First published in The Philippine Online Chronicles
(First of two parts)
Strange “realignments” marked the budget deliberations over the past few weeks as both chambers of Congress tackled the P21.9 billion Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT)program, a major item under the President’s proposed budget for next year. Curiously enough, some lawmakers issued a conditional position over the issue, while others transferred to the other camp within 24 hours.
In the latest development, the House of Representatives approved on second reading the P1.645-trillion 2011 budget shortly before Saturday dawn, leaving the CCT program of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) untouched. The budget bill is expected to pass third and final reading when Congress resumes session on Nov. 8 after a three-week recess.
Prior to the budget’s approval, the cash transfer scheme went under scrutiny and intense deliberations at both chambers of Congress.
The militant party-list bloc led the opposition to DSWD’s program as they protested the doubling of the CCT fund “at the expense of health, education, power, palay procurement and irrigation which suffered significant cuts.”
“Not only does the P21-billion dole-out offer an empty promise of alleviating poverty, it further contributes to the country’s worsening financial health with its added burden of multi-billion loans from international financial institutions,” read the joint statement by militant lawmakers from Bayan Muna party-list,Anakpawis party-list, Gabriela party-list, ACT Teachers party-list and Kabataan party-list.
$400-million ADB loan
Under the CCT program, the government will directly provide a monthly stipend of P1,400 to poor families with kids ages 14 years and below on the condition that parents send their children to school and mothers get regular prenatal or postnatal care.
The number of beneficiaries from DSWD’s cash transfer program, which started in 2008 by the Arroyo regime under Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps), is expected to reach 2.3 million by next year with the help of a $400-million loan from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) approved in September, according to a report.
On top of the CCT, the DSWD will implement a P4.2 billion rice subsidy program and a P2.8 billion feeding program.
Rep. Walden Bello of Akbayan party-list, which is allied to President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, alsocriticized what he called “dole-outs” and warned the government against allowing the power play of foreign agencies.
“What is even more disturbing is that this program’s emerging central position in the administration’s anti-poverty strategy has come because of a coordinated strategy of pressure by external agencies,” Rep. Bello said in his privilege speech at the onset of budget deliberations early October.
Ironically, the lawmaker would later back off from his strong opposition to the CCT.
In defense of the program, DSWD Secretary Dinky Soliman said the conditional cash transfer could be considered a “life buoy” for the 2.3 million household beneficiaries, using President Aquino’s metaphor for the program in his message on the first 100 days of his administration.
Senate says yes but…
At the Senate, Sen. Francis “Chiz” Escudero said “overstretched hospitals need cash transfers as much as poor do,” noting that P364-million budget cut for 55 government hospitals across the country even looms next year.
“The poor’s greatest fear is sickness and hospitalization. So even if you give him P1,400 a month, a minor bout with flu will wipe this out. So he’d rather prefer a facility that can he can go to in his time of need,” Escudero said.
Sen. Franklin Drilon meanwhile said that the Senate finance committee is generally supportive of the measure but it wants a full accounting of the CCT “to make sure the program succeeds in reducing poverty.”
‘Realign CCT funds’
Meanwhile, a manifesto was circulated at the Lower House calling for the realignment of funds from CCT to education, health, housing and agricultural services.
“Given the grave lack of funds for basic social services and economic services, we question the wisdom of allotting such a substantial portion of government’s scarce resources to CCTs,” lawmakers said in the manifesto, adding that the “CCT cannot replace a long-term strategy to address poverty’s root causes through asset redistribution and job generation.”
By Oct. 12, the manifesto had gathered 52 signatures of lawmakers from the progressive bloc, majority and minority groups.
A party-list solon who signed the manifesto against the CCT said in a report that the program might go to waste if it feeds the “wrong kind of hunger,” referring to gambling habits and other vices of some “irresponsible parents.”
Former president now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who used to promote direct subsidies to the poor under her administration, made headlines when she questioned the massive and “untimely” increase in the CCT funds.
“The details may look very nice on paper, but I’ve been there Mr. Speaker. The implementation is centrally not that simple,” Arroyo said when she took the floor for the first time Tuesday night. Earlier, she praisedthe Aquino administration for continuing the cash transfer program.
Arroyo and her son, Camarines Sur Rep. Diosdado Ignacio “Dato” Arroyo, also signed the manifesto drafted by militant lawmakers who are her constant critics. By Wednesday, the total number of lawmakers formally opposed to Aquino’s CCT had reached 52.
In yet another strange turnaround, Rep. Bello, who earlier slammed DSWD’s direct subsidies, co-authoredHouse Resolution 529 in support of Aquino’s CCT program. Explaining his change of stance, Bello said the solution “is not to cut off the program completely but make sure it is implemented properly.”
HR 529, whick seeks to establish a special oversight committee in the implementation of the CCT program, had gathered by Thursday more than 100 signatures of lawmakers, including at least 19 who also signed the manifesto against the CCT just a day before.
Among those lawmakers who changed their minds was San Juan Rep. Joseph Victor Ejercito, who said in a report that he also signed the pro-CCT resolution “just so there will be safety nets.”
Meanwhile, Aurora Rep. Juan Edgardo Angara said the manifesto against the cash transfer program was just “an expression of fear or apprehension and that maybe government might consider diverting some funds towards education, given all the shortfalls and needs in this area.”
Indeed, the issue on conditional cash transfer has solicited mixed and even conditional positions from the country’s lawmakers who are apparently still not keen on the program’s actual costs and benefits.
To be continued.