Educating the Filipino family

Last Monday morning, I found myself in the basketball court of a remote village in Bataan province, quietly observing a “family development session” (FDS). The young energetic woman who was conducting the proceedings is a “Municipal Link,” one of 2,250 social workers expressly trained for the government’s greatly expanded conditional cash transfer program, known locally as the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps). About 30 household heads, all women except one, were in attendance at this particular session. They meet once a month for about an hour depending on the topic to be discussed.

The course covers nearly every subject a parent needs to know in order to properly raise a family in the modern world—children’s rights, parental responsibilities, gender equality, the correct relationship between spouses, domestic violence, family planning, the management of time and money, community involvement, disaster preparedness, health and hygiene, proper nutrition, etc. Attendance in these sessions is compulsory for all 4Ps beneficiaries.

Thousands of such adult “classes” are held every day in various parts of the country. The program, the most ambitious social intervention scheme ever undertaken by any administration, operates in 33,152 barangays out of the 41,563 that have been identified. It now covers 3,085,798 of the country’s poorest households, out of the 3,106,979 that have been targeted. For 2012 alone, more than P20 billion in cash grants have been given as of the end of October.

Not being a believer in the long-term value of doles, I wanted to see for myself what difference a program of this nature can do for the poor of our country. I have read on the experience of Mexico and Brazil where similar cash transfer schemes have yielded positive results.  I have listened to the arguments of people who believe that giving cash to the poor only encourages indolence among them. I wanted to know how such a program, when introduced in a milieu like ours, can avoid the pitfalls of politicization and corruption. I have heard people complain of folks living in air-conditioned homes who line up at the bank to get their cash awards. I am almost certain there is some basis to these horror stories, but can they possibly constitute more than a minuscule portion of the total?

The more I read on the subject, the more intrigued I was by the potential it offered. It was these thoughts that led me to that FDS in Barangay Pita at the foot of Mt. Malasimbo in Bataan last Monday morning. This place is not alien to me; I regularly come to these parts mainly to watch birds. This time I was watching and listening to families with the same sense of awe and wonder.

I would be hesitant to form conclusions from one field visit. But what I saw for myself convinced me that the 4Ps may be triggering something good in our society that is worth pondering. I can’t say exactly what it is. All I felt is that of energy being unlocked when household heads come together to talk about common issues facing their families. They not only seem to be learning from one another, they also appear to draw uncommon strength from the sheer thought that their government and community are interested in what is happening to their families.

The session opened promptly with a prayer and closed an hour and a half later with a prayer. Three times during the session, the social worker and the midwife assisting her led the parents in stretching exercises in order to keep them from getting bored or falling asleep.  After taking the attendance, the teacher then asked everyone to show their cash cards and the laminated contracts they had signed as beneficiaries. A quick review of the previous month’s lesson followed. Parents were randomly asked to read from the notes they had taken, with the rest of the class helping out to complete the review.  There was a lot of good-humored cajoling and banter during these recitations.

The lesson for the day was the nature of a balanced diet. The teacher began by introducing three types of food: carbohydrates (the “go” foods), proteins (the “grow” foods), and fruits and vegetables (the “glow” foods). Everyone seemed familiar with these concepts already; chances are they have encountered them in their own children’s notebooks. The fun part came when the class was divided into three groups, and each group was given a sheet of Manila paper on which to write a full menu for an entire week. Here one could see the struggle to reconcile the reality of deprivation with the ideal of a balanced diet. The teacher kept reminding them that the price of food was not a measure of its nutritional value.  From the responses, I could see how much the Filipino diet has been shaped by the mass media. I wondered how our communities could be made more sensitive to the local food around them.

Coming away from that session, I could not help but sense the vast distance that separates our society from the Greek city-states that gave us the concept of democracy. The ancient Greeks gathered their household heads in freedom in order to consolidate their families into one political entity. We gather the poorest of ours for something pre-political: to equip them for the long-term management of their households. There are no schools for parents; the family development sessions are the closest we have to a mechanism for educating the Filipino family.

Democracy will never thrive under conditions of mass poverty. The program called 4Ps may not, by itself, end poverty, but by bringing families together in the spirit of shared learning, it may help rebuild the sense of community from which democracy can grow.