[ANALYSIS] Challenges facing social amelioration for the coronavirus

The government has recently launched the "Social Amelioration Package" (SAP) as part of its response to the COVID-19 crisis. According to the Joint Memorandum on SAP, the aim of government’s social amelioration measures is to “mitigate the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 health crisis and the Enhanced Community Quarantine guidelines.” 

Several government agencies were tasked to implement SAP, with the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) at the head. The government’s social amelioration shall include support to 18 million Filipinos who will be most affected by COVID-19. The target beneficiaries are senior citizens, persons with disabilities, pregnant women, solo parents, OFWs (distress at repatriated), indigenous people, homeless, farmers, fisherfolks, self-employed, informal settlers, and those under No Work-No Pay arrangements (e.g., drivers, househelp, construction workers, etc.). 

The target beneficiaries of SAP shall receive cash and in-kind assistance amounting to P5,000-8,000 per month for two months. This shall not be on top of existing social programs. So for instance, what the beneficiaries of Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) are receiving will form part of the P5,000-8,000, which will be augmented through other programs under the SAP. 

There are 3 challenges in the SAP that, if addressed, could help ensure that the program succeeds in helping Filipinos in distress during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Communication and information

According to DSWD, the first step in the implementation of the SAP is the distribution of the Social Amelioration Card (SAC). This will be done by local governments house-to-house. Families need to fill up the SAC and based on the information provided and in consideration of existing guidelines, the government will provide the corresponding assistance coursed through the LGUs. (READ: Cash aid for 18 million poor families in limbo as gov't works on database)

In short, the SAC will serve as a form of validation to check who will need amelioration during the COVID-19 crisis. (See here for DSWD information video

There are some gaps in the the information being disseminated by the government so far. It is not clear whether all families all over the country will sign the SAC or only targeted families in targeted areas. It is also not clear if it is the barangay, the municipal/city, or the provincial government that is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the SACs are distributed and collected. 

It is vague who will prepare and finalize the list of beneficiaries. It is a question if all those listed as target beneficiaries can qualify even if they cannot comply with the requirements since some of the requirements are hard to produce by people in crisis situations (e.g. employment certificate for self-employed, solo mother ID, etc.). 

We see as early as now the growing level of misinformation about the government’s social amelioration package. The vague, general, and fragmented information being provided by the government is causing distress among citizens and implementers on the ground. Key to the success of the program is communicating clearly and accurately the delivery mechanism and standards of the program, especially to ground implementers and beneficiaries.  

 “Squeezing the balloon” 

In accountability studies, there is a term called “squeezing the balloon,” referring to how government at a certain level passes on the blame/responsibility to the other levels of the government to evade accountability (see Jonathan Fox’s research on vertical integration).

With how the delivery mechanism of the social amelioration program of the government’s COVID-19 response is designed, this could happen – with the local governments at the disadvantage. 

In the delivery mechanism of SAP, LGUs will be delegated many tasks that are dependent on the central government’s work. If the listing and validation takes long, if the listing and corresponding benefits are wrong, if the national government does not download the funds and goods on time, if the benefits do not get to the intended beneficiaries, local governments will be forced to explain to their constituencies. Local governments will likely to bear the brunt of citizens if those qualified are not provided with corresponding assistance or those who are not qualified got access to services.

There are now growing reports of barangays and local governments complaining because people are expecting them to provide the P5,000-P8,000 assistance right this moment, while the central government has yet to provide the LGUs copies of the guidelines and documents. Furthermore, the central government has yet to guarantee if funds for this package is already available and whether and how much funds have already been disbursed. 

In this context, local governments too must demand from the central government on behalf of their constituencies. Local governments must demand clarity and specificity from the central government for one. They should demand the timely finalization of the list of beneficiaries. They should demand timely and exact cash, goods, and services to be downloaded. They should demand complete information and update on the SAP.

Unresponsive hotlines 

The government has set up hotlines to help in providing information about its programs under the COVID-19 response and as a mechanism for redress in case people have concerns and complaints.   

For inquiries on the SAP, the DSWD provides this hotline: (02) 8951-2803. 

DILG, on the other hand, has set up an Emergency Operation Center for COVID-19 with the following contact information: (02) 8876-3454 local 8806 to 8810; 0961-384-9272; 0927-422-6300; 0915-005-4535 and 0961-772-1668. 

DOLE also has its own hotline for its programs including those under SAP: 1349.   

The DILG has been the most vigorous in promoting its hotline. It’s been asking people to report local governments who are not performing their duties in providing emergency assistance and implementing social distancing measures. 

However, government hotlines as a mechanism for citizen redress has yet to be proven effective and responsive. Citizen use of government hotlines for critical issues, such as corruption and anomalies, remains wanting. For one, there is the fear of reprisal on the part of the complainants. It also remains a question whether government hotlines will be truly responsive, i.e., whether it will fully resolve complaints taking into account the feedback of the complainant on whether s/he is satisfied about the action taken or not. Using hotlines for harassment and to sow intrigue has also been a major challenge for government hotlines, including its lack of transparency and proactive disclosure due to privacy issues. 

Need for independent citizen accountability efforts 

Given the sheer volume of the assistance to be extended by the government and the amount of money involved, all citizens need to take part in ensuring that benefits and entitlements of citizens during this crisis situation get to the right beneficiaries at the right time following quality standards without anomalies.  

Mediating information between and among central government, local government, communities, and citizens would be needed. Ensuring that the hotlines are working and responsive would also be crucial. 

Given our country’s political-social history, position of authority and connection in the allocation of resources are likely to figure out more prominently at times of scarcity and crisis. We see this now in the COVID-19 testing. Government officials, the rich and well-connected are the ones prioritized in testing, provoking social media outrage that popularized the hashtags #NoToVIPTesting and #MassTestingNow. 

One way to check the powerful and have a reliable mechanism for redress for ordinary citizens is to have an independent grievance redress mechanism administered by independent groups or the political opposition. It can be the immediate corrective measure to an enduring fatal flaw of elitist democracy and corruption that may exacerbate the health crisis that is now endangering us all.  

Meanwhile, there are already ongoing citizen and civil society accountability initiatives that are commendable. Rappler is tracking DSWD assistance through its coverage. Bantay Bayan is a citizens’ initiative that aims to gather volunteers “to serve as watchdogs of local governments in the duration of the lockdown.” There are information platforms such as EndCov, developed by the minds behind Project NOAH, a well-recognized information platform that aids disaster planning and management. There is also Help from Home, that allows those at home to help frontliners and families at risk.  

On the part of Government Watch (G-Watch), we have started sharing government information about SAP and have started receiving and gathering complaints on non-functioning hotlines. 

We have also mapped citizen entitlements during the COVID-19 crisis. The mapping, currently on Google Drive, can be used by every citizen in checking whether the government is providing them with the entitlements and services guaranteed in the existing and new guidelines and policies governing the government’s COVID-19 response. 

There is a need for more similar citizens’ accountability efforts that address the challenges of communication and information, accountability gaps, and mechanisms for redress for ordinary citizens in the government’s social amelioration package and the overall response to COVID-19. The faster and better we are able to address the governance dimension of this health crisis, the better our chance of winning against the COVID-19 pandemic. – Rappler.com

Joy Aceron is convenor-director of G-Watch and research fellow-adviser at Accountability Research Center