By Walden Bello*
My position on the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) program, which was posted on the Philippine Daily Inquirer website, elicited a lot of comment, most of it positive, some negative. Among the responses was one from Rep. Teddy Casino of Bayan Muna who rejects CCTs. Unfortunately, his intervention, for the most part, failed to engage the substantive issues I raised and turned instead into a highly charged invective against my “opportunism.”
Yes, I support Conditional Cash Transfers, but not as the key element of a strategy of poverty reduction. If only Mr. Casino had paid attention to what I wrote in my earlier intervention in the Inquirer, my position is and has always been that poverty can only be eliminated via broad structural reforms like agrarian reform, reversal of trade liberalization, and a moratorium on the servicing of the foreign debt. In this regard, I have always pointed to the unilateral reduction of the foreign debt by the late President Nestor Kirchner, which channeled money otherwise earmarked for debt service to domestic investment, as doing far more to reduce the ranks of the poor in Argentina than any anti-poverty program.
It is in the context of a larger program of structural reform that CCTs can be useful. One can imagine CCTs as a firebreak, a very useful tool that can help prevent the spread of poverty but not significantly reduce it. CCTs, in short, are about poverty containment, not poverty elimination.
That having been said, yes, I did change my mind about CCTs. I am, by the way, in good company: Neal Cruz, the thoughtful Inquirer columnist, has also gone from opposing to supporting the CCT program.
What made Neal Cruz and me change our minds?
In my case–and I assume in the case of Mr. Cruz–it was the facts. And facts, to quote a 20th century figure revered by Rep. Casino and his friends, “are stubborn things.”
My first reaction to the CCT program, when it was first unveiled as a key component of the Aquino administration’s anti-poverty program, was reflex suspicion of it as still another ill-conceived World Bank-supported scheme. But after a close examination of painstakingly careful empirical studies done on the record of CCTs in Mexico and Brazil, I could not follow Mr. Casino in airily dismissing CCTs as simply a cynical effort to prettify a country’s social profile by providing money to statistically lift a large part of the population above the poverty line. I began to understand why CCTs are now in place in some 23 countries.
“When the Facts Change, I Change…”
I found, first of all, that CCTs are not doleouts, as I initially thought. They provide cash to families but only on the condition that they keep their children in school instead of pulling them out to work and agree to regular monitoring of their health. More important, I discovered that CCTs work, in terms of their objectives of keeping children in school longer, getting girls to receive basic education, and improving the health of poor families. These conditions are critical in improving the chances of the poor in competing for better jobs and thus breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty.
In Brazil, the CCT program was one of the principal programs deployed by the reformist government of President Lula to address the needs of the poor. CCTs played a central role in lifting and keeping 20 million Brazilians above extreme poverty and in pushing and sustaining some 31 million others into the middle class. Some claims regarding the effects of CCTs in the program countries may be inflated but not even the most cynical observers on the extreme left or the right in Brazil, Mexico or program countries have claimed that CCTs have had no significant impacts in terms of improving the lives of the poor.
So to Mr. Casino’s charge that I have been inconsistent when it comes to CCTs, I can only repeat what the economist John Maynard Keynes said to those who criticized him of being inconsistent in his policy proposals: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”Only fools and fanatics are totally consistent, and only ideologues would claim ex ante that nothing good could possibly come from a program backed by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.
This is not to say that the CCT program does not have its limitations, or that it is a strategy that can simply be transplanted into any setting and work. Neal Cruz has highlighted the importance of including, in the Philippine setting, an employment or “workfare” dimension for male heads of households. I agree, though I would make doing useful work a condition for both female and male beneficiaries of CCTs. The point is CCT programs can be improved, not rejected wholesale, as Casino proposes.
Jonathan Swift versus Teddy Casino
Aside from the fact that CCTs work in terms of containing poverty, the other important fact that made me change my mind is that CCTs are extremely popular with the poor, so popular that even the leadership of the MST (Landless Movement) in Brazil, which like me was initially skeptical of the CCT program, ended up officially backing it owing to pressure from the rank and file. The reelection of Lula in 2006 was said to stem largely from the popularity of the CCT, as was the recent election of his successor Dilma Roussef.
That CCTs would be immensely popular with the poor is understandable. In the Philippines, for instance, the average monthly income of the lowest 30 per cent of the population comes to about 4000 pesos a month. Not surprisingly, for the average poor family, about 100 per cent of this pitiful sum goes is allocated to food. Thus, the extra 1400 pesos per month CCT constitutes practically the only resources available to a family to invest in the schooling of three children and pay attention to their health needs, giving the parents hope that things will be better for their children. CCTs offer not only a lifeline for the present but hope for the future.
Was it Jonathan Swift who said he hated mankind but was fond of each Tom, Dick, and Teddy? Well, middle class intellectuals and politicians of the extreme left often have it the other way around. They wax eloquent about their grand schemes for saving mankind but cannot relate to the struggles of concrete individuals. Only people who possess only an abstract conceptual knowledge of the terrible realities of poverty in the burgeoning slums across the country such as Parola or Happy Land in Manila’s North Harbor, where human beings work 16 to 20 hour days at multiple jobs, could quickly and airily and cavalierly dismiss the lifeline of P1400 as simply another “neoliberal scheme,” as Mr. Casino does. The problem with spoiled middle class intellectuals that become leaders of the parties of the extreme left is they end up believing that mastery of Marxist dialectics and membership in a club of self-styled “professional revolutionaries” provide them with a secret password to the Eleusinian mysteries that magically endow them with a greater ability to discern what the poor need better than the poor themselves.
Changing one’s mind out of respect for the facts in the manner of Keynes is obviously not something that can be entertained in the paradigm of transactional, instrumentalist politics that Casino and his comrades operate with. Instead, he projects the unprincipled modus operandi of Bayan Muna to us in Akbayan. Thus he attributes our changed view of CCTs to our being “bought off” by Malacanang. The bribe, he says, came in the form of a P4 billion “pork” that was realigned from the Department of Public Works and Highway (DPWH) budget for Akbayan’s “constituents” and the appointment of Akbayan members to key positions within the executive branch.
A Page from Goebbels’ Playbook
Let us consider the first claim. Akbayan was always transparent in explaining why it sought an amendment to the provision allocating P4 billion to the Tulay sa Pangulo program administered by the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH). Indeed, we even had a press release announcing it, contrary to Casino’s portrayal of it as a backroom deal. The Tulay sa Pangulo program used to be under Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), and we wanted to make sure that even as the implementation of the program passed from DAR to DPWH, the beneficiaries would remain the same: agrarian reform communities. The amendment was necessary to ensure that the DPWH’s implementation of the Tulay sa Pangulo fund would be in compliance with the Agrarian Reform Extension Law (CARPER) passed in 2009, which mandates that P150 billion must be allocated over five years for the complete implementation of agrarian reform, including land redistribution, infrastructure provision and other support services for agrarian reform beneficiaries to assist them in becoming viable producers.
The amendment was meant to benefit all agrarian reform communities throughout the country, not Akbayan “constituencies.” Casino and Bayan Muna know this, and yet they maliciously continue to repeat the lie about the P4 billion funding being “Akbayan pork.” Obviously, Bayan Muna’s operatives have learned from Goebbels that if you repeat a lie often enough, it will be taken eventually as truth.
But there is a bigger reason for repeating the lie than simply smearing Akbayan and bringing it down in the reader’s estimation to Bayan Muna’s gutter level. Casino and the Bayan Muna block did not support CARPER; in fact, they hated this land reform legislation backed by most peasant organizations and they allied themselves with the landlord block in trying to derail the bill in the House during the plenary deliberations in 2009. Thus, they have absolutely no interest in ensuring that the funds to support the implementation of CARPER are properly provided and allocated. Indeed, they have every interest in making CARPER fail, and painting the P4 billion for agrarian reform communities as “Akbayan pork” serves this purpose by fanning opposition to land reform among the rich, the powerful, and the gullible.
Akbayan Appointees: Why not?
In addition to the P4 billion “pork, “ the prize for Akbayan’s soul, Casino alleges, is the appointment of party members and persons close to the party to key positions in the administration.
Unlike Bayan Muna, which allied itself to Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s favored presidential candidate Manny Villar, Akbayan supported Noynoy Aquino. Indeed, Akbayan was a central part of the campaign machinery that got Aquino and proponents of the reform agenda elected. Today, we are part of the reigning reform coalition. Of course, we have tried to get members of Akbayan and other progressive individuals appointed to key positions in the new administration, and we were publicly proposing the names of our nominees way before the CCT issue came up. This is not because we believe in the spoils system–the kind of image Casino seeks to paint, probably because this cynical modus operandi is the only kind he and his party know how to operate with–but because we want to ensure that there are people that will steadfastly push the reform agenda, including the reversal of trade liberalization, debt moratorium, and comprehensive agrarian reform that Casino dismisses as impossible to achieve under the Aquino administration.
The individuals named by Casino are people that are dead serious about fundamental reform, which is probably why he tries his best to portray them as party hacks.
Dr. Joel Rocamora, the lead convenor of the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC), is a leading academic and civil society expert on agrarian reform and poverty issues whose five-decade commitment to progressive change is unquestionable.
The appointment of party president Ronald Llamas to the Development Bank of the Philippines Board (DBP) and of former congressman Mayong Aguja to the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) Board puts individuals of known integrity in a position to monitor and expose corruption in those notorious institutions.
And, yes, Mr. Casino, we are pushing for Risa Hontiveros to get a cabinet position for we believe that from there she will able to push the progressive program that netted her nine million votes in the May elections—more than twice, incidentally, the combined votes of the two senatorial candidates of the Bayan Muna block.
That Rep. Casino would disapprove of Etta Rosales’ heading up the Human Rights Commission is understandable, for Rosales believes in making both the military and the New People’s Army accountable for human rights violations—a principled, evenhanded stand that drives Bayan Muna and its allied organizations mad-dog crazy.
Because it has a massive stake in the success of the reform agenda, Akbayan, in fact, assures Mr. Casino that we will support the appointment of even more progressive reformers, whether they are allied to the party or not, to positions of responsibility. For here is where we differ fundamentally from Teddy Casino and his allies: we have a stake in the success of the Aquino administration while he and his ideological comrades have none. Indeed, they have already labeled it “the US-Aquino regime,” which in late 1960’s Pekingese parlance stands for “strategic enemy.” The success of the CCT program and the broader reform agenda will, in their view, simply continue the “swindling of the gullible masses” and prevent them from following Mr. Casino and the other pied pipers of Bayan Muna to the proletarian nirvana. In the eschatological mindset of Mr. Casino and his friends, eventual revolutionary “emancipation” dictates that it is better to keep the masses wallowing in their current misery than allow reform to succeed.
One wishes, in fact, that instead of pretending that the CCT and other programs adopted by the administration are the cause of their disaffection with the fledgling Aquino presidency, Mr. Casino and the Bayan Muna block would be transparent and admit that even before he ascended to the presidency in late June, Mr. Aquino had already been essentialized as a reactionary and a “tool of US imperialism” by their handlers in…Reykjavik. Sabi nga ni Mang Pandoy, huwag na tayong maglokohan pa, baby.
There is another political formation that would very much like Mr. Aquino to fail, and this is the faction headed up by former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA), the interests of which have been thrown into disarray by the ascent to power of the reform coalition. Like Mr. Casino and his comrades, the GMA faction would lose badly with the triumph of Mr. Aquino’s reform agenda.
It is not surprising then that both groups banded together against the CCT program, with the Bayan Muna block wholeheartedly signing the manifesto criticizing all aspects of the program prepared by the GMA faction. It is not surprising that they joined forces to vote against the 2011 budget, for the cardinal rule of the corrupt transactional politics they jointly adhere to is that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” When we included GMA and the extreme left in what we called the “Coalition against the Poor,” we were not engaging in rhetorical excess. We were calling attention to a nasty political fact.
And facts, my dear Mr. Casino, are stubborn things.
*Walden Bello is a member of the House of Representatives representing Akbayan, senior analyst at Focus on the Global South, and a former president of the Freedom from Debt Coalition.