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The problem with Conditional Cash Transfers and the opportunism of Akbayan

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By Rep. Teddy Casiño (Bayan Muna)
November 13, 2010
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Conditional cash transfers are the buzzword these days, with the Aquino governme
nt adopting it as its flagship program to alleviate poverty. The proposed 2011 b
udget allocates P21.2 billion for the program which will give cash subsidies to
1.3 million poor families purportedly to entice them into sending their children
to school and to avail of health services for women and children. By 2016, targ
et beneficiaries will be 4 million households with a budget of around P40-P50 bi
llion.
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From stop gap to centerpiece
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Cash transfers have been used in the past as stop-gap measures for victims of ca
lamities, disasters or urgent situations requiring quick action by government. T
he Aquino administration, however, at the behest of the World Bank and Asian Dev
elopment Bank, has leveled up the program into its flagship strategy against pov
erty.
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Next year's CCT budget is being increased by more than 100% even as the budgets
for health, education, agriculture, housing, electrification, irrigation, and ec
onomic services will suffer cuts. Rather than improving access to education and
health by addressing the massive shortages in schools, health centers and hospit
als, the government has chosen to give the money to families so they will avail
of said services. This despite United Nations and even World Bank findings that
CCT health and education outcomes are unrealized precisely due to such shortages
.
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But what is truly objectionable is that the CCT has become the government’s main p
illar for poverty alleviation. Rather than substantially expanding government se
rvices, generating jobs and livelihood opportunities, instituting genuine agrari
an reform and national industrialization, and dismantling the neoliberal macroec
onomic policies that have further entrenched the structural causes of poverty an
d underdevelopment, the technocrats of the Aquino government have equated povert
y alleviation to doling out billions in cash to tide over the “poorest of the poor
.” This is nothing but a take-off from the failed “safety net” model used to sugar coa
t the harsh impact of globalization in the 1990s.
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What is to be expected of the CCTs at the end of the program in 2016? Without ge
nuine changes in economic policy and structural reforms that would redistribute
land and other assets, create jobs and develop local agriculture and industry, a
ll the CCTs will most likely do is create a blip in the country’s chronically dist
ressed poverty statistics. Rather than focus on solving the structural causes of
poverty – including the role of foreign powers and local ruling elites in perpetu
ating mass poverty and economic underdevelopment – CCTs veer away from them and co
ver up such fundamental problems.
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The MDG rush
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Proponents say CCTs hit two birds with one stone – it reduces poverty at the same
time improves access to education and health. The drastic expansion of the budge
t for CCTs is part of scrambling efforts by governments and international financ
ial agencies to show significant reductions in poverty rates in time for the 201
5 deadline for the UN Millenium Development Goals (MDGs).
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Conditional cash transfers are especially attractive to governments and funding
agencies advocating poverty reduction because it artificially improves poverty s
tatistics overnight. The amount targeted to be handed out to the poor (as much a
s P1,400 per family per month) can instantly increase family incomes by as much
as 52%. Unfortunately, just like alms giving, such a program is unsustainable an
d fails to address the roots of the problem. Worse, because the cash is not used
for productive activities, government ends up borrowing more money to fund the
program, further pushing the country into debt.
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For neoconservatives and pseudo-reformists, CCTs are especially attractive becau
se it appears to improve poverty rates without them having to confront the glari
ng failure of the neoliberal, free market economy. In the world of CCTs, poverty
rates can go down without generating jobs, modernizing agriculture, developing
industry, reducing the debt or improving government services. For them, poverty
alleviation becomes an “easy and painless” process not requiring any significant cha
nge in economic policy.
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It is no surprise, therefore, that CCTs are designed, promoted and funded by the
World Bank, Asian Developemnt Bank, official aid agencies and other proponents
and apologists of neoliberal globalization. It is the new quick fix to the probl
ems they caused in the first place.
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Akbayan’s 180-degree turn
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So what explains Akbayan Representative Walden Bello’s 180-degree turn from being
a harsh critic of the CCT to one of its most ardent proponents?
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In a scathing privilege speech last September, Bello initially blasted the CCT a
s “a dole out program that is being presented as a development program to end pove
rty.” He said the program’s budget was being increased “with no evidence it has brough
t people out of poverty either here or abroad, except some dubious statements of
the World Bank to the effect that it has worked in Brazil, a claim that many Br
azilian NGOs, including the influential Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) say is fa
lse.”
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He pointed out that CCTs formed part of the “power play by a foreign agency that h
as had a dismal record of intervention in our country’s economic trajectory must n
ot be allowed by the Aquino administration.”
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A few weeks later, Bello was singing a different tune. He not only reversed hims
elf but even authored House Resolution 594 supporting the CCT, calling it “one inn
ovative practice to achieve social protection and inclusion for the poor” and “a via
ble and effective tool to reach the poorest of the poor provided that it is prop
erly enforced.”
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In an article in the Philippine Daily Inquirer online edition, Bello further ate
his words, extolling the self-serving findings of the World Bank on CCTs (even
quoting a WB press release) and reinterpreting Brazil’s MST as saying that “CCTs are
necessary.”
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What makes Bello’s turnaround pathetic is its total sellout. Even as he postures a
s a critic of neoliberalism and free market globalization, his flip-flop exposes
him as an apologist of an administration that promotes the very thing he loathe
s.
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Bello says CCTs must be pursued alongside a long-term poverty reduction program – “o
ne that must include rollback of trade liberalization, a debt moratorium, income
and asset redistribution, the centerpiece of which should be rural and urban la
nd reform” – even as he ignores the basic reality that the Aquino government is trea
ding the opposite path. The priorities of the new administration are crystal cle
ar – further liberalize and deregulate the economy, expand privatization via publi
c-private partnerships (PPPs), ignore demands for land reform and wage hikes, in
crease and continue paying the debt, and then create a semblance of poverty redu
ction via CCTs.
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Why the turnaround?
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Truth be told, Akbayan’s leaders and operators are well entrenched in the Aquino a
dministration and share in the spoils of the 2010 elections. Party chairman Joel
Rocamora was recently appointed chair of the National Anti-Poverty Commission w
hile party president Ronald Llamas was appointed as a member of the board of the
Development Bank of the Philippines. Former Akbayan representatives Etta Rosale
s now chairs the Commission on Human Rights, Mario Aguja sits on the board of th
e GSIS, while Riza Hontiveros is assured of at least a cabinet-rank position nex
t year.
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In the guise of public-private partnerships and civil society participation in g
overnance, Akbayan’s social democratic NGO network are set to play a major role in
the implementation of government projects and programs, among them the CCT. Cur
iously, the Appropriations Committee’s decision to grant Akbayan’s lobby to realign
the P4 billion “Tulay sa Pangulo” program to cater to their constituents was made on
the day that Akbayan’s representatives authored HR 594.
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Indeed, why bite the hand that feeds?
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The issue goes beyond the CCTs. Taking the cue from its bosses in the Liberal Pa
rty, Akbayan voted to approve the 2011 General Appropriations Act despite its hu
ge debt service budget, its additional pork barrel, its vague and abuse-prone lu
mp sum allocations, the glaring cuts in health, tertiary education, agriculture
and agrarian reform, and other anti-people provisions.
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The “Coalition Against the Poor”
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As a squid tactic to hide its opportunism, Akbayan has gone on a counter offensi
ve and has attacked Bayan Muna and other critics of the CCTs, lumping us with fo
rmer Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo under the tags “unholy alliance” and “Coalition Aga
inst the Poor.” In his article, Bello maliciously classifies CCT opponents into fo
ur camps: 1. the Arroyo clique who oppose it for partisan reasons; 2. traditiona
l politicians who want to control the poor; 3. the extreme Left who are afraid o
f reform; and 4. the ignorant middle class who don’t know any better. Like George
W. Bush who thought anyone against his “War on Terror” was a terrorist, Bello thinks
those against the CCTs are either self-serving or stupid.
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Nothing is farther from the truth, and Akbayan knows it.
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From the start, the progressive party list bloc led by Bayan Muna had criticized
the CCT as a massive dole-out – an unsustainable, corruption-prone palliative to
poverty that would also perpetuate patronage politics and push the country furth
er into debt. We expressed our strong objection to the Aquino government’s adoptio
n and expansion of Arroyo’s CCT program as its main strategy for poverty alleviati
on, demanding in the short term a re-channeling of funds direct to schools, heal
th centers and hospitals, farm subsidies, irrigation, livelihood and housing ser
vices and in the long term the replacement of neoliberal macroeconomic policies
towards a more progressive, sustainable and equitable development framework.
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Many share this view, including, at one time or so it appears, Bello himself.
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Akbayan conveniently ignores the fact that Arroyo herself commended the Aquino g
overnment for adopting her baby but expressed doubt that it could implement her
CCT program properly. In fact, Akbayan and Arroyo are the real allies as far as
the CCT program is concerned because they both support it. Their only disagreeme
nt is on whether to believe DSWD Sec. Dinky Soliman that the government is prepa
red to expand the number of recipients to 2.3 million in 2011. Arroyo distrusts
Soliman for good reason, while Akbayan and their CODE-NGO friends take her word
as gospel truth. Akbayan also believes that under Aquino, Arroyo’s CCT program wil
l transform magically into a good thing.
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Role of progressives in Congress
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A progressive party’s role is to serve as a critic of neoliberalism, expose and op
pose projects and programs that sugar coat its destructive effects, and work wit
h the oppressed in changing the system. It is not for us to be apologists of the
system on the pretext that compromising our principles will allow the poor to e
at crumbs. Even without us, the WB, ADB and local ruling elites will push throug
h with the CCTs because it is a solution that glosses over the root causes of po
verty and makes the system appear pro-poor. Sadly, Akbayan and other pseudo-Left
ists have chosen to abdicate this role with their unequivocal support of the CCT
s, the CARPER law and other bogus attempts at social reform.
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As for Bayan Muna and other progressive parties, we will continue serving as a c
ritical voice in Congress and a militant advocate of nationalist and progressive
policies.#