Growth Diagnostic for the State of Oaxaca


Sánchez, R.R., Hinojosa, A.S. & Wright, S.S., 2018. Growth Diagnostic for the State of Oaxaca. Copy at


Oaxaca is the second-poorest state in Mexico. It is also growing more slowly than the national average, leading to regional divergence. This paper seeks to diagnose the binding constraints that keep GDP growth in Oaxaca low.

There is significant variation in average monthly incomes within Oaxaca, with a 12x gap between the municipality with the highest salary and that with the lowest. Oaxaca has 570 municipalities, whereas given its population and the national average for people per municipality it should have 66. And it is very indigenous: 58% of the population speaks an indigenous language, compared to a national average of 15%. Oaxaca’s product space, a measure of how many kinds of industries provide employment in the state, is very low and has seen very limited change since 2004. The state shares some similarities with other states in southern Mexico, such as Chiapas and Guerrero. All three share a limited manufacturing base which, even after signing NAFTA, remained flat as a proportion of state GDP. They also have a poverty rate nearly 3 times the national average. 

Oaxaca is a large state with a rugged natural landscape. Its population is highly dispersed, relative to other states in Mexico. This makes infrastructure critical. However, widespread road construction between 2004 and 2014 does not seem to have made a difference to either growth rates or economic complexity at the municipality level, suggesting the infrastructure constraint is not binding. We believe, however, that mobility might be. Transportation costs as a proportion of wages are very high, and are further increased by costly road blockages. This limits the flexibility of the labor force and the aggregation of talent.

Low human capital can reduce the social returns to investment. Even though education is contentious in the state’s politics, Oaxaca’s education gap has been falling over time relative to the national average and its neighbors. This relative increase in years of education, however, has not been translated into economic development. We find that returns to education in the state are very similar to the returns to education in the rest of Mexico and higher than returns to education in Chiapas. We also note that the proportion of schooling undertaken in private institutions is in line with that in other states with higher quality of education. Finally, a Oaxaca-Blinder decomposition suggests that education does not explain wage differentials between Oaxaca and other states. All this evidence suggests that education is not a binding constraint to growth in Oaxaca.

Governance challenges increase the risk of investing in Oaxaca. For instance, over 75% of the municipalities in Oaxaca are governed through Usos y Costumbres. Only 153 of the 570 municipalities use a government-run election to determine their leader, and out of those, four did not elect a municipal president in the June 2016 election due to internal conflicts. 146 municipalities lack a police service. While Usos y Costumbres is a key part of the local social contract, it creates problems, such as in contract enforceability. It also limits migration in and out of the state. We also observe a negative correlation between Usos y Costumbres and local wages that is not explained by factors like indigenous origin.

We also explore access to finance as a constraint to GDP growth. While enterprise surveys confirm that high interest rates, and distance to banks are a problem, Oaxaca’s microenterprises bypass these problems by borrowing from cajas de ahorro or local credit unions. However, most borrowing is destined for consumption rather than investment. We also observe that FDI flows into Oaxaca are very scarce. For these reasons, we believe the binding constraint in Oaxaca is not access to finance, but rather low returns to investment.

It is helpful to think whether there is an underlying syndrome that might explain the two binding constraints we identified: transportation costs and governance. One possible hypothesis is the isolation of people into very small communities that have very strong bonds within the community and very weak bonds outside of it. Oaxaca shows high variety in ethnic groups, languages, and government systems. On average, each municipality has 6,670 people, but there are 110 municipalities with less than 1,000 people. Elsewhere in Mexico, dispersed rural populations gradually converged into urban clusters around job opportunities. In Oaxaca, the process is not yet afoot because of a “productivity trap”, in which low productivity means urban salaries do not cover the costs of transportation or permanent moves, and dispersion keeps productivity low by failing to concentrate employees. Cultural diversity has a side effect of encouraging spatial dispersion and isolation, and of having hundreds of different sets of “rules of the game” covering the state’s population. Increasing the complexity of this economy requires breaking the trap by finding new business models (i.e., encouraging discovery) and coordinating economic activities.  

Economic complexity analysis can point us to new industries that are feasible given Oaxaca’s productive capabilities and the existing constraints we discussed. While Oaxaca’s municipalities have among the least complex economies in the country, some industries stand out from our complexity analysis as potentially promising for Oaxaca. The end of the report singles out some industries for further analysis.

CID Research Fellow & Graduate Student Working Paper: 95
Last updated on 09/21/2018