Misunderstanding the 4Ps

It is rare in our personality-driven political system to hear candidates of the opposition openly champion an existing program of the administration they are seeking to replace.  But, such must have been the impact of the conditional cash transfer program, better known as the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps), that this previously much-criticized program now figures prominently in the campaign messages of the opposition.

They promise not only to sustain but also to expand and institutionalize it. This all sounds well and good. But, do they know what they are talking about?

One candidate wants to add a fifth “P” as in “Pinalawak” (expanded) so as to include indigent senior citizens. He obviously is unaware that, since 2012, the latter have been entitled to cash benefits under the expanded senior citizens program. Another candidate promises to improve the procedures for enlisting beneficiaries in order to make the program inclusive, without saying what’s wrong with the rigorous Listahanan method for identifying eligible families.

A third candidate wants to add more conditions for receiving the cash grant—like planting trees, repairing irrigation canals, etc. But, another fool wants to altogether remove the conditionalities that lie at the heart of the concept itself, thus making the program no more than a system for dispensing dole.

All these suggest that most Filipino politicians who aspire to lead the nation glibly talk about change yet usually know little about key government programs and how these are supposed to work. Thrust suddenly onto the national stage of politics, they mouth catchy messages furnished by handlers, completely oblivious of the complexity of the issues on which they facilely pronounce themselves.

For all its seeming simplicity, the 4Ps is a very complex and ambitious program. As a member of the National Independent Advisory and Monitoring Committee of the 4Ps in the last five years, I have never failed to be astounded at every meeting by the enormity and complexity of the administrative requirements of this program. I know of no other government program that has been as assiduously monitored, reviewed, and evaluated at every turn by external agencies.

When the Aquino administration decided in 2010 to adopt the 4Ps, taking off from the 800,000 household beneficiaries enlisted two years earlier under the Arroyo presidency, the Department of Social Welfare and Development as the lead agency was still very much in a learning mode. It confronted many challenges.

It had to make sure that the program would reach the most impoverished families, while ensuring that the unqualified that got into the program through patronage were weeded out. Though nationally supervised, the program operates at the local level, and every day its social workers have to insulate themselves from the persistent culture and dynamics of local patronage.

Cash amounting to an average of P1,500 per family per month is given under three conditions. First, the household head signs a commitment to make sure that children of school age attend school regularly and meet the minimum 85 percent class attendance. Second, the head of the family commits to bring the family regularly to the health center, ensuring that pregnant and nursing mothers and their infants are given proper care, and all the children get vaccinated and dewormed. And finally, a beneficiary parent must attend the monthly family development sessions. Today, the program covers 4.6 million families, nearly six times the number under the previous administration.

When indigent households are obligated, as in a contract, to look after the education and health of their children, the government, by implication, also acknowledges the duty to make sure that the schools and health centers are there where they are needed. This may seem at first glance like an unnecessary belaboring of the obvious. Aren’t these, after all, the sworn duties of both parents and the state?

The big difference, in my view, lies fundamentally in making these obligations explicit, and strictly demanding compliance with them. The basic concept behind the 4Ps is not to solve poverty per se but to interrupt the intergenerational cycle of poor health and illiteracy through conditional cash transfers. It is a program aimed explicitly at giving hope to the children. Beyond this, by introducing the modern concept of a contract with the government, the 4Ps seeks to eliminate the need for patrons in accessing government services.

Some critics see only the billions in cash being disbursed, and at once they conclude that we are raising a nation of mendicants. They should take a look at the family development sessions that are being held all over the country.  They follow a broad curriculum in modern parenting, household management, and citizenship. Mostly attended by women, these empowering seminars are the closest equivalent we have to a modern nationwide adult education program involving millions of parents who become organic leaders in their communities.

The 4Ps and the very much expanded universal healthcare program run by PhilHealth, to my mind, constitute the two most significant achievements of the Aquino administration. The supreme irony is that since these programs do not flaunt the images of the public officials behind them—neither on tarpaulins nor on T-shirts—people forget to whom they should give credit. Not that it matters. But we need to remind ourselves that modern governance precisely requires this form of willful depersonalization—a quality that puts decent leaders at a disadvantage during elections.

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