How well are the government’s anti-poverty schemes working in the Philippines?

Photo Credit: Bindue/Pixabay

More than one in five Filipinos live in poverty. That number is decreasing. The government has put in place several schemes to reduce poverty. Are they working?

By John Pennington

The latest figures, recorded in 2015, show that 21.6% of Filipinos are living below the poverty line. That is down from 25.2% in 2012. However, that still means that more than one-fifth of the country is poor and more than 10% live in extreme poverty.

The government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are working hard to lift the population out of poverty. The government aims to slash the poverty rate to 13-15% by 2022 as part of its 2017-2022 Development Plan. Meanwhile, The World Bank wants extreme poverty eliminated by 2030.

Economic growth has boosted the country and helped some people out of poverty as more jobs became available. However, there is still plenty of work to do.

Source: Philippines Statistics Authority/Straits Times

The government has committed to extending the 4Ps scheme

The Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) was established in 2008 under former President Arroyo to provide the nation’s most impoverished families with education and healthcare assistance. Both the current and previous administration hope to emulate similar programmes in Latin and South America.

These conditional cash transfer programmes helped lift millions out of poverty, reduced child labour and boosted school attendance rates. To receive funding, families must attend hospital check-ups and immunise their children. The vast majority (96.5%) of those eligible comply with these requirements.

4.3 million households nationwide have benefitted. School enrolment has increased to 98% of children (10.2 million) on the scheme, and healthcare and nutrition have improved. This is “one of the best-targeted social safety net programmes in the world,” said the World Bank, which credits the scheme for 1.5% of the country’s poverty decline.

President Rodrigo Duterte recently committed to expanding the scheme but did not reveal any specifics. Furthermore, Duterte’s recent universal healthcare law should also help alleviate strain on the poor.

The family planning law has not proved successful

In 2012, the government passed a family planning law mandating free contraception, health checks and family planning assistance for the country’s poorest. However, the law did not come into effect until 2014 following legal challenges. Those challenges weakened the law’s effectiveness by removing punishments for officials not providing contraceptives.

The law’s potential remains untapped. “We have not taken off. We’ve been taxiing for the last five years,” assessed Health Undersecretary Gerardo Bayugo. Nevertheless, the fertility rate is declining steadily, even if the country is still projected to hit 142 million people by 2045.

Source: FRED

Increasing access to free contraception means those with the least resources are able to reduce the likelihood of accidental pregnancies. Controlling population growth also means less demand for resources in the future. Had the law survived without challenge, the fertility rate would likely have declined further – as would the poverty rate.

The Department of Health estimates that six million couples need contraceptives but have no access to them. The Senate has not granted the scheme the budget required to meet this demand.

More non-agricultural jobs will boost the economy and lift people out of poverty

More than 50% of the population lives in rural areas. Many of those inhabit areas prone to natural disasters or ravaged by conflict. Millions are reliant on agriculture as their primary means of income. For them, extreme weather conditions spell economic disaster.

The government is working to modernise the economy, reducing its reliance on agriculture. However, even though people are migrating from agriculture to other jobs, those jobs are often poorly paid. Their professional mobility is sideways rather than upwards.

Source: Statista

Nevertheless, the World Bank projected that partly as a result of the government’s move to reduce reliance on agriculture, up to one million people per year will be taken out of poverty. “This experience gives us hope that the Philippines can overcome poverty,” analysed Mara Warwick, World Bank’s country director for Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.

Other organisations are playing their part

The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has been working to give those living in poverty better access to markets, technology and finance in the Philippines since 1978. It has spent US$321.1 million on projects that have impacted 1.8 million households.

The Zero Extreme Poverty PH 2030 is a new scheme in which NGOs are pooling resources and knowledge in a bid to eradicate extreme poverty in the Philippines. It brings together 17 civil society organisations who feel that by joining forces they can make more of an impact.

“By working together, we may find solutions that we won’t be able to figure out on our own,” argued Reynaldo Laguda, executive director of Philippines Business for Social Progress, one of the organisations that is part of the initiative.

The government is making progress towards its poverty reduction goals. However, it is not happening quickly enough. One in five Filipino children are underweight. The country ranks ninth on the list of those with most children suffering from stunted growth. While poverty is falling, compared to other Southeast Asian countries, the rate of decline is slow. If the decline continues at the current pace, the government will fall short of its 2022 target.

Source: World Bank

To take so many people out of poverty requires a concerted, unified approach: more funding for the 4Ps programme, firmer application of the family planning law, continued economic growth and a focus on better-paid non-agricultural jobs. This is not an easy balance to strike, and the government needs cooperation from all parties. The situation is further complicated by natural disasters and conflict which divert funds and resources.

While the 4Ps programme has worked well, the other ideas the government has tried have not delivered anything like the same returns. Where the government has had to push against long-established norms and tradition by introducing the family planning law and overhauling the economy, its efforts have been far less successful. The 4Ps is an excellent example of how the Philippines has emulated a system that has worked well elsewhere and reaped the benefits.