Conditional Cash Transfers: What Implications for Equality and Social Cohesion? The experience of Oportunidades in Mexico

Rebecca Holmes, Rachel Slater


The Oportunidades programme aims to increase the human capabilities of poor households and break the intergenerational cycle of poverty. Oportunidades helps five million families to enhance their well-being through cash transfers to mothers and increased access to education, health and nutrition. The programme has increased both access to and equality of access to public services, but improved service quality may be needed. In order for the Oportunidades model to be transferable, there must be: (1) strong political commitment to the programme; (2) a high level of institutional capacity in terms of the number and skills of staff; and (3) a supply of accessible health and education services.

Oportunidades began in 1997, part of social welfare reform under the New Federalism approach that was introduced in the 1990s to decentralise power and resources. It is an apolitical programme, operated by the Social Development Secretariat in collaboration with the Ministries of Education and Health.

Oportunidades uses an integrated approach which targets households with children in the poorest 25 per cent of the population. The programme is designed around ‘co-responsibilities’, with conditions including attendance at school and at health workshops. Mothers receive a cash transfer every two months, plus education grants, nutrition supplements and support for the elderly.

Oportunidades has demonstrated very positive results. These include increased school enrolment, retention and attainment, particularly for girls; reduced maternal-infant mortality rates, reduced morbidity and incapacity, and improved preventative health behaviours and nutrition.

  • Oportunidades promotes greater participation by women at household and community level, and increases their self-esteem, status and financial security.
  • The co-responsibilities structure encourages changes in attitudes and behaviour regarding the accessing of services and opportunities. Probably the most significant impact of Oportunidades on social cohesion is increased access to public services.
  • The minimum exclusion rates achieved by programme’s effective targeting mechanisms indicate that this increased use of health and education services has led to greater equality in access to public services for marginalised populations.
  • Given the high number of the indigenous population in poverty, the programme disproportionately benefits indigenous peoples.
  • However, Oportunidades cannot be used in areas (such as the poorest and/or most isolated areas) where there are no schools and/or no health care facilities. Further, implementing the programme in urban areas is challenging, partly because work commitments give women less time to comply with the conditions.
  • Oportunidades does not recognise the cost for women in terms of increased household responsibilities, and has few links with women’s economically productive activities.
  • There is little evidence on the quality of services provided, and the programme’s long-term benefits (for example, whether school leavers get better-paid jobs) are still unknown.

Oportunidades’ success relies on the supply of education and health services. However, it has no direct control over service quality or location. The Ministries of Education and Health do not always provide Oportunidades with the funding agreed. Further lessons include the following:

  • Two key elements contribute to the programme’s success: regular cash transfers and co-responsibilities. Outcomes are significantly influenced by how much time mothers spend meeting the co-responsibilities. However, it is impossible to attribute the success of the programme to the enforcement of conditions because there has been no comparative analysis to non-conditional cash transfers.
  • Implementing conditional cash transfers requires significant institutional capacity, in terms of both staffing and technical capacity to monitor compliance and make timely transfers.
  • Annual external evaluations enable the programme to demonstrate year on year improvements and are vital to its political sustainability.


Holmes, R. and Slater, R., 2007, 'Conditional Cash Transfers: What Implications for Equality and Social Cohesion? The experience of Oportunidades in Mexico', Overseas Development Institute (ODI), London