About four years ago, Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman invited me to join the national advisory committee of the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program, or 4Ps, the social protection program initiated by the Arroyo administration that President Aquino decided not only to continue but also to expand. I knew that this program was heavily politicized. Like many other things under the previous administration, the 4Ps was just another tool of patronage, a way of rewarding loyal followers.
Dinky is a friend from long ago, and I’m sure she sensed my hesitation. I have always been skeptical of state-led foreign-designed redistributive schemes that do not involve any meaningful change in the society’s property system. Indeed, the first time I heard of the “conditional cash transfer program” (the term by which it is known abroad) was from a European social scientist, who had written to me about a possible research collaboration on the rightwing ideology behind the CCT. He pointed to the strong support given to the program by multilateral institutions like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. For a host of reasons, however, the study did not materialize.
But I had begun to read about the CCT. I was also intrigued by P-Noy’s early decision to pursue the program despite the fact that it bore the dubious thumbprint of his predecessor. If it succeeded, he would be reminded that this was not his project. If the program continued to be undermined by leakages and integrity issues, critics would say his “daang matuwid” was a sham.
When I accepted Dinky’s invitation to be part of the 4Ps national advisory committee, I guess part of me wanted to know the inside story of how programs like this were bound to fail. But the other part also wished to be surprised by what people were capable of doing when they trusted their government. The first thing that struck me about the program was its ambition and its vulnerability to political manipulation at every stage. Its declared aim was to interrupt the transmission of poverty from one generation to another by investing in the education and health of children from poor families. But how does one determine which families were the most deserving? A laborious national household targeting system or “listahanan” was the answer.
The number of beneficiary households enrolled in the 4Ps grew from less than 800,000 in 2010 to 4.4 million in 2015. The budget allocation likewise increased from P10 billion in 2010 to about P62.7 billion in 2016, making the 4Ps easily the centerpiece program of the P-Noy presidency. This year, the program seeks to enlist another 200,000 households belonging to the “near poor.” It is no joke running a payment system that reaches out to the most nomadic street dwellers and the remotest indigenous communities.
I cannot say that the unpaid advisory role in which I had found myself transformed me into a true believer. But I think I now have a better appreciation of what it means to govern a nation riven by mass poverty and deep inequalities, and what it takes to run a program of such magnitude and complexity as the 4Ps. For this reason, I am annoyed whenever I hear dismissive comments about the program from people who know nothing about how beneficiaries are chosen, how compliance with the conditions of the cash grant is verified, how parent leaders are regularly brought together in sustained conversation in family development sessions, and how the entire program is scrupulously shielded from politicians.
Yet, I also can’t help feeling incredulous each time I listen to earnest reports about the quantifiable gains that have been claimed for the program within very short time frames. In their eagerness to justify the rising budgetary requirement, some experts involved in the program tend to be fixated with small increments in school attendance and improvements in health indicators, forgetting that the original concept is about breaking the chain of poverty that has bound successive generations in the same families.
What is unique about this program, after all, is that the government is transferring cash, not to individuals, but to families with young children. The concept shifts the focus from the merely poor, or the unemployed, to the children who are the intended beneficiaries of the program. The 4Ps is thus far from being a comprehensive antipoverty program. Indeed, it does not cover the elderly in our society, many of whom suffer from the triple disability of poverty, disease, and senility.
Still, it would be a mistake to think that the 4Ps is just about families being paid by government to make sure their children go to school regularly and get vaccinated and dewormed at the health centers. A lot of consciousness-raising is taking place in the family development sessions (FDS) that representatives of the beneficiary households, mostly women, are required to attend once a month. In these highly participatory gatherings, parents learn about the rights of children, gender equality, the handling of domestic conflict, family planning, basic financial planning, the local sourcing of nutritious foods, ecological awareness, disaster preparedness, and active citizenship.
The FDS is a unique feature of the Philippine CCT program. Its curriculum, drawn from the lessons and best practices of Filipino community organizing, is an intensive course on social awareness, capacity building, and self-reliance that is attuned to the imperatives of the modern world. From these meetings, of which thousands are taking place every day all over the country, one can immediately sense that something powerful and immeasurable is gushing from the ground on which the state has planted something important.
* * *