KKK: Giving government’s anti-poverty program a human face, or just plain bingo?
By Gina Mission

It was with great expectations that most poor Filipinos voted for President Joseph Estrada to assume the Philippine presidency. As Kalookan construction worker Cesar Florida told CyberDyaryo: "He is our man. He is sympathetic to us poor people."

But just a year into office, many people have begun to criticize Estrada’s administration. Already, the women’s groups have labeled him the country’s most sexist President, among others, but even worse is the accusation, shared by the women, labor, and peasant groups, that he is "anti-poor" - an accusation which, if true, would speak of a betrayal "worse than treachery", according to Florida.

How the President intends to assuage the disappointment of his "economically-challenged" constituents, is a story not too consistent with his drama and action-filled, happy-ending movies of yore. For, as some NGO critics said, "this one’s for Dolphy." A comedy. A mockery of logic, and of all things reasonable.

NAPC and the KKK

Highlighting the administration’s anti-poverty program is the new-millennium KKK, or Katipunang Kontra Kahirapan, launched at a star-studded event at the Rizal Park last week. The event also marked the formal launching of the National Anti-Poverty Commission, or NAPC.

The NAPC was created by virtue of RA 8425 or the Social Reform and Poverty Alleviation Act that came into effect on July 1, 1998. It is the coordinating and advisory body that exercises oversight functions in the implementation of the Erap Para sa Mahirap Program or Poverty Eradication Program (PEP). NAPC is composed of 13 heads of national government agencies, four presidents of local government units’ (LGUs) leagues, and 14 representatives of the basic sectors .

At the top of the NAPC hierarchy are President Estrada himself as the chair, Presidential Assistant Donna Gasgonia as vice chair for the government sector, Ana Maria Nemenzo as vice chair for the basic sectors, and Agrarian Reform Secretary Horacio Morales as lead convenor and head of the NAPC secretariat.

As an agency, the NAPC derives its guiding principles from RA 8425. These are the incorporation of the SRA into the development plans of the government; efficient implementation of anti-poverty programs; coordination and synchronization of national programs; policy oversight; strengthening of LGUs; basic sectoral and NGO participation; adequate, efficient, prompt delivery of basic service; and credit and savings windows for the poor.

Congress allotted P50 M for the operational budget of NAPC in the 1999 General Appropriations Act (GAA). In addition, it also allocated a Lingap Para sa Mahirap Fund or the poverty alleviation fund, in the amount of P2.5 B for the same year. The fund will be used for medical assistance (P500 M), irrigation and potable water supply (P400 M), housing (P400 M), food assistance (P400 M), protection of youth and children (P300 M), and livelihood assistance (P500 M).

The Lingap fund, according to Alain Del Pascua, NAPC National Technical Coordinator for Sectoral Concerns, is the fourth poverty alleviation fund since 1996. The first was P4 B, which was released in 1996, followed by P2.5 B in 1997 and P2.5 B in 1998, making for a total of P9 B in poverty alleviation funds during the Ramos presidency.

Poverty Eradication Program through "corporatives"

Estrada’s PEP involves a six-point thrust. These are food security, sustainable development, low-cost mass housing, good governance, peace and order, and enterprise development.

Food security, as envisioned by the present administration, will be promoted through agricultural modernization by "preparing farmers and fisherfolk to meet global competition" by giving them access to the "latest technology" and "promoting corporatives as a better alternative."

The corporative scheme, or market-assisted land reform (MALR), is a new-model approach recommended by the World Bank (WB) to the Philippines after a review of the country’s agrarian reform situation. As a scheme, MALR is limited to landholdings of 24 hectares and below. Also known as "negotiated land reform," it has been applied in Brazil, Colombia and South Africa. It basically revolves around the concept of a "willing buyer, willing seller."

Officially, the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) has adopted MARL as one scheme of the "comprehensive land distribution methods." Peasant groups and their NGO partners suspect, however, that this is just another scheme to circumvent the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP).

Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) chairperson Rafael Mariano said MALR will not benefit farmers who have long been asking for genuine "land for the tiller" reform, since it is only an expansion of the market orientation, providing opportunities for landlord and multinational corporations to reconcentrate and take over whatever remains of CARP.

Vic Fabe, president of the Pambansang Kilusan ng mga Samahang Magsasaka (PAKISAMA), said only the landlords, who have enough financial resources and power, can profit from the scheme, not the small and poor farmers and agri-workers. "It is clear in this situation that the market will not help land reform and the poor peasants," Fabe said in Filipino.

As Jennifer Franco, a visiting research fellow of the Institute of Popular Democracy said: "What motivated the new DAR leadership to entertain the controversial idea was the serious budget crunch it faced even before anti-reformists in Congress last December, led by Sen. John Osmeña, succeeded in depriving the DAR of new funds for land acquisition and distribution for this year."

"DAR insiders now say that unless the World Bank agrees to inject ‘fresh funds’ into DAR’s budget for a pilot project, it won’t get off the ground, and WB’s efforts to bring MALR to the Philippines will have been wasted," Franco added.

Significant poverty reduction by 2004?

Following the "20/20 initiative" set by the international community, the Philippines included, during the 1995 World Summit on Poverty and Social Development in Copenhagen , PEP seeks to eradicate poverty in the long term. As the NAPC primer puts it: "It is a pro-poor program with a policy framework and implementation mechanism for the medium term (1998-2004)."

In addition, the program seeks to eradicate absolute poverty and relative poverty. Absolute poverty is defined as the "condition of the household below the threshold level." Relative poverty, on the other hand, is defined as "the gap between the rich and the poor."

The medium term plan is to reduce the poverty index by 12 per cent so that the 32.1 per cent poverty index in December 1997 will be down to 20 per cent in the year 2004. In 1997, there were more or less 4.8 million families or about 24 million poor Filipinos. PEP seeks to bring down that number to only 3.4 million families in the year 2004, or about 17 million poor Filipinos. To achieve this means alleviating an average of 2 million poor Filipinos every year above the poverty level for the next five years.

100 poorest families

Consequently, the PEP sought out the 100 poorest families in each of the 78 provinces and 83 cities in the country. The reason for this, Pascua told CyberDyaryo, is NAPC’s recognition of the family as the basic unit, not only to make monitoring and evaluation more defined, but more so because the Filipino culture puts a lot of value on the family.

"The President wants poverty alleviation translated into human faces. He wants to see smiling faces, not places, as what would have happened had the previous administration succeeded in their anti-poverty program," Pascua expressed.

Pascua however clarified that the program’s beneficiaries will not be limited to the 100 poorest families in each province and city, because that would only total 16,100 poor families and the target is 2 million Filipinos each year.

The 16,100 poor families identified as basic units, according to Pascua, will form the benchmark for evaluating the progress of the PEP. "The 100 poorest families in each province and city will not be the only beneficiaries or targets of the program. They will be in clusters of 20 to 25 families with a viable enterprise in the barangay where they reside. There will be a minimum of four different barangays in each province and city. This brings a total of 644 barangays as the core barangays for evaluating the program," he explained.

Still, this does not mean that government assistance and services will be delivered only to the identified poorest families or their barangays. Depending on the felt needs of the poorest families relative to their barangay and the major industry of the province or city, the government will "establish a convergence of programs that will benefit at least the entire barangay, if not the adjacent barangays as well.

The Minimum Basic Needs

The NAPC used the Minimum Basic Need s(MBN) approach in identifying the 100 poorest families. This method, Pascua revealed, was the same one used during the Ramos administration’s Presidential Commission to Fight Poverty to identify the 20 poorest provinces.

As used by NAPC, the MBN considers three basic needs of the Filipino family. First is survival, which involves food and nutrition, health and water, and family. Second is security, which involves shelter, peace and order, public safety, income and livelihood. The third consists of enabling services, which involve basic education and literacy, participation in community development, family and psycho-social care.

The MBN method considers a family poor if its minimum basic needs are not met. Usually, the family income determines the state of poverty of the family. However, the MBN method takes into account the ability of some Filipino families to meet their MBN through other, non-monetary means, such as providing for their own food requirements by planting vegetables, catching fish, or raising livestock.

The critics

National Peace Conference (NPC) vice president Ging Deles, however, thinks that the use of the 100 poorest families is a regression in terms of how poverty should be addressed. "I can’t imagine how the 100 families could reflect reality in terms of social outreach," she said.

"For one, it’s gonna be a bingo," Deles said. That is, "swerte-swerte lang"(sheer luck) as she said in Filipino. It would even lead, she added, to a situation where families who were not chosen would feel disgruntled over those who were. "Then there’s this question of why not these families and not those," she continued. "What’s the guarantee that those who did not vote for Erap will be chosen?" she asked.

The MBN, Deles told CyberDyaryo, is neither an effective tool in addressing poverty nor in identifying the poorest families. True, it was used during the Ramos administration, but Deles said that as early as then, they already realized that the MBN could only help identify problem areas.

"As the experience of Tabang Mindanaw would show, the MBN method just does not work," Deles said. "And yet here they are, using the very technique that has been proven time and again to be ineffective when used in this particular problem," she added.

The challenge

Addressing the poverty problem, Deles said, goes beyond the bingo scheme. And while she conceded that the Ramos poverty reduction program had its problems, the present administration’s approach, she said, is "even worse."

If the government is really serious in reducing poverty, then it should stop talking about the 100 families. As it is, what the government is doing, in Deles’s words, is "making magic of the poverty program."

The solution, Deles said, is not giving short-term relief to families who are dying of poverty. "There should be structural reforms," she stressed. "They want to improve the lives of poor Filipinos, then they should improve the educational system, the health services, implement the Indigenous People’s Rights Act properly, complete land distribution."

"But what do they intend to do? Give scholarships to selected families? Give a steady supply of medicine to the chosen few? That’s a dole-out system, precisely designed to maintain political patronage of the present administration," she said.

As former DAR Secretary Ernesto Garilao said: "Poverty alleviation is impossible without legislative and structural reforms. True, the poor need to eat for the next six hours. But providing them food to eat for the next meal is not the solution. For then you’ll have to provide them food for the next meal. And the next. The answer is long-term solutions, which are only possible if you have the right politics. And the right legislative policies to back you up."

CyberDyaryo | 1999.07.15