The reality of the ‘Mexican moment’ – A closer look at Mexico and the post-2015 development process

Development Policy,Inclusive Economy15 Sep 2014Arne Bartelsman

There’s a new kid in town. Mexico is more than ever opening itself up to the world and ready to play an important role in the post-2015 development agenda. Desiring to once again be the bridge between the West and Latin America, Mexico has been very active in the preparatory activities so far, providing input on numerous issues around the Sustainable Development Goals. However, when they are examined more closely, Mexico’s international ambitions prove to be not always matched by ambitious domestic development policy-making, raising the suspicion that future international agreements in the post-2015 context might not be translated into domestic policy.

For Mexico, the post-2015 negotiations have so far provided a fruitful arena in which to strengthen its position in both the region and the world. In preparation for the Open Working Group (OWG) sessions, it hosted the regional consultation in Latin America and the Caribbean and organized a thematic consultation on energy. It is one of the co-chairs of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation, the first high-level meeting of which took place in Mexico City. During the OWG itself it organized five side events, cooperating with actors and countries from the developing and developed world.1

Changing arena

These high profile events say something not only about Mexico itself, but also about the desire for universality that characterizes the process of formulating the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Much more than during the formulation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), thought has been given to making the process globally inclusive, and involving as many actors as possible to reflect the universal ambition claimed by the post-2015 process. On the other hand, middle-income countries (MICs) like Mexico have grabbed this opportunity with both hands. Strengthened by a growing global awareness, these countries (Turkey and Indonesia are other examples), which are in the transition from aid recipient to emerging donor, are not afraid to voice their opinions and preferences. In this way, they place themselves next to the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and Western countries as serious partners in development. Given the rise of the BRICs in recent years, the result is an open discussion that goes beyond the classic North-South divide that characterized the MDGs, where Western countries (the North) decided what ought to happen in developing countries (the South). Now, countries like Mexico are involved in shaping the most fundamental parts of the agenda.

Mexico as a productive partner

Mexico has made specific contributions on a range of issues. It has been one of the most vocal advocates for the position of middle-income countries. Together with Peru, it has provided input on the design of the SDGs with a similar frequency to the more traditional development-active countries in Europe. In doing so, it has made itself a strong advocate of typical post-2015 issues like reducing inequality and strengthening the rights of migrants and indigenous people.2 Moreover, Mexico can be seen as one of the most ambitious advocates for sustainable energy and climate change policies, advocating targets intended to limit global temperature rise below 2oC and setting strong targets for renewable energy and energy efficiency.

This proactive attitude is a consequence of a trend that started in the 1990s, but accelerated with the change of ruling party in the new millennium. Before, Mexico’s foreign policy was characterized by principles of national sovereignty and non-intervention, known as the Estrada doctrine.3 Triggered by neo-liberal reforms in the late 1980s however, Mexico has increasingly started to open itself up, not only economically but also politically. In 2003 it signed a triangular cooperation partnership with Japan to provide development assistance to countries in the Caribbean, and in 2011 it founded its own international development agency, AMEXCID,4 which played an important part in the Haiti aid mission in 2010. Part of this change is the desire to be a regional leader. Mexico’s geographical position has always incited a feeling of being the most important link between the West and Latin America, but the rise of Brazil as a global player together with its own vigilant foreign policy have threatened this position. The post-2015 process provides a good opportunity to reverse this trend.

The Mexican moment

Mexico’s current attitude in the post-2015 process can thus be described as productive, but also as instrumentally driven. In other words, just like many other countries, Mexico uses its emphasis to direct attention to certain issues. A good example would be the situation of migrants. As this is a strong priority issue for Mexico, it attempts to use discussions on migrants in the SDGs to apply pressure on the US to re-open negotiations for a migration agreement between the two states. Currently, Mexico faces great financial costs as well as security problems, with many Mexicans illegally living in the US and many migrants from the whole of Latin America using Mexico as a transit-hub to illegally cross the border. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the US however radically moved towards a unilateral approach to border and immigration control. Similarly, Mexico is very sensitive to climate change-related disasters and has calculated that 71% of its GDP is vulnerable to climate change. This high percentage, due to the country’s geographical location, results in strong advocacy on the topic and ambitious target-setting.

This comes as no surprise, as every country (especially non-Western ones) involved in the post-2015 process identifies what needs to be done from its own perspective and subsequently prioritizes these points. However, Mexico’s post-2015 strategy is as interesting for what is prioritized as for what is not. Considering its frequent activity on almost all potential SDGs, Mexico remains surprisingly silent on human security and on gender and SRHR. This is surprising, as Mexico has domestic concerns related to these themes that would justify drawing attention to them internationally. Organized crime and drugs cartels are Mexico’s biggest problem, with the rule of law being effectively absent in some regions. Similarly, the maternal mortality rate is one of the few targets from the MDGs in which Mexico’s progress is insufficient, justifying extra attention for the topic. But again, it has very little to say on the matter.

The reason for this silence is that these topics do not fit the image of the ‘Mexican moment’ that the country is consciously creating. While issues like migration and climate change are relatively safe, and cannot be directly blamed on Mexico, the ongoing battle with drugs cartels and a high ratio of maternal mortality due to bad access to hospitals in rural areas, as well as very restrictive policies on abortion, do not present a positive image to potential investors. Conversely, closer inspection of Mexico’s human rights history around peace and security and SRHR may only spark international criticism, and Mexico may therefore prefer not to see a strong emphasis on these issues in the SDGs.

Domestic reality

In fact, when Mexico’s domestic situation is examined more closely, other points of criticism can be discovered. Besides SRHR, migration and rule of law, gender violence and high levels of inequality continue to be pressing issues. Like many other MICs, Mexico is struggling to make its economic growth inclusive. The question is however, whether the government’s ambitious development agenda internationally is matched by its domestic one. Take gender equality for example: although it has a prominent place in Mexico’s international discourse, domestically it is addressed in rhetoric at best, with little to no funding going towards supportive projects. Even more striking is the recent energy reform introduced by the government. By opening up the oil and gas industry to foreign investment the government not only aims to increase levels of fossil energies instead of reducing them, but more importantly, it does so by encouraging fracking, a form of extraction causing high levels of pollution, water wastage, and damage to local small-scale agriculture. This is by no means compatible with Mexico’s statements in the OWG on sustainable energy and climate change reduction. Indeed, the Peña Nieto administration has actually been criticized greatly by civil society for focusing too narrowly on economic growth.

Post-2015 and beyond

Mexico has arrived. Together with other emerging economies, it forms a new generation of active stakeholders in the development agenda, and the post-2015 process has proven the right platform to concretize this new position. The willingness of more countries to be involved in development cooperation can only be seen as a good thing, and it seems the era of Western-dominated development thinking is finally over. Instead, the future of development can now be described as involving both North-South and South-South cooperation. However, these countries are not problem-free, and the case of Mexico shows that deeper examination might alter the picture that a country is willing to provide. The ‘Mexican moment’, and Peña Nieto featuring on the cover of Time Magazine with the headline ‘Saving Mexico’, tend thus to be slightly exaggerated. This nevertheless does not mean cooperation with Mexico is impossible, and potential partnerships could not only further international cooperation, but also improve Mexico’s domestic situation. In this way, Mexico will hopefully become an example for other emerging economies, both internationally and domestically.


  1. The topics of these side events were ending extreme poverty, migration, middle-income countries, sustainable consumption and production, and using economic evidence for the most effective SDGs.
  2. For examples of this, see Mexico’s statements made during OWG 10, OWG 12 and OWG 8.
  3. Named after Genaro Estrada, Secretary of Foreign Affairs during 1930-32.
  4. Agencia Mexicana de Cooperación Internacional Para el Desarollo.