nonprofit organizations weren’t very connected to each other and, as a result of our initial efforts, they began to convene to learn the issues and identify a common agenda. These meetings were called “transparency breakfasts,” but they really were half-day workshops. They’ve been going on now for six years, and they’ve really succeeded in creating a community of practitioners who work on access to information and accountability in government budgets. It’s quite a mix. The academics are there with the advocates and sometimes even government officials, and we’ve all benefited from this sustained interaction.
What most surprised you—both good and bad—as this grantmaking unfolded?
The biggest surprise, which in retrospect should not have been a surprise at all, may have been how difficult it was to actually realize the promises of Mexico’s freedom of information laws. It’s not unusual in Mexico for a law to be passed and then never implemented. There were wonderful victories along the way in getting laws on the books that guaranteed public access to information. But getting government at various levels to make good on the laws’ promise has been, and will continue to be, the central challenge.
The other surprise has been how much work is needed to strengthen grantee organizations in Mexico. For any of this to succeed, we need robust organizations capable of carrying out the work over time. That means generally strengthening the capacity of nonprofit organizations and the environment in which they operate. The people in these organizations are really talented professionals, but laws and regulations governing nonprofits in Mexico are both weak and restrictive, more so than in the United States. Organizations also find it hard to get domestic funding. So organizational support and development all became part of our goals.
All that said, I’ve been inspired by how effective and creative and dedicated our grantees are. What they’ve been able to accomplish in this environment is amazing. The great gift of working for the Hewlett Foundation has been my ability to support world-class grantees doing exceptional work despite all these difficulties.
How would you describe the current state of the work to gain public access to government information?
Our grantees have been very successful over these last six years in advancing and strengthening access to information and using it. They have also been trailblazers in using newly available information to conduct basic research, and to understand structural and institutional obstacles to implementation. But we need to acknowledge all of this as just the first steps toward greater government accountability. That’s the ultimate goal.
Grantees also need to hold the line against pushback from those both in government and out who oppose public access to government information. Particularly now, with heightened concerns about security, it’s a harder time to push for more openness.
What do you view as the work’s biggest successes and biggest setbacks?
One of many successes that come to mind is a database of agricultural subsidies, which was the collaboration of three grantees. It’s been very successful in enabling the public to learn who is benefiting and is the kind of project that potentially could work in other countries. In addition to making agricultural subsidies more transparent, other grantee successes that come to mind include innovative indices that measure state-level budget transparency and implementation of state-level access to information laws; a project that measured the quality of evaluations of government programs; groundbreaking methodology for making access to information rights useful for poor communities; extension of health benefits to low-level government workers in the state of Sonora; and halting of a major dam project by showing that the legally required environmental impact studies were not done.
Another success which I already mentioned is the strengthening of the environment for civil society and philanthropy in Mexico. For example, when we started, only traditional charities were eligible for tax-deductible status as nonprofits. Now environmental groups, human rights groups, budget monitoring groups, and civic groups are all eligible, a byproduct of Hewlett’s grantmaking. I hope this has been a structural, lasting contribution that the Foundation has made here.
Are there lessons in this grantmaking in Mexico for funders who want to do similar work in other countries?
Absolutely. Creating a community of practitioners who work on transparency and accountability is something that could likely translate to other countries. To date, not many other funders have attempted this, and it has a great deal of potential. The work has not been about supporting a couple of pilot projects here and there, but rather, fostering an ecosystem of organizations that work on transparency at a country level. It is important to note that Mexico is the gold standard for access to information, and what happens in Mexico with respect to implementation – for good or for bad – will likely have global ripple effects.
In fact, there are a lot of opportunities in this field, with a lot of interest among many funders. Each country is different, but there are, in fact, important lessons to be learned from the Mexico case, and work is starting in several.
I want to stress that transparency doesn’t necessarily lead to accountability, but it is a prerequisite.
Learn more about the Hewlett Foundation’s grantmaking for Transparency and Accountability in Mexico.