Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

In Honduras, Rural School Jobs Handed to President’s Supporters

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In “Power to the Parents,” an article in the Summer AQ, Daniel Altschuler looks at community run schools in Honduras and Guatemala.


Recent Honduran press reports have honed in on a spate of partisan teacher firings in the country’s primary education program for remote, rural communities, PROHECO (Honduran Community Education Program, Programa Hondureño de Educación Comunitaria). Journalists have documented how President Lobo’s Partido Nacional has replaced field staff with party activists, canceled teachers’ contracts to install party supporters and undermined parent organizations’ autonomy.

These reports suggest that the new ruling party has used PROHECO to divert resources and jobs to its followers, undermining the program’s ability to realize its stated objectives. Just criticizing the Partido Nacional, however, ignores the broader problem with PROHECO, a program that reflects the pervasive clientelistic politics upon which both dominant Honduran political parties rely.

PROHECO emerged in the late 1990s as an alternative education model to expand education coverage in remote rural areas. PROHECO, like other community-managed school (also known as school-based management) programs in Central America, gave parents the right to hire and fire teachers in new rural schools and pay salaries based on attendance. The program aimed to increase accountability and empower parents to take on roles of responsibility within their communities. Recent reports in the major Honduran newspapers, however, have highlighted how the Partido Nacional has replaced all of PROHECO’s field staff and tried to force out teachers hired under the previous administration. Reporters have documented local party and program officials, all of whom are partisan activists, cancelling teachers’ contracts that were signed for the entire 2010 school year and forcing parents to elect new leaders if the current school council members refuse to replace the current teacher with a Partido Nacional loyalist.

But what reporters have missed is that their findings, troubling as they are, reflect continuity rather than change. What has happened in 2010 mirrors what occurred in 2006, when the Partido Liberal took power.

As part of my doctoral research on the PROHECO schools, I reviewed PROHECO personnel records for the 2006-2009 period. These records revealed that only one of 190 departmental staff members in 2009 held his job in 2006, when the previous government was in power. These records also listed the political connection (aval político) that enabled each departmental coordinator to get and keep his job—in most cases, the contacts were diputados (including then President of Congress Roberto Micheletti), but then President Zelaya, the head of the Partido Liberal, and a municipal party council also each named one person.

Moreover, in 2009, politics provoked turnover even without elections. After the June 28 coup unseated President Zelaya, the de facto government replaced PROHECO’s national coordinator and at least five departmental coordinators, all of whom had supported Zelaya’s controversial Cuarta Urna.

At the community level, my research also identified a persistent pattern of promoters trying to force out teachers to replace them with ruling party supporters. To get a job, teachers have for years had to show their support for, or use personal connections to, the ruling party—whether Liberal or National. Virtually every teacher, promoter, and parent leader with whom I discussed staff hiring acknowledged this.

As one teacher explained, “They ask you for a political recommendation. I got [the signatures of two diputados] through my brother-in-law, because he works for PROHECO, he’s a promoter. [To get hired, you have to take] the paper [political recommendation] to the PROHECO office to show that you’re Liberal or have worked for the party.” Promoters, in turn, explained that the pressure for partisan hiring came from diputados and local party leaders. As one described, they “recommend people to the district education office and PROHECO, they propose a teacher. If one doesn’t accept that person, they can remove you [from your job]. We’re puppets of the politicians.”

Simply put, PROHECO’s politicization produces massive staff turnover at least every four years. With the change of government and ruling party, the program replaces virtually all of roughly 200 departmental coordinators, promoters, and administrative staff. These staff, in turn, try to install party loyalists into the system’s thousands of teacher positions.

What the media has observed this year, then, is not a product of Partido Nacional rule; it is simply how the system has operated, under both parties, for years.

It was not always this way. For the initial round of hiring field staff during President Flores’ term, PROHECO held a national competition, which involved training and a competitive examination, for promotor and departmental coordinator positions. Oversight declined, however, during President Maduro’s term, and the hiring system gave way to a partisan-based terna in which ruling party diputados typically submitted the applications for each available position. Competitive selection processes declined over time, and, by President Zelaya’s term, any semblance of merit-based hiring had disappeared. In the words of one PROHECO employee, the parties had come to see PROHECO as a valuable “place to put their people,” and the model suffered as a result.

This reflects a broader problem in Honduras: the capture of development programs by the ruling party. For years, Honduras distinguished itself in Central America by having a two-party system with reliable alternation of power. But the two parties’ actions remained dictated by a clientelistic logic, which included widespread efforts to buy votes and reward supporters with jobs and other benefits. This led scholar Michelle Taylor-Robinson to describe Honduras as being dominated by two “competing patronage pyramids.”

Recent studies have shown declining voter identification with the Liberal and National parties, but the parties have continued operating under the same clientelistic logic, while the PINU, DC, and UD have remained marginal. This reflects the fact that, as a study of Mexico under the PRI showed, clientelistic parties can dominate even when they are unpopular.

In certain parts of Mexico, voters would have preferred to elect opposition parties in local elections, but they knew that doing so would likely reduce the resources that the national government (dominated by the PRI) would deliver to the area. Thus, Alberto Diaz-Cayeros and Beatriz Magaloni once wrote of the “tragic brilliance” of the now-defunct Mexican system, in which voters strategically decided to keep a party they disliked, but retain[ed] enough funds to pay for essential public services in the locality, rather than voting for their preferred choice with no funds.”

Something similar may be happening in Honduras. In surveys, voters reveal less and less support for the Liberal and National parties, but these parties continue to dominate on election day. These results likely reflect strategic behavior from voters, who know that voting for the PINU, DC or UD may undermine the material support they get from the government, especially given the municipalities’ financial dependence on the national government and the ruling party’s control over hiring in programs like PROHECO and selecting areas to implement development and infrastructure projects.

Voters in remote rural areas, where PROHECO schools are concentrated, are even more susceptible to these clientelistic strategies. Residents of these communities are among the poorest in Honduras, so the small material benefits offered to them by politicians (e.g., a small bag of food on Election Day) can be enough to convince them to support a particular party.

Moreover, as recent events in the PROHECO system have shown, these communities have few resources to resist partisan encroachment. In particular, parent leaders are often uneducated, with little knowledge of whom they could turn to for help with a contract dispute or to complain about the actions of a promotor. Training for parent leaders has also been virtually non-existent in recent years, so most council members do not have the knowledge to assert the council’s autonomy. Finally, because of their geographic isolation and limited material resources, most of these parents have never organized beyond their individual communities, making it relatively easy for local authorities to manipulate them.

In short, structural factors reinforce the pervasive clientelism that reporters have recently identified in the PROHECO system. Thus, while focusing on the recent spate of firings represents a step in the right direction, simply decrying the Partido Nacional ignores how deeply entrenched this problem is. On July 15, the Congress did pass a motion to freeze the firings, but several Partido Nacional legislators disputed the vote. Without question, the Congress should take measures to stop the current wave of partisan encroachment and hold Partido Nacional leaders accountable for their actions. But these short-term fixes will not change the longer-term problem.

For PROHECO, a longer-term solution would need to involve efforts to move back to a system of competitive, non-partisan hiring for staff in the Tegucigalpa, departmental and municipal offices. This would ensure not only stability in these supporting offices, but also in the schools, where field staff would no longer try to oust teachers based on party affiliation. Given the vested interests of legislators in both dominant parties for keeping the system as it is, this will be an uphill battle. It would thus likely require increased oversight and demands for transparency from Honduran civil society groups and international donors, the latter of which have supported PROHECO in recent years without acknowledging how the program has become a tool for the ruling party. Without pressure from outside the Liberal and National parties, this clientelistic system will be unlikely to change. And, if it does not change, rural communities will continue to suffer the consequences.

*Daniel Altschuler is a contributing blogger to www.AmericasQuarterly.org and a doctoral candidate in Politics and Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on civic and political participation in Honduras and Guatemala.


Daniel Altschuler has written extensively on Central American politics and U.S. immigration politics for publications including the Christian Science MonitorForeign Policy, The Nation, CNN, and Dissent. He is a contributing blogger to AQ Online and holds a doctorate in politics from the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. To read more of his writing, visit danielaltschuler.com.

Tags: Education, Honduras, Manuel Zelaya
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