In a span of 24 hours, the Philippines’ Department of Social Welfare changed two crucial policies in the delivery of aid to those affected by a lockdown aimed at stemming the spread of the new coronavirus.
On April 17, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles announced that the department, which is headed by retired Army chief Rolando Bautista, would no longer exercise veto powers over the list of beneficiaries of the government social amelioration program from local government units.
The social welfare office also backed off its April 16 demand that private aid groups seek permission and pay application fees to continue efforts to fill the vacuum in basic social services to communities and health workers.
Nograles said the department will now validate the recipient lists post-distribution of aid, allowing faster flow of about US$1.573 billion in cash aid to vulnerable families outside of those already enrolled in the government’s unconditional cash transfer program for the poor.
The announcement came a week after a general outcry from elected village leaders tasked with the actual distribution of aid.
Dozens of these officials slammed the national government for delays caused by a slew of convoluted, sometimes contradictory, rules and President Rodrigo Duterte’s insistence on centralizing powers in the hands of a small group of retired military officers in his Cabinet.
Duterte said the move would cut down corruption and lead to systematic and prompt delivery of services.
While nobody questions the generals’ personal integrity, their policies display lack of consensus-building skills and a narrow preference for “order” over empathy toward the needs of the country’s 17.6 million poor families, including the 5.2 million families that live in the capital Manila.
“To insist on ‘solicitation permit’ in a time of calamity when the government is not efficiently delivering services is, at best, insensitive to the urgent needs of people or, at worst, power tripping,” said Vincentian priest Danilo Pilario who works in a slum in the northern part of the capital.
“Why issue an old document in times of emergency? The [social welfare office’s] unpreparedness and inefficiency are killing the poor. It should be happy that private companies join hands to volunteer and seek help of others,” said the priest.
Former social welfare chief Judy Taguiwalo acknowledged the department order was legal. “But is it in consonance with the huge humanitarian demands to address the COVID-19 pandemic? Definitely not. Suspend its implementation,” she called on her successor.
“Given the magnitude of those in need of assistance, government’s response at the national and local level should welcome efforts by the private sector … to mitigate the hunger and dislocation of communities especially the poor,” said Taguiwalo.
Bautista had earlier blamed local governments for the delay in aid delivery, claiming they had not submitted lists.
Elected officials in the local level, however, pushed back, saying the department was crossing out proposed recipients and sending lists back for corrections.
They also complained that the social welfare office failed to be transparent over its aid guidelines, keeping rules internal for fear of raising public ire.
Only much later were grassroots leaders told to take out households with even only one working member and families who has a member that is already receiving unemployment aid from the Department of Labor.
The rules disenfranchised many senior citizens and persons with disabilities, whose families shoulder extra needs over basic food and shelter.
Neither social welfare chief Bautista nor Interior Secretary Eduardo Eduardo Año, former chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines foresaw the chaos of their aid system.
Año, who has oversight over local governments, failed to coordinate information flow from various aid-giving agencies to grassroots leaders. He was also silent as Duterte ordered village heads to feed all their constituents despite clear legal limits on their use of calamity funds.
While Congress gave the president extraordinary fiscal powers under a new law aimed to improve the government’s response to the COVID-19 threat, local government leaders did not receive reassurance against possible graft charges if they breached legal fund use limits.
Burdening aid givers
Private groups and individuals have poured in billions of dollars in the first month of the lockdown when Duterte was not releasing national funds.
As soon as he got special powers, the president and his generals started tightening the screws on aid-givers.
On April 16, the Department of Social Welfare ordered groups soliciting donations for poor communities and for hospitals still lacking protective equipment and suits to secure a permit, invoking an old law from the time of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Under agency rules, those seeking permits to help those in need have to pay application fees.
After hours of intense social media fire, the agency took down its post and said it would review the issue.
“The COVID health issue has become also a major socio-economic issue as millions have lost their sources of income because of the lockdown,” said Taguiwalo.
She warned military and police officials to stop red-baiting activist and church groups raising funds for poor communities in the countryside.
In at least one case, the military accused the communist New People’s Army of taking food from people when farmers turned over some of their rice to activist groups helping those not covered by formal government aid.
Soldiers have also been monitoring rural grassroots leaders who accept donations from organizations tagged as “communist fronts.”
Meanwhile, volunteer carpools for health workers affected by the lockdown have temporarily stopped operations after a police threat to apprehend “unauthorized” drivers.
The carpool organized by Rock Ed, a volunteer organization with a track record of working closely with government, announced a stop to the service involving scores of citizen drivers offering free service to stranded health workers.
The administrators of the group’s Facebook page announced the decision on April 15, posting a news story quoting police officials’ threat to issue tickets even for those driving health workers.
The group responded to LiCAS.news’ query, saying it is still “working on resuming service with the help of hospitals and government agencies, with no timeline available at the moment.”