Govt policies need to be ‘anti-poverty’

Ben D. Kritz

AS part of the last-minute frenzy of preparations last week for the opening of the new school year, the municipality where I live distributed bags of school materials to poor students. I happened to be passing by the nearby public elementary school while this was happening, and took a few moments to observe the proceedings. This is because I find the manner in which these sorts of activities are conducted here strangely fascinating.

The beneficiaries of the free school supplies were gathered in the school’s large covered court area, an imposing steel-girded structure that is, of course, prominently labeled with the names of members of the ruling family in these parts. The crowd waited patiently in front of a stage, backdropped with a large banner announcing the event as a “priority project” of the smiling images of those same benevolent royals. These royals were themselves on hand, along with a number of other officials to confer benediction upon their assembled subjects in the form of self-praise for this and their many other “pro-poor” policies and initiatives.

Despite all the energetic effort, which undoubtedly was repeated in hundreds, if not thousands, of other places all over the Philippines, the “pro-poor” perspective to governance has had disappointing results. For at least the past six years, the country’s economic growth rate has been one of the fastest in Asia and the world at large.

Moreover, in the past three or four years, there have been very visible signs of economic strength: not just the numbers of tower cranes sprouting like weird metal forests over places like Metro Manila, Cebu, and Davao to construct malls and condominiums for the relatively well-off, but significant public works projects that tend to cut across economic class boundaries.

The families of the kids fidgeting through a half-dozen speeches in order to receive their free notebooks and pencils last week, are, for example, living in a literal construction zone of two of these: the new MRT-7 line approaching from the south, and the Bulacan Bulk Water Project crossing their town from east to west. Yet in spite of the obvious progress, fully a quarter of the population remains mired in abject poverty, and the Philippines’ economic productivity measured by GDP per capita ranks an unremarkable sixth-best among the 10 members of the Asean.

The reason why this unfortunate juxtaposition persists becomes apparent when you listen to politicians talk about all they’ve done for their impoverished constituents. The “pro-poor” perspective makes a virtue, perhaps even a privilege of poverty. At no time does the message ever suggest that a state of poverty is something undesirable that should be overcome; rather, that being impoverished is somehow ennobling, and entitles one to special treatment. The very real effect of this is simply to perpetuate poverty; it is reflected in the persistent evidence of macroeconomic indicators, and it is reflected in unwitting statements, such as one of the assembled elites offered to his elementary-school audience, that “we are handing out more school bags than ever before.”

Unless maintaining a large impoverished population is actually a policy goal – and we would like to assume it is not – the government’s perspective needs to drastically change from being “pro-poor” to “anti-poor” or “anti-poverty.”

That is not to suggest that the poor are not entitled to being treated with as much dignity and respect as anyone, nor, if the public coffers can support it, assistance for needs they are otherwise unable to provide for themselves. But to simply maintain them in that state is a job half-done at best.

One politician, at least, who seems to understand this concept is Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol. A farmer by profession and a former governor of an agricultural province, Pinol has courted controversy on a number of occasions by expressing his disapproval of the Conditional Cash Transfer program, or “4Ps,” according to its cumbersome designation in Tagalog.

Piñol’s view is that the program simply encourages mendicancy and that the effort would be better applied elsewhere, such as in agricultural livelihood programs. Man of the earth that he is, Piñol bases his view on direct observation; in a blog post to the “Secretary’s Corner” of the DA website some time ago, he noted acerbically that liquor and lottery ticket sales always seemed to surge in his province when the monthly stipend was received by its beneficiaries.

On the other hand, vocal advocates of the program, including the government’s own social welfare, health and economic experts, as well as multinational agencies like the UN Development Program – point to statistics to rebut Piñol’s argument. Families receiving conditional cash subsidies are in general healthier, meaning they experience less hunger, fewer incidences of preventable illnesses, and fewer maternal health problems; and the children of those families are enrolled in school at a much higher rate with the subsidies than before.

Technically, both arguments are correct. Statistics, presuming they are generated by the accepted standards applicable to that discipline, are considered reliable, and the Agriculture secretary’s personal observations are easily repeatable; in the two different provincial areas in which I’ve lived since the 4Ps program was introduced, one could construct a crude but functional calendar based on the regular periodic occurrences of long lines at the lottery outlet, empty liquor bottles appearing in great numbers on garbage collection days, and loud late-night karaoke from neighborhoods that are otherwise quiet for 28 or 29 nights of the month.

If both arguments are true, which one is more relevant? In this case, it’s Manny Piñol’s non-scientific, anecdotal observation, because it actually measures – albeit informally and negatively – the overall intended outcome of the conditional cash transfer program, which is poverty reduction. For all its academic rigor, the statistics-backed argument is a red herring; all it demonstrates is that the 4Ps program has a mitigating impact on certain effects of poverty, not its causes. The statistics do not show that the subsidies correlate to higher employment or increases in productive income and assets for the recipients. Therefore, the “pro-poor” conditional cash transfer program does not live up to its policy aims at all; it is not a boost out of poverty, but rather simply makes poverty marginally more comfortable.

In the absence of ready alternative solutions, the politicians would likely say their efforts are better than doing nothing at all, and that is probably true; but it does not absolve the government from the responsibility to keep looking for those solutions, and to raise the bar of their policy focus from merely addressing the question, “Are there poor Filipinos?” to seeking answers to the much tougher question, “Why are there poor Filipinos?”

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