Monday, September 05, 2011

Lost in translation

This post is antedated. I am trying to recover the online version of my columns before the Manila Standard Today deletes the archives for 2011. I made the mistake of assuming the archive will be online for five years. Sigh.

While on vacation the other weekend in my hometown in the heart of Leyte, I chanced upon a spirited conversation among some members of my extended family during one of the usual impromptu gatherings. It seemed they were in a fix trying to find logic about something that an aggrieved relative—a widowed mother of five children with barely any means of support for her brood—was seemingly smarting about. They were talking about something that initially sounded like “por piyes” (Waray for four feet). I thought they were contesting pieces of lumber. I was not really paying that much attention to the discussion until a cousin asked me what I thought about the “four peas” that was being discussed in the small huddle.

What four peas, I asked. “For peace,” my cousin repeated, which just added to my confusion. It turns out they were discussing the government’s conditional cash transfer program, locally known as the Department of Social Welfare and Development’s four P’s program—or Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program. Four P’s, I exclaimed with great relief. Alas, the problem was not limited to another case of “lost in translation.”

From what I gathered, certain relatives in the sitio where the family farm was located were chosen beneficiaries of the program while the widowed mother of five was not. This was most unfair, everyone thought. If there was anyone who really needed a lifeline, she was it, they chorused with all the indignation they could muster. She was the one having the most difficulty making ends meet what with five young hungry mouths to feed, four of them in school. She made a living washing clothes and an assortment of odds and ends for the neighbors. Were it not for the vegetables she painstakingly grew in the grassy knoll around her house, her children would have already died of hunger, she offered plaintively.

She was interviewed by the people who conducted the survey for the four Ps. But when the list was released, she was not in it. Some of her neighbors, among them people who really didn’t need as much help, were. She figured it was because she was living in a brick house that was really owned by and which she was keeping for a relative who was abroad. She went to the barangay chairman who took her case to a sanggunian bayan member, who allegedly brought it to the attention of the mayor. Everyone promised to look into her case but apparently the screening system was not open to interference from local executives. The chairman insisted she was in the initial list. Someone who was on the list even offered to switch places with her. But apparently, the list was final; but as if it was any consolation, everyone at least commiserated with her. I called up a friend in Tacloban, a media person who knows someone in the DSWD who promised to look into the case. Everything was not lost, I was assured. I am keeping my fingers crossed.

I don’t want to make conclusions about the whole Four Ps program based on one anecdotal evidence, primarily because I know it’s not fair to expect the system to be perfect at this stage. I want to believe that poverty reduction programs can only work if people work together to make it work. As I told my aggrieved relative, her exclusion can be chalked up to a gap in the system that could be fixed. It was a good thing, I assured her because it meant DSWD people were not being lax doing their jobs.

But the story, and the feedback I gathered from the people I interviewed revealed insights that are telling.

First, the perception that the program promotes indolence and mendicancy persists, particularly among those belonging to higher social classes in Philippine society. The negative perception persists because, let’s be honest about this, there has been little social marketing being done about the program. This is sad because poverty reduction programs need a whole ecosystem to be successful. The last thing we need in this country is to create stigma for the beneficiaries of the program. In reality, conditional cash transfer programs are not handout, hence the term conditional—beneficiaries are supposed to receive aid in exchange for certain non-negotiable deliverables. In reality, the whole cost of the program is peanuts compared to what is gobbled up by corruption in this country.

Second, most people don’t understand what the program is really about. Even public schoolteachers had the wrong impressions about it. One of the main goals of the conditional cash transfer program is to ensure that schoolchildren are kept in school—it’s supposed to be a direct investment in human development. Schoolteachers, community leaders, even neighbors are important elements of the system— they will have to provide the necessary support system that will ensure that the funds are used for the purpose they were meant to achieve.

Third, the mechanisms for the cash transfer system remain inchoate for most people. People talked about producing receipts, having made to account for expenses, attendance records of schoolchildren, etc., but nobody knew exactly what the guidelines were. As can be expected, unfounded rumors swirled about how funds were tied up somewhere.

Fourth, a number of local executives seemed skeptical about the program. Apparently, many feel slighted for having been bypassed or overruled in the targeting process. I have two minds about this. There is wisdom in insulating the system from the machinations of local executives who have the tendency to use government programs to favor supporters. But there is also wisdom in taking into account the advice of community leaders who know first hand the real conditions of the poor in a given community.

I really wish the program would succeed because empirical data from Latin American countries show such a program can do wonders to alleviate poverty. It is a palliative effort; it will definitely not eradicate poverty altogether but then again, we must start somewhere. But above all else, I want the program to work because darn it, billions of aid money is involved! We must make it work.

I am not exactly a fan of Department of Social Welfare and Development Secretary Dinky Soliman and I am aghast that she seems to project this idea that she invented the whole program (former DSWD Secretary Esperanza Cabral piloted the program, for crying out loud), but this is not about her. This is about the millions of poor Filipinos who need a lifeline. This is about ensuring that millions of Filipino children are given the necessary break to make it in a world made increasingly more difficult by conditions beyond their control or making.

What government needs to do is marshal the spirit of bayanihan in making the program work. Programs like the conditional cash transfer program need to be contextualized within a set of cultural values—from a sense of pagbabahala (responsibility or social obligation) to a positive sense of hiya (self esteem and integrity). But above all else, the program must promote a collective sense of accountability. Regardless of how we feel about the government, we have to make it work. We must make it work.

***

In a recent column (Up close but not personal), I wrote about a social encounter I had with Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte and Pagsanjan City Mayor Maita Ejercito at the lobby of a hotel in Davao City. I mistakenly identified the latter as lady mayor of Tagaytay City instead of Pagsanjan. A number of readers pointed out the oversight to me. I’ve always known Ejercito was the mayor of Pagsanjan because I have seen her in action many times in Pagsanjan, where my favorite training program venue is located. I apologize for the oversight.

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