The Misiones have to go

And that's why we don't like him.
And that’s why I don’t like him.

The Misiones, Hugo Chávez’s trademark social programs, have become the proverbial third rail in Venezuelan politics – nobody dares touch them because they are so damn popular.

But since we are unelectable, it’s about time we speak the truth and come out of the closet: “I’m Juan, and I hate the Misiones.”

Before you get into a frenzy and paint me as some sort of plutocratic, squash-the-poor reactionary, please note this isn’t some wholesale rejection of social policy or call for a return to Dickensian laissez-faire.

Instead, this is a call to get real about the fact that the Misiones are catastrophically bad social policy: half-baked, bloated, corrupt monstrousities nobody properly thought through, and hardly anyone dares question.

If this is now the consensus way of distributing the oil rents, we’re screwed. The misiones are teaching a generation of Venezuelans terrible lessons about what social policy can and ought to be. If we are not even allowed to question their “wisdom,” and criticizing them amounts to political suicide, we simply have no future.

We must fight this.

The first thing I hate about the Misiones is that they are haphazardly put together. Quick – can you tell me the name of the person in charge of Misión Mercal? Misión Robinson? Misión Barrio Adentro? Their numerical targets? Performance indicators?

You can’t, because they don’t exist. Misiones exist in the ether, courtesy of the whim of the President, thanks to the largesse of the Miraflores checkbook. They don’t have a formal budget. We don’t know how many people they employ, nor how many people benefit from them.

We don’t know their numerical objectives, nor the techniques employed to measure its success. They don’t quantify their goals, nor do they have any space for monitoring or evaluation, any standards at all to judge how much of the money they spend is well spent, and how much of it is waste. They have no mechanisms in place to fight corruption or systems to find it out and root it out when it happens. They’re social policy a la Eudomar Santos

These crucial shortcoming perpetuate the idea of rentism. One of the principal moral shortcomings oil has helped metastasize is this idea that there is a free lunch, that money will simply fall out of the sky because we are a rich country, that there is no opportunity cost. This permeates everything in Venezuela – from our attitudes toward education to our alarmingly low levels of savings.

All of this is facilitated by the quick spurts of oil rents, but also by the policies put in place to distribute them for political gain. Once the absurdly high oil prices revert to their mean, these policies invariably collapse, and we learn nothing. This is not to say that oil per se is bad. What’s bad is the way we have let it infiltrate our culture and twist our values into something that prevents us from thinking about scarcity, productivity, technology, and education. They call it “the devil’s excrement” for a reason.

With no formal structures, with no single person calling the shots, it’s hard to even say in what sense misiones exist, or what they really are. Ultimately, they become a festering cauldron of corruption, even though they manage to help a few people. That’s not policy – you might as well hop on a helicopter and start throwing bills into the slums of Caracas. You’d probably have a larger impact.

Another reason the Misiones constitute terrible policy is their shoddy targeting. Anyone, no matter how rich, can walk into a Mercal and buy highly subsidized food from the government – hell, even we tried doing that. Anybody can benefit from a Barrio Adentro doctor, whether you’re in Carapita or in Chuao. And even though certain Misiones – such as Misión Ribas – are focused on the barrios, do we actually know if everyone benefitting from them are actually in need of help? And as great as it would be if the government could provide everyone in Venezuela with affordable housing, it can’t and it won’t. Regardless, there is a Misión Gran Vivienda Venezuela that aspires to do just that, and does a crappy job at it. Impossible goals, meet total opacity – I hope you two get along snappily.

As it happens, there is great income diversity within Venezuelan barrios. In the same street, you may find truly indigent people coexisting with lower-middle-class bureaucrats for some government institution. Clearly, the needs of those two groups are different, and money that goes to one necessarily is not available for other people in need. Resources are scarce, and you want the biggest bang for your buck.

Simply targeting neighborhoods, like Barrio Adentro does, is not enough. Put together this way, some money always ends up where it is not needed. Modern social policy is data-driven, evidence-based, and outcome-oriented. The misiones are none of those things.

None of this is exactly rocket science – governments all over have gradually converged on a series of best practice standards to make sure they’re getting the most impact for their social spending.

You can get a sense for how it’s done looking at the extensive work done to document the impact of Colombia’s Familas en Acción program, or the cottage industry of policy analysis that has grown up around Mexico’s Oportunidades-Progresa initiative. In each case, policy goals are stated explicitly and outcomes are evaluated on an ongoing basis, with research into what works continuously looping back into the design of the policy.

But the people running the misiones are too busy handing out T-shirts to think about this. Wallowing in a mudpit of petrodollars, nobody cares if half (or a third…or three fourths) of the money they get is wasted, or leaks out to people who aren’t even vaguely within the target demographic, or even if there is a target demographic. They’re just throwing money in the general direction of the problem, hoping that maybe some of it will stick – but lacking any mechanism able to tell how much (if any) actually does.

The problem with these, and other failures, is that they can’t really be fixed. You can’t take a Misión and simply say you’re going to make it better by, say, making it accountable or smart. The Misión is, by definition, a program that targets everyone, where nobody is held accountable, and no specific criteria for meeting a target. This leads to a different problem – one having to do with branding.

Some people will say that the opposition understands all of what I have said, but they pledge to keep the Misiones as a matter of protecting a popular brand and survival. “The Misiones are popular,” goes the thinking, “but I must say that I will support them in order to get elected. Even though I want to dramatically overhaul them to make them better, I downplay that … because people wouldn’t understand.”

My problem with that approach is that loyalty to a faulty brand leads to a basic insincerity, whereby politicians are forced to defend programs that, by all accounts, desperately need to be radically changed.

You can eliminate all the problems with the Misiones and continue to call them such, but if you do things right you will end up with a completely different animal, and by continuing to call them Misiones you begin treading in the path of insincerity. That is why, no matter how much they promise, voters always believe opposition politicians are going to take away the Misiones.

What is the point, then, of protecting the “Misión” brand by promising not to touch them? Do people actually believe we love them?

Of course not, because deep down, we don’t. We understand how radically they need to change.

Are we really naive enough to think that Misiones constitute valid social policy? Or are we tricking people into thinking that they won’t be touched, when in fact they will be completely made over while their “name brand” remains intact?

Naming issue aside, we would do well to come clean and admit the Misiones are terrible social policy. They can and must be replaced by something much, much better, and a lot of it involves targeted cash transfers.

Keep the name if you must, but make sure people understand they will be an entirely different beast. When chavismo finally comes to its dramatic end, people need to understand things will have to change in order to make our country a better place.