The current public health crisis brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted all aspects of society, particularly income and employment. The unemployment rate rose to 17.7% in April, leaving 7.3 million Filipinos jobless. According to the World Bank, the two-month loss of income could increase the poverty rate by 3.3 percentage points in the Philippines.
Like many countries, the Philippines has implemented cash transfer programs to support the displaced and the vulnerable. The government was quick to enact a law to alleviate the public health crisis. Among the most salient features of the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act was the allocation of P199.975 billion to the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) to fund its Social Amelioration Program (SAP).
WHAT IS SAP?
The Social Amelioration Program grants a P5,000 to P8,000 monthly cash subsidy to low-income families for two months, depending on the area of residence. The subsidies provide marginalized sectors of society the means to afford basic needs during the pandemic.
Much like any new program, the implementation of SAP has not been smooth-sailing. Many LGUs have reported issues with coming up with the list of beneficiaries, and releasing the cash subsidy due to insufficient funds or inadequate distribution infrastructure. Some have also criticized the speed with which the subsidies are rolled out, the uncertainty with regard to the recipients of the subsidies, and the exact amount they are given.
SURVEY ON SAP
To evaluate the SAP, Action for Economic Reforms (AER) launched a survey, supported by the Asia Foundation, to ask respondents about their experience with the SAP subsidies. The survey ran from May 3 to 23, and aimed to know key details in the distribution of SAP — who were covered, how much was given, and how fast was it done. These questions can shed light on policy recommendations to improve the distribution and the administration of succeeding tranches. Advocating data-driven development, we believe that without data, the local government units (LGUs) may not know what they are doing right, and what they can do better to guide their decisions moving forward.
Social distancing has made face-to-face data collection challenging. Given the speed at which we need the data, elaborate phone surveys are infeasible. Acknowledging these challenges, AER launched an online survey on Facebook Messenger using an automated chatbot. While we understand the limits of online platforms, given our focus on the National Capital Region (NCR) and the relatively high Facebook usage of NCR residents (64%), we are still able to capture a significant sample at a lower-cost and faster rate than other survey modes.
For our sampling frame, we only consider Filipinos residing in the top 500 poorest barangays in NCR cities with a Facebook account. We based the list from the 2015 National Household Targeting Survey to identify these barangays. To enlist our respondents, we published a Facebook advertisement to invite them to answer our survey. Our final sample included 7,903 respondents. To validate our results, we randomly selected around 3% of respondents for a phone survey to ensure that responses are accurate, i.e., their self-reported data on Facebook and Messenger are consistent with their stated answers over the phone.
Given our statistical methodology, our results will be representative of a specific subsample of the NCR population. Standard adjustments were made so that our results are representative of the Facebook users in the NCR. However, we caution any interpretations that aim to extrapolate to the entire NCR population, including non-Facebook users.
Based on the survey, we have arrived at the following recommendations for the succeeding tranche for SAP, as well as for future government subsidy programs.
Any targeting program is only as good as the data used to identify its beneficiaries. We echo the call of the DSWD for a national database system not just for the SAP but for social welfare programs moving forward. Through our survey, we noted various reports of households receiving multiple subsidies from the different programs of the DSWD, the Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE), and the Social Security System (SSS). Having a unified database that is updated regularly prevents this from happening and leads to more efficient use of resources.
To improve targeting, better coordination is necessary among barangay and LGUs. This enables both barangays and LGUs to respond more quickly should there be any changes in the list. The use of data-driven approaches — i.e., using the Community-Based Monitoring System (CBMS) or the National Household Targeting System (NHTS) data — can help LGUs identify barangays with more vulnerable households. By using clear indicators (i.e., residing in a gated subdivision), LGU officials will find it easier to redirect aid from one barangay to another. The data can map out areas not reached during the first tranche, and give insights into how to ensure their prioritization in the second tranche.
After coming up with the list, LGUs need to ensure that eligible or disadvantaged households are universally covered. Our survey revealed that during the first tranche, food distribution was faster and more widespread than cash distribution. If delays in cash distribution persist, LGUs may prioritize food or relief goods distribution to ensure that constituents do not go hungry. This is crucial given that a recent SWS survey showed 5.2 million Filipino families experienced involuntary hunger in the past three months, the highest since 2014.
Given the scarcity of resources, the mistargeting (i.e., when some households receive both food and money, while some households receive neither) of program benefits must also be minimized. Our survey also revealed that high-income individuals received food subsidies, which, although technically is not mistargeting, represents an inefficient use of resources.
To address issues of “palakasan,” or when those eligible were not reached or tagged as ineligible, transparency is critical to fighting corruption. Presenting both the inclusion and exclusion criteria and publishing lists of recipients in public offices and official LGU websites or social media pages and reason/s for receiving will promote transparency, and avoid suspicions of corruption and favoritism. These transparency measures will also allow the public to participate and report instances of double counting, mistargeting, and corruption. We welcome the DSWD’s efforts to publish the lists online and encourage them to continue to do so for the second tranche.
Ultimately, as the COVID-19 pandemic is first and foremost a public health issue, the distribution of cash transfers may also be an avenue to enjoin vulnerable populations to do their part to beat COVID-19. Health promotion programs can be added during the rollout of the cash transfer to improve the public’s safety and well-being.
Evidently, it takes a whole-of-society and whole-of-government approach to address the current issues brought about by COVID-19. Interestingly, the etymology of the words social amelioration gives us a clear vision to undertake this path: social from socialis meaning united, and amelioration from ameliorare meaning to improve. It is high time for us to take a united stand to improve our current state of affairs to reduce persisting inequities. In its core, is that not the spirit of bayanihan?
VC Apostol does policy research and analysis on health taxation and Universal Health Care. Laurence Go leads the Data-Driven Development Program of Action for Economic Reforms (AER). To request the full AER SAP Report, send an e-mail to email@example.com.