On Giving Money To The Poor

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On Giving Money To The Poor

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

I vaguely remember seeing a version of this quote two decades ago, printed on a poster that’s attached to the wall of my Grade 2 classroom. Like most children in the Philippines, I was raised appreciating the value of hard work, of taking no shortcuts to success (unless it involved becoming a pop star).

Over the years, I saw these words used and abused, often to prevent people from giving alms to the beggars: If one were to help, it should be in kind, or in return for something, lest they get used to it. This message is so pervasive, I believe it’s embedded in government policy, especially one frequently touted as the answer to poverty: conditional cash transfer.

CCT’s origins

Conditional cash transfer (CCT) programs trace their roots in Latin America in the 1990s, with Brazil’s Bolsa Familia and Mexico’s Oportunidades (formerly called Progresa) being the most popular examples.

Under the CCT framework, poor households will receive monetary aid from the government, but only upon meeting certain conditionalities: Parents should ensure that their children maintain a good school attendance rate; mothers should actively seek prenatal and postnatal care; and the young children should undergo immunization, periodic checkups, and growth monitoring.

On giving money to the poor: Probing the conditional cash transfer program

Today, CCT has been adopted in at least 15 other countries, including Chile, Colombia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Jamaica, and Peru. Here in the Philippines, the Department of Social Welfare and Development leads the implementation of our version of CCT: the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (Bridging Program for the Filipino Family) or 4Ps, which has been described by the World Bank as “a worthy investment,” and “one of the best-targeted social safety net programs in the world.”

The catch

That 4Ps earned praise from the likes of World Bank should be disquieting for anyone who genuinely seeks the eradication of poverty. For one, it’s hard to trust entities whose neoliberal agenda destroyed and continue to destroy so many economies in the developing world.

Moreover, there is a glaring conflict of interest here: CCT programs will be funded by loans from these financing institutions, for whom it is going to be a profitable transaction. In our country’s case, 4Ps is backed by a US$405-million and US$400-million loan from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, respectively. And independent think-tank IBON Foundation reveals that the total loan service could reach the sizeable sum of at least US$1.007 billion.

IBON further argues that the program will simply lead to increased indebtedness among the Filipino taxpayers, with the loan burden growing as the dollar strengthens. It also notes that its implementation is linked to corruption and patronage politics: An audit report showed billions of pesos’ worth of unliquidated disbursements, and irregularities in the selection of beneficiaries.

Finally, CCT aims to drive demand for social services among the poor, the assumption being that high quality social services are available in the first place. This is going to be a problem in a country that spends so little on schools and medical facilities.

On giving money to the poor: Probing the conditional cash transfer program

Moral arguments against CCT

Conditional cash transfer as a concept also runs against basic assumptions regarding human nature, as well as principles of human rights and good governance. At its core, for example, CCT peddles the paternalizing idea that the poor are, on their own, unwilling to do the right thing.

The fact is, no parent wouldn’t want to send the young ones to school, unless they lacked money for transportation and school allowance, or the children themselves want to work to bring food to the table. Which says more about the accessibility of schools, the employment opportunities, and the deteriorating quality of life in the Philippines, than the parents’ willingness to do what is best for their family.

As the CCT framework turns basic services into conditionalities, it makes the individual responsible for what should be the State’s duties. Shouldn’t the government be the one making sure that its education and health services reach the poorest of the poor and not the other way around?

Lastly, there is something morally reprehensible in categorizing the country’s poor and providing selective access to social security, especially when they are all in dire need of help.

“Better than nothing”

“It’s better than nothing,” goes the typical defense of CCT, and it reflects the really low standards we have for public service. To me, this defeatist mindset is inimical to any serious campaign for the promotion of human rights and the improved delivery of social services.

It keeps the poor from struggling to get what any other human being should be entitled to, by birth: a roof above his head, a chance to go to school, a job that pays a livable wage. And when people believe that a measly Php1,400 or USD30-a-month doleout is all they deserve, they lose the battle before it starts.

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