Sona 2012: Aquino’s failure to ease poverty and provide social services

Deceptive. How can the CCT ease poverty when the program’s beneficiaries are being driven away by big business? (Photo from Bulatlat.com)

Part III: Reviewing Aquino’s “Social Contract” and performance

Read Part I: On job creation here

Read Part II: How the rich is getting (scandalously) richer here

Two of the most important commitments Aquino made in his so-called Social Contract are the provision of social services, specifically education and health; and poverty reduction. To review, Aquino promised to make education the central strategy for investing in the people, reducing poverty and building national competitiveness. He also vowed to advance and protect public health as a key measure of good governance and not as a tool for political patronage. Finally, he pledged to reorient Arroyo’s anti-poverty programs that instill a dole-out mentality to well-considered programs that build capacity and create opportunity among the poor and marginalized.

In the run-up to the President’s third Sona, Malacañang has been pretty aggressive in its propaganda on how the administration is supposedly addressing the basic needs of the people. The new budget proposal of government for 2013, for instance, is being packaged as empowering the marginalized, with significant increases in the allocation for basic social services and bigger conditional cash transfer (CCT) budget. Government has also been advertising economic growth as inclusive, with the supposed benefits being felt by everyone.

Gradual improvement?

The administration’s propaganda is being propped up by what it makes appear as favorable results of recent SWS surveys on poverty and hunger. In its second quarter survey, the SWS reported that the number of families who consider themselves poor dropped to 10.3 million or 51% of the total from 11.1 million or 55% in the first quarter. During the same period, the number of families who experience involuntary hunger declined to 3.8 million or 18.4% from 4.8 million or 23.8 percent.

Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda was quick to credit the administration for this, claiming that the improvement was due to “programs on inclusive growth, education, public health and anti-corruption”. Another Malacañang mouthpiece, Secretary Ricky Carandang, credited the CCT program for the “gradual improvement”.

Steady deterioration

But what trends show is not gradual improvement but steady deterioration in poverty and hunger under the Aquino administration. In 2010, poverty averaged 48% among Filipino families; it then went up to 49% in 2011 and this year is averaging 53% (including the last SWS survey). Likewise, hunger steadily increased from 19% (2010) to 20% (2011) and to 21% (2012). In the last nine SWS quarterly surveys, which cover the Aquino presidency, poverty breached the 50%-mark and hunger breached the 20%-mark in five of the nine quarters. Also, hunger under Aquino is now twice the level during the Estrada administration due to the accumulated impact of flawed economic programs and policies, which failed to address poverty and hunger.

Such steady deterioration in poverty and hunger is happening amid the massive expansion in the coverage of and spending for the ballyhooed CCT program of the Aquino administration. Between 2009 and 2012, the number of CCT beneficiaries ballooned from 594,356 households to more than 3 million (or an enormous 407% increase); the national budget for CCT during the same period also swelled from ₱5 billion to ₱39.4 billion (or a whopping 688% hike). CCT is not only failing to make a dent in poverty and hunger, it is also helpless in even slowing down their further worsening.

Stand-alone

Despite repeated statements by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), the agency in-charge of the program, that the CCT is not a stand-alone initiative and is being complemented by longer-term and sustainable poverty alleviation interventions, the truth is the CCT is the only program of government to supposedly fight poverty. Aside from providing direct but temporary cash assistance, the conditionalities imposed by the CCT on beneficiaries are also purportedly meant to improve the basic health and education situation in the country. To continue receiving the maximum ₱1,400 a month, a beneficiary-household’s children and pregnant women must attend health centers and posts to get regular preventive health checkups and immunizations. Children must also enroll in schools and attend more than 85% of school classes.

But a look at measurable indicators, like those being monitored by the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) on Philippine social development commitments to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), would show that the country continues to fail to attend to the most basic health and education needs of the people. In particular, it is failing in reducing the maternal mortality rate, reducing the prevalence of underweight children under five years old, increasing the completion rate in elementary level, increasing the enrollment rate in secondary level, and improving the results of achievement tests in the elementary and secondary levels, among others.

The reason is that while the Aquino administration intends to instantly improve the coverage of public health and education in the country through the CCT, it does little to ensure the sustained and greater access of the poor to these services. While government is hyping the supposed increases in the budget allocation for basic social services in the past two years, as well as in its 2013 budget proposal, in reality the urgent social services needs of the people remain largely unaddressed and resources allotted remain significantly insufficient.

Neglecting health

Under the 2012 budget, for instance, allocations for 23 state-owned specialty and regular hospitals nationwide were pinned to their 2011 levels despite growing requirements while those which increased their operation and maintenance funds were still unable to recover the huge cuts they had in the past. Further, the Coalition on Health Budget Increase (CBHI) also reported that the state subsidy to indigent patients for confinement or use of specialized equipment has been completely scrapped by the administration.

Another major initiative of government to supposedly improve access to health and complement the CCT is universal healthcare through the country’s national health insurance program (NHIP) being implemented by the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (Philhealth). This year, Philhealth saw its budget jump by 244% from its 2011 level and in the 2013 budget proposal, it will receive ₱12.6 billion, or almost ₱600 million bigger than its 2012 budget. But as pointed out by the CBHI, Philhealth does not ensure affordable and accessible health services since it is restricted by a budget ceiling for particular health and illness. In addition, the acute need for medicine, supplies and equipment in public hospitals forces beneficiaries to shoulder the expenses for such needs while those in far flung areas, where majority of the poor live, could hardly find Philhealth-accredited hospitals.

Further, the total budget proposed for the Department of Health (DOH) next year is only ₱56.8 billion. Although ₱11 billion higher than its 2012 budget, the said allocation is just a fraction of the ₱243.5 billion that the sector needs to cover the costs of public health care delivery system, health human resource maintenance and development, and preventive and public health programs and promotion, based on initial estimates by the Health Alliance for Democracy (Head).

Insufficient education facilities

The same thing is true with basic education, which despite the seemingly large increases in budget allotment still remains wanting in resources. Estimates by the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) said government needs to allocate ₱96.5 billion to meet basic inputs for education such as classrooms, chairs, textbooks and water and sanitation facilities. As of School Year 2011-2012, the estimated gross shortages of classrooms reached almost 153,000; school seats, more than 13,000; textbooks, almost 96,000; sanitation facilities, more than 151,000; as well as teachers, almost 104,000, according to the Department of Education (DepEd). But in the 2013 budget proposal of Aquino, allocation for basic educational facilities is pegged at only ₱25.3 billion, which despite increasing by almost ₱9 billion from its current budget is still a meager amount compared to the estimated actual and urgent needs of the sector.

Worse, the DepEd has decided to push through with its controversial K+12 program despite strong public opposition. The program will add two more years to the country’s basic formal education that is presently a 10-year program. Among other impacts, the K+12 program means additional costs for poor families while further stretching the already tight budget for public education. All this means that children of CCT beneficiaries are not assured of completing basic education (which the DepEd prolonged under the K+12 scheme nor accessing quality education (due to perennial shortages in public school facilities and teachers that the national budget could not cover).

The lack of sufficient budget for education and health is being used by the Aquino administration and its allies to justify PPP initiatives in the said sectors such as the proposed corporatization of 26 public hospitals and PPP contracts to build 10,000 to 30,000 classrooms. But this further contradicts the stated objectives of CCT to improve access to health and education as fees tend to rise with private contractors passing the full costs to the public, on top of their own profits.

Displacing the poor

The deception of the CCT is further exposed by government’s treatment of urban poor communities, where many of the beneficiaries live. Because of its centerpiece economic program, the PPP, large areas of urban poor settlements are being demolished or in several cases, set on fire. Peasant, fisherfolk and indigenous communities, who are the poorest of the poor, are also being physically and economically displaced by PPP and mining, energy, plantation and other destructive projects that the Aquino administration has been promoting. How can the CCT ease poverty when the program’s beneficiaries are being driven away by big business?

In the National Capital Region (NCR) alone, the Demolition Watch reported that some 16,000 families in 20 urban poor communities have already been displaced in the first two years of the Aquino administration. The Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) – NCR said that the region hosts some 14 large PPP projects, including business districts and parks, port privatization, etc. which could displace as much as 1.4 million poor families.

Aggravating the condition of the urban poor is, like in the case of health and housing, state budget on housing is utterly lacking. Despite the seemingly huge increase in the housing budget for 2013 – from ₱6.1 billion to ₱16.13 (excluding the housing bduget for military and police personnel) – the amount still pales in comparison with the estimated requirement of ₱69 billion for the country to meet a portion of its 3.6 million housing backlog and at least be at par with the housing spending of its neighbors in Southeast Asia, based on preliminary calculations by think tank Ibon Foundation.

Right to decent living standard

Aquino has been massively expanding the scope and budget of the CCT despite the fact that it is not clearly contributing to sustained poverty reduction, not to mention that it is funded by $805 million in growing foreign debt from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB) that has long been debilitating the economy and depriving the poor of much needed social services. One of the biggest reasons why government could not provide adequate education, health, housing and other basic services is because public resources are being siphoned off by debt servicing, which under Aquino has already reached an all-time high of more than ₱60 billion a month.

Access to health and education, and the right to a decent standard of living including the provision of adequate shelter are basic human rights. This means that the government must work towards the creation of an environment that makes freedom from hunger and poverty, and universal access to social services possible, which includes reliable and sufficient livelihood opportunities for all families and the allocation of adequate resources for quality public schools, hospitals, health facilities, and housing services.

Requiring some poor Filipino families to send their children to school and health centers so that they can access CCT money promotes a dole-out mentality and is a distortion of the concept of human rights. It also distorts human right to health and education and to a decent standard of living by creating temporary access for a targeted portion of poor families while using the conditional cash grants as a smokescreen for the defective policies that push an increasing number of Filipinos to hunger, ignorance, and poverty such as the PPP and other programs that benefit only the rich. (End)

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