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Cash aid for Filipinos to buy food also becomes avenue for corruption

By Vann Marlo M. Villegas, Reporter

LEO ANGELO V. SACAYAN, a 41-year-old sea-faring sous-chef from Malabon City, got P15,600 in government aid after coming home at the start of the year amid a global coronavirus pandemic.

He spent the money buying a desktop computer for the online classes of his son, who is in Grade 10 at a local private school. He’s been jobless after declining three offers from Magsaysay Maritime Corp., his employer, to sail again.

“Working again on a cruise ship scares me. I don’t want to get infected but money is tight,” he said via Facebook Messenger chat. “I’ve decided to sail once I get another offer.”

BW Bullseye 2020-focus“The government aid was a big help but I need to work soon,” Mr. Sacayan said.

Nine of 10 beneficiaries used their cash aid to buy food, according to a survey by the Social Welfare department and United Nations World Food Programme. They also bought hygiene kits and paid for essential health and medical expenses.

More than half of those who received the aid also used the money to pay for debt.

“The result of this initial survey is a concrete affirmation that the social amelioration program has achieved its goal of enabling the low-income beneficiaries cope with the economic effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” Social Welfare Secretary Rolando D. Bautista said last month.

The Philippine government has released P99.2 billion out of P100.7 billion in subsidies to 17.6 million Filipino families affected by the pandemic under the first tranche, according to the Social Welfare department website.

It has also released P83.2 billion out of P92.7 billion to about 14 million families under the second tranche of the program as of Nov. 20.

President Rodrigo R. Duterte locked down the entire Luzon-island in mid-March, suspending work, classes and public transportation to contain the pandemic. The quarantine in many areas of the country have since been eased, but life for many has never been the same.

The President signed a law declaring a state of public health emergency nationwide because of the pandemic, allotting as much as P275 billion in response to the health crisis.

The law that lapsed in June provided subsidies to about 18 million low-income households worth P5,000 to P8,000 a month for two months.

The country’s jobless rate rose to a record 17.7% in April, or 7.3 million unemployed Filipinos, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority. It eased to 10% in July or 4.6 million jobless Filipinos, but still higher than 5.4% a year earlier.

Government subsidy is “very important” because thousands of Filipinos lost their jobs during the lockdown, Nymia P. Simbulan, a professor from the Department of Behavioral Sciences at the University of the Philippines in Manila, said by telephone.

More than a third of Filipinos are part of the informal sector, earning their keep daily.

“During the lockdown it was really the state’s obligation to provide financial assistance to workers and their families because people’s movement was limited by the quarantine,” Ms. Simbulan said.

But the amount was not enough to cover food and non-food essentials compared with when one’s working with a minimum wage, she said.

About 7.6 million families went hungry at least once during the coronavirus pandemic from July to September, according to a poll by the Social Weather Stations. About 82% of Filipinos felt their quality of life worsened in the past year, it said.

“The social amelioration package for low-income families may not be enough to sustain them,” said Marlon A. Villarin, a political science professor from the University of Santo Tomas. “Somehow, it can mitigate the socioeconomic impact of the COVID-19 health crisis.”

Granted, one had to go through a cumbersome application process and wait a long time before getting the aid.

Juan Francis B. de Jesus, a 39-year-old dispatcher also from Malabon City, waited for two months before he got a subsidy worth P15,900.

He used the money to pay for bills and buy food for his three children including a 10-month old infant. “It was a big help to my family,” he said by telephone. “It’s not easy to earn P15,900.”

The program was also plagued with corruption especially at the local government level.

More than 400 local officials and their civilian co-conspirators were facing criminal charges, while 626 more were under investigation by police, the Department of the Interior and Local Government said in August.

Some officials were found to have pocketed some funds by falsifying the master list of beneficiaries. Some officials were also criticized for favoring some families.

The Interior department in September said the Ombudsman had suspended almost 100 village captains after complaints were filed against them for the anomalous distribution of the subsidies.

They were facing charges involving serious dishonesty, grave misconduct and abuse of authority.

Mr. Villarin traced the corruption to the state’s “vague and fragmented information” about the program. This aggravated the distress felt by citizens and implementers on the ground, he added.

“This corruption incident could have been prevented or made such attempts a high-risk and low-reward activity had local governments expeditiously communicated the list of targeted beneficiaries to the National Government,” he said.

Cash aid distribution anomalies could also have been avoided had the government consulted with the target beneficiaries and allowed them to participate in the decision-making process, Ms. Simbulan said.

“Local governments failed to create venues for people to be able to actively contribute or participate in coming up with policies and programs related to the pandemic,” she said.

Mr. Sacayan, the seaman, is raring to leave the country and sail away. “As soon as I get an offer from my company to step on a ship, I will grab the chance.”

“The money from the government could only support you for a while. It’s better to have a job.”

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