A posse of Pantawids

THE straight and narrow path, or “matuwid na daan” in Filipino, is where President Benigno Simeon ‘Noynoy’ C. Aquino III says he wishes all Filipinos would tread. And perhaps to prove that he’s not all talk and no action, Aquino has splurged billions of pesos on many “pantawid” (“tide over” in English) programs that all involve cash subsidies for the poor.

The biggest of these “pantawid” initiatives, of course, is the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) or the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) that has been allotted P21 billion in the 2011 General Appropriations Act (GAA), and a substantial part of it funded with loans from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

Three other programs are also listed under the 4Ps, each with its own hefty budget: the “Supplemental Feeding Program” (P2.88 billion), “Food for Work for Internally Displaced Persons” (P881 million), and “Rice Subsidy Program” (P4.23 billion). Altogether, these other subsidy programs are worth an additional P8 billion.

In the CCT and these other programs, the 2,500-strong Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) has been designated lead agency, with other agencies as co-implementers or mere deputies. One can say that the DSWD suddenly has its plate full not just with too much work, but also too much money.

In fact, the P21 billion set aside for the CCT in the GAA this year is more than double the allocation that the DSWD received last year. It is also the largest cost item in the department’s budget, eating up 62 percent of the agency’s total allotment of P34.2 billion for 2011.

(To coincide with the recent observance of Labor Day, Aquino launched through Executive Order No. 32 the “Pantawid Pasada” or Public Transport Assistance Program. Under it, a targeted total of 214,596 jeepney and tricycle drivers and operators received “smart cards” pre-loaded with up to P1,050, or roughly a fuel assistance of P35 a day for one whole month. The program’s launch, which had energy department officials handing out cards to drivers who had queued for hours, cost taxpayers at least P225.32 million, net of administrative expenses. The implementing rules for EO No. 32 say that Pantawid Pasada has an initial allocation of P450 million.)

To be sure, cash grants to targeted beneficiaries have been acknowledged as better and less-costly safety net measures, in contrast to price subsidies that tend to benefit even the rich. It is not clear, however, how these cash-outs supplement each other, or what outcomes they are designed to yield, under the Philippine Development Plan for 2011-2016 that the government fully disclosed only last week.

It’s also unclear how a small executive agency like the DSWD will be able to implement these programs efficiently, without sacrificing its regular tasks under its “social welfare arm” – providing assistance to victims of abuse and exploitation, and relief assistance in times of disasters. DSWD Secretary Corazon ‘Dinky’ Soliman herself says these tasks should go hand-in-hand with the agency’s “development arm” that includes implementing the CCT.

At the very least, the DSWD likes to say that the pantawid programs complement its work. It also bristles at any suggestion that the programs involve dole-outs. Thus, the Rice Subsidy Program is also called “Rice for Work.” It aims to augment the incomes of about two million small-scale farmers and fishers nationwide during lean months following the harvest season. The DSWD says it is equivalent to their wages for 14 days’ work in a month.

Like the beneficiaries for the CCT, the farmers and fisherfolk who will benefit from the Rice for Work program will be selected through the National Household Targeting System for Poverty Reduction (NHTS-PR). Supposedly, the distribution of rice subsidies had already begun last May 15.

The CCT’s P21 billion, meanwhile, is meant for distribution among 2.3 million poor households by year end. It’s an ambitious undertaking that poses a huge administrative challenge for DSWD to implement. Accordingly, it will also extract a substantial cost, as a closer scrutiny of Republic Act No. 10147 or the GAA for Fiscal Year 2011 reveals.

In other words, not every centavo of that P21 billion will go to poor families. Also eating up a hefty portion of the budget are amounts earmarked for activities related to disbursing those cash grants and for keeping the entire undertaking up and running. The budget for these operational, administrative, and capital outlay altogether amounts to about P4 billion, or a fifth of the total CCT budget.

Translated, that means that for every P100 that the government will be spending for the CCT this year, P80 will go directly to poor families as “cash grants,” while the remaining P20 will be spent in the course of bringing that money to them. And that’s not even counting the P100-million budget for selecting the recipients of cash transfers through the NHTS-PR.

A Cabinet secretary said the huge administrative cost of the CCT that is being implemented “top-down” is an attempt by the Aquino government to plug “leakages to corruption,” which marred many pro-poor projects in the past that were implemented “bottom-up” or with local government agencies as coordinators.

Conditional Cash Transfer Program Budget Allocation, 2011

Expenditure Items Allocation (PhP) % of Total CCT Budget
Cash Grant 17,137,864,333 80.86
Trainings 1,624,772,529 7.67
Salaries and Allowances 716,468,037 3.38
Other Expenses for Monitoring/
Evaluation, Administrative Expenses
676,873,698 3.19
IEC and Advocacy Materials 333,049,544 1.57
Printing of Manuals and Booklets 315,935,216 1.49
Capital Outlay 217,775,000 1.03
Bank Service Fee 171,378,643 0.81
TOTAL 21,194,117,000 100

It’s an overhead cost that seems really huge. But the DSWD sees it as a necessary investment that would help ensure that the program would be free of leakages and shielded from political influence.

That goal, coupled with the magnitude of the undertaking, prompted DSWD to hire thousands of personnel, albeit on a contractual basis. Most of these personnel – called municipal links (MLs) and city links (CLs) – are social workers, but they are not to be confused with municipal social welfare and development officers (MSWDOs) who are employed by the local government unit (LGU). So while the MSWDOs report to the mayor, the MLs and CLs report to DSWD’s regional offices.

The agency has offices in the 16 administrative regions of the country, excluding the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, but does not have units from the provincial level down. All local social welfare and development offices are under the supervision of governors and mayors.

Under the CCT, the DSWD is now scheduled to hire 2,300 contractual ground monitors – the MLs and the CLs – fattening its staff complement twice over.

Among the tasks of the CL/MLs are to coordinate with beneficiaries regarding cash-grant transmittals, as well as with municipal social workers on the conduct of family development sessions. The CL/MLs also monitor compliance of the beneficiaries to the CCT’s conditions and serve as the first line of grievance redress.

To make sure that each ML or CL will be able to closely monitor each CCT family, each is assigned 1,000 beneficiaries. There are about 2,000 CL/MLs under the DSWD’s employ at present, but by the end of the year, that figure is expected to reach 2,300. By then, the department expects to have 2.3 million CCT beneficiary-families.

That also means the DSWD will be spending P34.5 million a month or about P414 million annually just for the salaries of the CL/MLs, each of whom gets P15,000 a month.

But the GAA lists even a bigger amount under “Salaries and Allowances” for the CCT since there are other DSWD personnel (newly hired and otherwise) who are also involved in the program. According to Soliman, such involvement would make the program “integrated within the agency rather than (have) a separate foreign-assisted program unit…that will end when there is no more funding.”

But it’s actually “trainings” (sic), not salaries, which are the second largest cost item in the CCT budget. For this year, the “trainings” allocation is P1.6 billion, or monthly expenses for the item of P135 million or P4.45 million per day. The DSWD argues, though, that this would ensure that the CL/MLs and DSWD staff would be able to do all the tasks assigned them for CCT.

There are mechanisms for monitoring DSWD’s performance and accountability for the program. For instance, a GAA special provision specifically requires DSWD to “submit to the DBM, the House Committee on Appropriations and Senate Committee on Finance separate quarterly reports on the disbursements made for the Program or post on its official website, at least on a quarterly basis, the beneficiaries identified under the NHTS-PR National, utilization of amounts, status of implementation, program evaluation and/or assessment reports.”

The DSWD has transmitted its first-quarter report on the CCT, according to a staffer of Sen. Franklin M. Drilon, chair of the Senate Committee on Finance. The report was dated April 18, 2011, or two weeks after the close of the first quarter. No copies of the report, however, have been disclosed as of this writing.

With such a big increase in the CCT budget, President Aquino himself found it prudent to have yet another mechanism for monitoring the program. Inserted in the special provisions is the president’s veto: “The Oversight Committees on Public Expenditures herein created in the Senate and House of Representatives shall strictly monitor the effective implementation of the (CCT) Program.” – PCIJ, May 2011