AGUSAN DEL SUR, PHILIPPINES, November 30, 2008 — “Luoy kayo ‘mi [We were so pitiful],” says the teary-eyed Celia Orboc, 32 year-old pregnant mother of five, as she recalled the days when her family’s decaying nipa house beside a road in Barangay Hawilian, Esperanza, Agusan del Sur, stood as a stark testimony to her family’s humiliation.
The roof leaked. There was no place inside her tiny tottering abode where her family could find shelter from the cold, harsh monsoon rains—an added aggravation to her family’s daily struggle to find the next meal. Most of the walls had collapsed. People passing through the dirt road each day could see her family’s wretched conditions.
They could not have the house repaired because the family’s income (Celia and her husband peddle vegetables and budbod or cakes made from corn grits) averaging Php 50 (about $1) a day was not enough, even for food. A typical family meal consisted of root crops and some vegetable leaves. Rice and dried fish were an occasional luxury.
Things have changed for the better, says Celia. "Karon, arang-arang na ‘mi [Now, we are a little better off].”
The improvement in her family’s living conditions came in February this year when she began to receive money from the government’s conditional cash transfer (CCT) program called Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) implemented by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).
The 4Ps provide poor households P500 a month for their health needs and a P300 educational subsidy for each child up to age 14. Poor families can get educational subsidy for a maximum of three children. In return, beneficiaries are required to send their children to school, and the mothers must go for regular prenatal or postnatal care.
Celia explains that with the P1,400 monthly government subsidy that she draws from a LandBank ATM in Bayugan, a town 14 kilometers away from Esperanza, she was able to save enough to buy cheap construction materials after purchasing basic needs such as milk, food, soap, clothes and school supplies for her children. When she learned that the local government had started providing housing lots at the barangay for the needy for only P3,000 to be paid in the future, she immediately availed of the privilege and got her new house constructed on the slopes near the bank of Hawilian River.
“Nalipay gyud ko kay makapalit na mi ug among panginahanglan [I'm so happy that we are now able to buy some of our basic needs],” she says.
Sitting on a 110 square-meter lot, her new house made of wood planks and GI sheets is still unfinished. But she is happy that her family is now protected from the elements.“Makatulog na ‘mi sa gabi-i bisag mo-ulan. Daku gyud ang among pasalamat sa DSWD (We can now sleep soundly at night even if it rains. We can't thank DSWD enough).
Celia is one of 648 beneficiaries of the government’s pilot CCT program in Esperanza in Agusan del Sur. Inspired by successful examples in Latin America (especially Mexico and Brazil), the CCT aims to achieve two things, says Mercedita P. Jabagat, DSWD regional director for Caraga Region. The first is social assistance for extremely poor households, and second, “social development” intended to keep the children of poor families in school and ensure that they are healthy so they have a chance to escape from poverty.
Aimed at covering 320,000 households nationwide, the program requires funding of P5 billion pesos each year until 2013. The government is using its own funds to finance the program but has enlisted technical assistance from the World Bank to help DSWD fine-tune its targeting, design and implementation mechanisms and help ensure that the money does not leak to more privileged members of the community.
The towns of Esperanza and Sibagat in Agusan del Sur, Lopez Jaena and Bonifacio in Misamis Occidental, and the cities of Pasay and Caloocan in Metro Manila are the pilot areas for the CCT.
It’s easy to figure out why the DSWD selected Esperanza as one of the pilot areas. More than two out of three households are below the poverty threshold, one in four suffers food shortage, a quarter of children aged 6-12 are not in school, a fifth doesn't have access to safe drinking water, and more than ten percent of the labor force is unemployed. Most available jobs are seasonal as the town’s economy is dependent largely on the production of corn, rice, fruits, vegetables, legumes, wood and wood products.
The surveys and validation efforts to determine the poorest of the poor in Esperanto’s 47 barangays started in late 2007 and the first batch of beneficiaries started getting cash transfers in February 2008. Caroline Catalan, DSWD’s “Municipal Link” handling the CCT in Esperanza, says that by the end of this year, the program should cover more than 5,000 households, equivalent to 56 percent of the town’s population.
DSWD regional director Jabagat explains that in return for the cash transfers, beneficiaries comply with the following conditions:
Pregnant women must get pre-natal care, child birth must be attended by a skilled or trained person, and mothers must get post-natal care.
Children 0-5 years must get regular health check ups and vaccinations.
Children 6-14 must attend school at least 85 percent of the time.
Failure to comply with these conditions could mean losing the subsidy. School principals and the municipal health officers are tasked to monitor compliance.
The carrot-and-stick that is built into the CCT/4Ps seems to be working. Enrolment in the local elementary school increased by 15 percent and more people are going to health centers.
“I'm so happy that enrolment in our school has increased significantly,” says Maria Elena Saga, principal of the Esperanza Central Elementary School. “The students’ school performances have improved. They are now more active in school activities, including their parents.”
Saga explains that poverty is the main reason why many children drop out of school. Tuition is free, she explains, but many parents lack money to buy food, clothes and basic school supplies like paper and pencil. Many children ended up working as pedicab drivers and farm workers so they could help their parents make both ends meet.
“Some kids do try to go to school, but they return home before lunch, during recess, because they are hungry and they don't have anything to eat,” laments Saga. But she says, the CCT as well as other social welfare programs of the government, including school feeding, have lessened this problem.
Fatima Osorio, Esperanto’s municipal health nurse, says that prior to the implementation of the 4Ps, the municipality could hardly meet its immunization and vaccination targets. Since February, however, more people are availing themselves of the town’s health services. She adds that the program has apparently raised people’s awareness regarding the municipality’s heath services since even those who are not covered by the 4Ps are now coming to the health centers.
Dr. Figuracion Peñas, Esperanto’s municipal health officer, says that among the barriers to achieving the town’s health targets are cultural factors. More than 40 percent of the population are indigenous peoples (IP) who, due to old customs and traditions, are not inclined to send their children to health centers for vaccination and immunization. The monetary incentive in the 4Ps, Peñas explains, has enabled the municipality to bring its health services to the IPs.
“The 4Ps program is heaven-sent,” says Leonida Manpatilan, the mayor of Esperanza. And it’s not only because more children are going back to school, getting immunized, and their mothers are having pre- and post-natal care. “It’s also because people have become more responsive to government initiatives. It’s so easy to mobilize people for community projects these days.”
She adds that about 70 percent of the population lives in poverty. The cash transfers therefore could immediately improve the lives of the poorest of the poor.
In the long run, Mapantilan hopes that the government undertakes more projects that could compliment the 4Ps. She thinks about livelihood projects. CCT, she explains, should be part of a broader economic development strategy for her municipality. Specifically, she stresses that projects like farm-to-market roads should also raise incomes as the ease with which people could bring their produce to the market centers could provide stronger incentives for them to be more productive. “We should encourage the people, especially the IPs, to cultivate their lands,” she concludes .