The Smith Fellowship, one of the hallmark programs of Atlas Leadership Academy, brings up-and-coming leaders from around the world to Washington, D.C., where they receive varied training in marketing, fundraising, management, and other relevant skills needed for getting nascent think tanks off the ground.
A recent alumna of Atlas Network’s Smith Fellowship, Susana Donaire is the institutional development coordinator of México Evalúa, an Atlas Network partner organization based in Mexico City, Mexico. Atlas Network’s Leadership Academy’s program manager, Tarun Vats, recently caught up with Susana to discuss the challenges in Mexico, how México Evalúa hopes to make a difference, and how the Smith Fellowship has created new opportunities to help Susana in her work.
Tarun Vats: What do you see as the three most significant challenges facing Mexico currently?
Susana Donaire: Mexico is facing a serious security crisis. Ten years after the beginning of the so-called “war on narcotraffic,” the lethal violence in many Mexican municipalities and states has considerably increased. Delinquency has become a central public fear. Rising crime and homicide rates have given way to public debates over the solution to general insecurity. As a result, delinquency reduction is now one of the main challenges for President Peña Nieto’s administration.
Corruption is another one of the main political issues the country is facing. According to the 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index, published by Transparency International, on a scale from 0 to 100 (where 100 represents the lowest levels of corruption), Mexico scored 30 points, similar to countries like the Philippines, Armenia, and Mali. Corruption plagues many sectors such as politics, law, and business, affecting the interactions that common citizens have with these sectors. The main challenge in the fight against corruption is impunity. This persistent problem has given way to efforts to establish an independent prosecutor’s office that can effectively enforce anti-corruption laws.
Mexico’s federal government institutions that are charged with monitoring the federal budget exercise are weak and ill-equipped to ensure proper federal spending. Democracy is weakened by a national debt that is constantly rising and a budget that is perpetually depleted by corruption scandals. Budgetary practices in Mexico still have a long way to go before they may be deemed proper and effective. Every year since 2005, 65 percent of the approved budget has undergone adjustments during the implementation phase. This has occurred without the proper approval or report of such modifications. Over time, this “flexibility” discourages prudent financial planning policies and impedes the development of a competitive economic environment.
What current projects of México Evalúa address those challenges?
With the security program, we have worked to broaden the understanding of the phenomenon of violence in the country, to influence the design of more effective security policies (such as crime prevention strategies), to contribute to the development of institutional capacities at diverse levels and to strengthen citizens' abilities to independently monitor and evaluate security system function.
We have worked closely with several NGOs and legislative representatives to draft the constitutional reform which created the National Anticorruption System—an autonomous body with the authority to prevent, investigate, and punish corruption. The reform required the creation of a mechanism to evaluate Anticorruption Agencies and the establishment of a Citizen Participation Council (CPC) to monitor their compliance. In this context, these representatives asked our organization to help them design indicators to measure the efficacy of the new anti-corruption system. Since the implementation of the National Anticorruption System in 2016, we have been evaluating the system’s performance and helping the legislative branch to create the secondary laws around this reform.
In terms of economic policies, each year, México Evalúa does a systematic review of the budget proposal draft presented by the Mexican government in the legislative debate cycle (between September and October) and provides recommendations on aspects of the budget that can and should be improved. We have also developed a microsite that monitors the government exercise of the federal budget and the national debt. These actions hold the government accountable for its spending and help ensure the formulation of a more realistic and sustainable federal budget each year.
What accomplishment of México Evalúa are you most proud of?
Our organization is a pioneer in the effort to improve human rights protections within the prison system. Last year, as part of the reforms to the National Criminal Justice Law, we achieved the inclusion of an annual survey (Encuesta Nacional de Poblacion Privada de la Libertad, or “National Survey of Prison Populations”) that evaluates the treatment of prisoners within the penitentiary system, based on prisoners’ own perceptions. This was a landmark achievement that benefits thousands of prisoners by incorporating their stories and perspectives in prison system evaluations and enables them to influence new public policies.
What areas of impact has the Smith Fellowship had in supplementing your work moving forward?
The Smith Fellowship has been useful to my organization because it has helped me generate more solution-oriented proposals. Before completing the fellowship, there were areas needing improvement regarding internal processes, communications, and fundraising.
For example, in my organization, we lacked a clear definition of responsibilities and processes for certain tasks. Also, I often felt overwhelmed by my tasks. The Smith Fellowship helped me to solve these problems by introducing me to the RASCI (Responsible, Accountable, Support, Consult, Inform) responsibility matrix. This planning tool is something I brought back to my organization and that I still use to define responsibilities. Furthermore, the RASCI matrix has been a useful tool for strategic planning processes that serve each area as well as the institution as a whole.
Furthermore, the fellowship taught me about communicating policy findings and recommendations in short and meaningful ways such as in op-eds or policy briefs to generate more impact. I am now working with the investigators at my organization to produce policy briefs along with research reports to reach wider audiences. Moreover, before the Smith Fellowship, my organization faced the challenge of simplifying policy communications. The Smith Fellowship introduced me to the “Feature, Benefits, Meaning (FBM)” tool, which has improved the way we communicate our work and helped us reach new audiences. This tool has also helped me write more clearly regarding grant proposals and donor reports.
In addition, I learned how to reach new and diverse sectors through events such as debates and lectures that help grow the organization’s donor base as well as increase sensibility around important issues. I will be implementing these practices in my organization in order to reach new audiences such as university students and the general public. In terms of fundraising, the fellowship helped me to think of new approaches to generate funds and maintain donors. I learned about mail and email campaigns and gained a new perspective on the importance of diverse fund channels.
The Smith Fellowship was the best professional development training that I have ever attended. It gave me the opportunity to learn and receive feedback from many high-profile professionals in the think tank world. I went back to México Evalúa with a new perspective on my role in the organization and with an abundance of new ideas to continue growing and improving.
The Smith Fellowship was an unforgettable experience and I cannot begin to fully express my gratitude to the Atlas Network team. Atlas Network is an organization that truly lives out its mission: championing freedom around the world.