Friday, 07 April 2000

How goes the anti-poverty program?
By Gina Mission

It has been one year and eight months since President Estrada, raising much hope among the masses who catapulted him to power, announced an ambitious program to alleviate, if not eliminate, poverty during his six-year term. So how goes the Lingap anti-poverty program, also known as Erap para sa mahirap (Erap for the poor)?

....."The program is reaching its goals," declared Presidential Assistant on Poverty Alleviation Donna Gasgonia, at a committee hearing in Congress on April 5. But not many--not the legislators present at the hearing, not even some of the intended beneficiaries themselves--were prepared to agree with her.

.....For them, the signs of poverty alleviation since the program was announced in July 1998, the first month of the Estrada presidency, have yet to be seen. The program is being administered by the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC), an agency created under the Office of the President, with a funding of P2.5 billion each year until 2004, the last year of his term. President Estrada himself sits as NAPC chair, with Gasgonia as vice chair, in her capacity as presidential assistant on poverty alleviation

.....The program’s ultimate goal: to improve the economic status of 10 million poor families by 2004. To do this, the government was to identify 100 poorest families--using the minimum basic needs index--in the country's 78 provinces every year until 2004. The families would then be given assistance in terms of food, housing, health, education and livelihood. Every year, the beneficiaries’ economic status would be evaluated to determine improvements in their lives.

.....Although the 100 families-per year-per-province formula would not add up to10 million families in six years, the government hopes the progress attained by the immediate beneficiaries would trickle down to other families through various facilities and services in the communities where the beneficiaries live.

.....The NAPC was created in July 1998, but the remaining months of that year were evidently spent mostly on setting up the basic organizational structure. A Cabinet-level office, the commission is composed of 13 heads of national government agencies, the presidents of four leagues of local government units and 14 representatives from the basic sectors. It has an annual budget of P2.5 billion, to be allocated by Congress.

.....Six departments were tapped to carry out the program's various components. These are the Department of Health, Department of Social Welfare and Development, Cooperative Development Authority, National Housing Authority, Local Water Utilities Administration and National Food Authority.

.....These agencies are to use the money for projects for poor families. Specifically, Lingap funds will be distributed to these agencies each year for these purposes: medical assistance, P500 million; irrigation and potable water supply, P400 million; housing, P400 million; food assistance, P400 million; protection of youth and children, P300 million; and livelihood assistance, P500 million.

.....By providing such assistance to the 100 poorest families in each of the country’s provinces, government hopes to reduce the number of poor families by 10 million in 2004, through a multiplier effect of 2 million each year for five years starting 1999.

.....Lingap is being carried out through an integrated approach, Gasgonia said. This, she explained, means that the six implementing agencies "consolidate, complement and coordinate" their efforts "in pursuit of a common objective–poverty eradication."

.....Described by critics as the presidential pork barrel meant for political patronage, the Lingap Fund is not subject to audit. Instead, the six agencies account for their expenses to the Department of Budget and Management, but only in terms of fund allocation. The NAPC will not check whether the money is being spent for the purposes it was given.

.....In a newsmakers' forum held at the Century Park Hotel in Manila on April 5, Gasgonia said two of the commission's significant accomplishments so far were the identification of the 100 poorest families in each province, and the release of 30 per cent of the Lingap fund to the six agencies, which, according to her, "put the assistance projects in place."

.....This means that, by this time, the family-beneficiaries must have received some form of assistance from all the six implementing agencies, such as a medical pass from the health department, which will entitle a member of a family-beneficiary to free medical checkup or medicine in any hospital. Or a rice subsidy from the National Food Authority.

.....At the Congress hearing, Rep. Robert Ace Barbers (Surigao del Norte) challenged Gasgonia's statement that the Lingap program "is reaching its goals." Barbers, who represents Surigao del Norte’s second district, said the program "failed in its first year of implementation."

.....For example, he asked why only 30 per cent of the P2.5 billion budget for 1999 fund had been released up to this time. "This is April 2000, shouldn't the family-beneficiaries be receiving assistance from the 2000 Lingap fund already?"

.....Gasgonia explained that the DBM determines the release or non-release of funds to the implementing agencies. The DBM guidelines, she said, require that the agencies first use up and account for the initial release of 30 per cent before they can get the remaining amount. She disclosed that it was already October 1999 when the DBM started releasing the 30 per cent to each agency.

.....Congressman Ruy Elias Lopez, from the third district of Davao City, commented: "Shouldn't the NAPC be already identifying the second batch of the 100 poorest families, or checking the economic status of the first batch of Lingap beneficiaries by now?"

.....What do the beneficiaries themselves say? Ricardo Ancete and Aida Anos, who belong to two of the 100 poorest families in Dagat-Dagatan, Kalookan City, and who had been profiled by PNI last year, tell this writer that they are still waiting for the first sign of "biyaya (blessing) from Malacaņang" that was promised them as Lingap beneficiaries.

....."Ma'am, wala pa (nothing yet),'' said Ancete, 32, who has no regular means of livelihood and occasionally works as carpenter, tricycle driver or house painter. No "health passport,'' no rice subsidy, he said. Anos said she hadn't received any assistance, either.

.....Assuming there are other beneficiaries in the same situation as Ancete and Anos, where did the money and other forms of assistance go?