Poverty of purpose?

THE NATIONAL Anti-Poverty Commission or NAPC was created by Republic Act No. 8425 or the “Social Reform and Poverty Alleviation Act” that came into force on June 30, 1998, the day the first supposedly “pro-poor” president, Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada, came to power.

The law was a legacy of his predecessor, Fidel V. Ramos, who took a fancy for periodic meetings with representatives of the basic sectors and organizations of the poor.

What was conceived to be a “coordinating and advisory” agency for the poor, however, has since then been visited by politics, political appointees, and incessant infighting between and among representatives of the poor, and the NAPC secretariat personnel.

And then it was forgotten. To this day, 70 days after Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III was installed president – like Estrada on the wings of an anti-corruption and pro-poor platform – the NAPC remains headless, listless, and without direction.

Aquino, who chairs the NAPC under the law, has not named a new NAPC lead convenor or director general – who enjoys the rank of Cabinet secretary. Too, two vice chairpersons have yet to be appointed, one for the “Basic Sector” component, with representatives from 14 sectors; and another for the “Government Sector,” with representatives from 25 national agencies and the four leagues of local governments.

The state of flux has left in limbo NAPC’s 100-odd personnel as of December 2009. An undersecretary appointed by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is serving as interim chief.

The NAPC crew includes 23 permanent personnel, three detailed, and 73 contractual or hired under “contract of service,” according to the Commission on Audit (COA). Since last June 30, a number of contractuals had left, bringing the number of non-plantilla personnel to 58. Amid the standstill in the agency, last August staff salaries were delayed for a month, says a member of NAPC’s human resources unit.

To be sure, budget support for the NAPC had not been wanting over the last three years of the previous administration. In 2008, it received an allocation of P181.3 million, in 2009 P79.1 million, and this year, P112 million. These sums are on top of funds for microfinance loans for the poor that NAPC assists in managing, as well as funds from United Nations agencies for various programs.

R.A. No. 8425 institutionalized the processes of the Social Reform Agenda (SRA) “in order to sustain its gains,” and mandated NAPC “to enhance the programs, approaches and strategies to strengthen the partnership between government and the basic sectors.”

In addition, the NAPC was tasked to “develop and promote microfinance through the establishment of the People’s Development Trust Fund (PDTF), strengthening of the People’s Credit and Finance Corporation as the forerunner for microfinance services, and encouraging private and government financial institutions to open a special window for microfinance.”

Over the years, the NAPC has evolved into an elaborate bureaucracy, triggering an overlap with many departments and agencies devoted to the same functions and programs.

The NAPC super structure now has these teams:

  • Macropolicy Unit (MPU), created in 2001 and assigned to “develop poverty reduction strategies and integrate such into national and local plans; monitor cross-sectoral policies; and advocate and develop tools to assist in poverty monitoring and assessment.”
  • Micro-Finance Unit (MFU), created in June 2004 and assigned to “pursuing the development of the microfinance industry and ensuring the integrated delivery of sustainable microfinancial services to the poor, the rationalization of existing government programs for credit/guarantee, the utilization of existing government financial entities for the provision of microfinance products and services for the poor; and  the promotion of mechanisms necessary for the implementation of microfinance services, including indigenous microfinance practices.”
  • Basic Sector Unit (BSU), which “coordinates and ensures the participation of the 14 basic sectors identified in the Social Reform and Poverty Alleviation Act in the governance processes by providing support for meetings that require sectoral representation, the preparation of correspondences to requests and queries, coordination with national and government agencies, and basic sector capability-building.”
  • Localization Unit (LU), which “introduces the government’s poverty-reduction strategy into the systems of local governments and sustaining the anti-poverty convergence mechanism at the regional level as mandated under Memorandum Circular No. 33, series of 2002 or the Institutionalization of KALAHI as the government’s program for poverty reduction.”
  • Water and Sanitation Coordination Office (WASCO), which “facilitates and monitors the implementation of the President’s Priority Program on Water (P3W).”

  • Media Bureau, which “implements public relations and social marketing activities that promote the government’s social reform and poverty-reduction programs, as well as encourage support and cooperation of the various sectors in the realization of these objectives.”

  • Administrative and Finance Unit (AFU), which oversees the general operations of the NAPC Secretariat, including payroll, employee benefits, procurement, and the like.

  • Management Information System (MIS), which is “responsible for maintaining and updating of, as deemed necessary, the Secretariat’s hardware and software. It is also tasked with constantly updating the NAPC website.”

The big question is whether the NAPC has been worth all the millions in taxpayers’ money that it has received and continues to receive.

For years now, COA has issued audit reports on NAPC that have been peppered with “qualified” observations. Its 2009 report alone contained as many as 35 of these regarding such things as million-peso contracts with a popular radio anchor and a reporter colleague, and a public-opinion pollster that were not authorized in the NAPC budget; the overpayment of per diem and allowances for travel and conferences; and the non-remittance to the Treasury of program funds that NAPC has received from external donors.

As far as the Aquino administration is concerned, though, NAPC personnel have the assurance of Budget Secretary Florencio Abad that it “will be retained.” He even says, “Its continued existence was never an issue.”

Yet those introduced to both government and civil society circles like Karina Constantino David, former chairperson of the Civil Service Commission, has serious doubts that the NAPC remains relevant.

“It’s been in limbo in the last few years, sa totoo lang,” she says. “Maybe the concept sounds good on paper but in actual fact, a coordinative body headed by the president, with Cabinet members at the forefront… the coordinator like NAPC has no stature or power to craft policy that the departments should implement.”

If for anything, when NAPC started disbursing microfinance credits, and providing for cell phones and perks for representatives of the basic sectors sitting on its board,  it evolved into a virtual “dispenser of largesse” to the leaders of the poor and the basic sectors.

Asks David:  “How do you reinvent it with a defective law? With the kind of law and the kind of practice it has had over the five past years, is it worth trying to reinvent it? Should you throw in more money where it does not seem to work?” – PCIJ, September 2010