No Magic Bullet

by Juan L. Mercado

The bad news is the pork barrel scam, compounded by the Malampaya Fund scandal, squandered over P10 billion  — and counting. The good news is that a P67 billion chunk, among others, eluded  the ladrones.

That  fund is going to four million  dirt-poor families in monthly grants  ranging  from P500 to P1,400. These have strings stitched on: Parents  must  keep kids in school, get them immunized and de-wormed. It provides impoverished pregnant mothers with pre- and post-natal check-ups.Health personnel attend their deliveries.

Meet the  “Conditional Cash Transfer Program”, aka. Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program. And credit President Gloria Macapgal Arroyo for launching P4 in 2008.  But graft  crippled her government and enmeshed her and 24 subordinates in plunder charges. Thus,  P4 never budged  beyond  a P4 billion token.

President Benigno Aquino however  ramped  P4  to  P39 billion, then P44 billion last year   In 2015,, 4P could  buffer  28 million beneficiaries., They’d be  a quarter of the  population then.. “No social protection program in our history ever reached this scale,” notes Lila Ramos Shahani of   Poverty Reduction Cabinet Cluster.

Maybe so. But see that in context.   National Statistical Coordination Board, f estimates P180 billion is needed yearly for poverty alleviation . And
population rises  because  birth rates still  decline slowly.

CCTs have been around for a couple of decades. We   track  successes notched up by Latin American countries. Lilke Colombia, the Philippines is bugged by insurgency. Colombia’s “ Familias en Acción, found  CCTs helped  increase enrolment in even in conflict-marred regions.  University of Denver’s  study “Conditional Cash Transfers and Civil Conflict: Experimental Evidence from the Philippines” asserts: ”There was a sharper drop in conflicts in villages where the program was introduced in 2009 than in those where ( it )  was delayed until 2010”.

Look at  Mexico’s “Oportunidades” which helps 5 million poor folk  in all 31 Mexican states. “Bolsa Familia is  world’s largest CCT program, reaching more than 46 million Brazilians.  Since 2011, Brazil lifted around 22 million out of extreme poverty. Share of wealth by Brazil’s poorest 20% increased their share from 2.6 to 3.5%.

Bangladesh has three million kids unable to attend primary school.  A CCT program targeted street kids and other hard-to-reach children. Primary school enrolment surged by 9 percenrt. In Cambodia, high school attendance rose to 43 percent, following CCT initiatives. Turkey reports a  similar patten.

In Africa,  however, supply constraints, shabby infrasturcture, etc hobbled cionditioinal cash transfer projects,  notes  Harvard University’s School of Public Health.  Present African  CCTs focus   on food insecurity rather than human development.

Today,the Philippine program keeps young children (3-11 years old) in school,. a 2012 evaluation found . As in Nicaragua, this whittled down  severe stunting among young children (6-36 months old)  and boosted rates of immunization. Impoverished pregnant mothers got pre-and post-natal check-ups. Health personnel attend their deliveries.

Significantly, “4Ps does not promote a culture of dependency.” reported World Bank,  The Philippines’ program showed “”positive results on elementary education school enrollment and beneficiary households spending more on health and education of their children, Asian Development Bank’s independent evaluation department found.

Both put their money where there mouths are.  World Bank released a $300 million development loan to support anti poverty programs and “ to expand the CCT program”  ADB put in  $400 million.

The Philippine Institute for Development Studies, cautions that school enrolment in 4P families slump  when cut off from cash transfers:. from 93 percent for children aged 13 to only a third ( 33 percent) when they reach 18.

PIDS suggests providing longer assistance from five to 10 years, The target would be to help until kids  finish high school. They earn at least 45% more.

Government is seeking to curb leakage estimated at 28  percent’ and expand coverage.  Expanded coverage is in the works to take in indigenous people, “children in with various forms of disability..        

But  planners can be lulled into  into the notion CCTs are a  cure all.  No such economic instrument exists. Latin America  has  the longest tradition of CCTs.  Yet that continent increasingly sees cash transfers as valuable complement,  not a substitute for  structural  reforms.

In the Philippines,  these  do not merely mean budget juggling. Senator Miriam Santiago, for instance, calls on Congress to scrap, once and for all,  the P25-billion congressional pork barrel from the P2.226-trillion national budget for 2014. In  addition,  she proposes integration into the money bill off-budget off-budget sources of cash. That’d include, among others, the P130-billion Malampaya Fund; P12.5-billion motor vehicle users’ charge; the Pagcor Special Fund and the PCSO Charity Fund.

Great. But  what about “restitution”?  Justice and law requires that the thief return what is not his. Those who looted the pork barrel and Malampaya fund must repair the damage.  It is not enough for Jingoy Estrada to say others looted too.the looters  must adopt  ex-tax collector Zacchaeus formula: “ if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”  

Beyond that  is need to back  the Ombudsman in prosecuting   those charged. Justice is the bedrock for  structural  reforms. CCTs  “are worth serious consideration as part of an integrated poverty  alleviation strategy”, says an International Fund for Agricultural  Development. ”But they are not a  magic bullet.”

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