COVID-19 | Ephemeral universalism in the social protection response to the COVID-19 lockdown in the Philippines

Since March 2020, the Philippines has implemented one of the world’s strictest and longest lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused severe disruptions in peoples’ livelihoods. The government’s emergency social protection response, the ‘Social Amelioration Program’ (SAP), has also been notably massive, introducing one-off near-universal income protection. It is an insightful case given that the country’s existing social assistance system has been celebrated as a model for developing countries, even though it has been mostly bypassed in the emergency response. Moreover, the country’s highly stratified and fragmented social policy system has resulted in implementation delays and irregularities that have fostered social hostilities and undermined the potential for such momentary universalism to have lasting transformative effects.

The Philippine government first imposed its ‘community quarantine’ on 15 March, which has since been extended until 30 June. Thus far, the pandemic has not been severe relative to evolving global indicators, with 302 confirmed infections per million people and 11 confirmed deaths per million people as of 25 June (although at only 5,760 tests per million people, these confirmed rates are likely to be significantly underestimated). However, as elsewhere in the Global South, the lockdown has thrown the country into an employment crisis given that more than 60 percent of its workforce is informal, most in precarious situations even when earning above the official poverty line.

In response, the government rolled out the ‘Social Amelioration Program’ (SAP), comprising at least 13 different schemes and with an estimated total budget equivalent to as much as 3.1 percent of the country’s GDP [1]. The largest scheme is the Emergency Subsidy Program (ESP), which has been allocated 200 billion Philippines pesos (PhP; about 3.5 billion euros), more than three times the combined budget of all the other schemes.

The ESP was initially intended to cover 17.9 million households, while the other SAP cash subsidy schemes were to target more than 5.2 million individuals. Assuming that none of these overlapped (e.g. only one subsidy recipient per household), the SAP would have covered over 23 million households, or more than 96 percent of the roughly 24 million households in the country. This extent of coverage is effectively universal, representing an attempt to provide basic income support to all but the richest five to ten percent of households.

The ESP initially sought to provide cash transfers to low-income and vulnerable families during the months of April and May, the projected duration of the lockdown. The transfers range from 5,000 to 8,000 PhP per month (about 90 to 140 euros), depending on the minimum wage of the region of residence. This is notably more generous than the existing poverty-targeted conditional cash transfer programme, the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (hereafter Pantawid), which provides families with at most 3,450 PhP per month (approximately 60 euros). The 4.4 million Pantawid families have nonetheless been included in the ESP and the amount they receive has been topped-up to the ESP amount.

Despite these ambitions, the SAP has already been faltering. Based on our research [2], a number of problems can be discerned:

Delays and backtracking in the distribution of the ESP. While the ESP was supposed to be paid in two monthly tranches in April and May, the first tranche was yet to be completely distributed as of 15 June [3]. It was later announced that the second tranche, whose distribution only began on 11 June, would only be distributed to beneficiaries living in communities where the lockdown conditions had not been eased – about 8.5 million families – as well as to an additional five million ‘waitlisted or left out’ families, or, as explained by the DSWD, those that did not make it to the list of first tranche beneficiaries [4]. It is not clear whether either of these numbers include the Pantawid households mentioned above or why there would have been ‘left out’ families from a programme that was ostensibly universal.

Vague and fragmented selection guidelines. In addition to this lack of clarity at the aggregate level, the guidelines in the selection of ESP beneficiaries have also been vague and fragmented, which subjects them to different interpretations and discrepancies on the ground. There is no single document that describes the process in detail or provides even an overview. The social registry that is used for poverty targeting in the Pantawid – the Listahanan – was not used for the identification the non-Pantawid families, who constituted 75 percent of the ESP target beneficiaries in the first tranche. Instead, the government reverted to reliance on village-level government functionaries, who have proven decisive in identifying ESP beneficiaries and distributing assistance. This has re-politicized the administration of social protection after years of supposed attempts at depoliticization by means of the Listahanan and the Pantawid.

Failed attempts at overcoming residualism. The SAP reflects an attempt to overcome the limitations of the country’s polarised and fragmented social protection system, even while this system has rendered almost impracticable its universalist impulses. The existing system notably excludes close to half of the population at the middle of the income distribution – often referred to as the ‘missing middle’ [5]. This refers to the 40 percent of employed people working in the informal sector who are not covered by the contributory social insurance designed for those formally employed, which covers about 40 percent of employed people, while at the same time they are not covered by the Pantawid, which covers about 21 percent of the population. The Pantawid beneficiaries are presumed to be the poorest people, although there have been serious concerns regarding its accuracy of targeting, meaning that it excludes many of the poor, while including many who are not (at least, not according to the poverty lines used by the programme) [6].

Social hostilities in the face of systemic confusions. The confused and fraught implementation of the SAP has therefore exacerbated fundamental schisms entrenched within the existing social protection system, including confusions about who is in fact targeted by the ESP and contestations by local government officials over the number of beneficiaries set for their respective cities or municipalities [7]. In particular, given the perception that Pantawid families are prioritised by the ESP (in the sense that they are automatically eligible for the programme), they have drawn public attention and scrutiny, even though they only accounted for about 25 percent of targeted recipients of the ESP in the first tranche. As a result, anti-poor sentiments have proliferated on social media since the distribution of the first tranche [8].

The inadequacy of celebrated models of poverty-targeted social assistance

These confusions and tensions show how the pursuit of genuine universalism within an existing stratified, fragmented and residualist social protection system presents major in-built challenges for advancing beyond moments of crisis. While the Philippines has been able to roll out a massive emergency social protection response to the COVID-19 lockdown, with near-universal coverage of possibly more than 90 percent of the population, reliance on the existing institutional infrastructure has had the effect of fostering social hostilities and potentially quelling support for such universalism among the population.

This is particularly significant given that the flagships of this infrastructure – the Pantawid and the Listahanan – have received huge support from international financial institutions and successive governments for 13 years prior to the pandemic and have been promoted as models up to the crisis, yet they have proven to be utterly inadequate for identifying systemic vulnerabilities at such a crucial time as the pandemic. The enormity of need engendered by the COVID-19 crisis evidently pushed the government to go beyond its conventional focus on poverty-targeted social assistance. As it scrambled to do this, it mostly bypassed the targeted system that had been so carefully groomed and adulated by donors, which has been neither fit for the purpose of actualizing universalistic aspirations, nor politically facilitative for their perpetuation.

[1] https://www.officialgazette.gov.ph/downloads/2020/03mar/20200328-JOINT-MEMORANDUM-CIRCULAR-NO-1-S-2020.pdf

[2] This work builds on our ongoing research that we have been conducting since 2015 into the political economy surrounding the institutional evolution of the Philippine social protection system, as part of ERC-funded research project entitled ‘Aiding Social Protection: The Political Economy of Externally Financing Social Policy in Developing Countries’ (grant agreement No 638647). Our current research on the COVID response has been based on deskwork ¬– by necessity given that all three authors have been in lockdown in Europe – and has involved the collection and analysis of official documents (including relevant laws, presidential reports, and other administrative edicts) and media coverage concerning the Philippine government social protection responses to the pandemic, and selective remote interviews with  social workers from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) who have been involved with the COVID-19 response at various levels of government.

[3] https://public.tableau.com/views/SAPMonitoringDashboardforEmergencySubsidyunderAICS/Dashboard1?:display_count=no&:showVizHome=no

[4] See https://news.mb.com.ph/2020/06/11/1-3-m-4ps-beneficiaries-get-sap-2-cash-aid-reports-dswd/ and https://www.dswd.gov.ph/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Annex-A.-Media-Based-SAP-FAQs-Part-3-ver-june-1-8pm-final.pdf

[5] Cf. Fischer 2018, 2020; ILO, 2017; Rutkowski, 2020.

[6] The rampant inaccuracies of the Pantawid are detailed in our forthcoming article currently under review. Also see Kidd and Athias (2019). 

[7] For instance, see https://www.rappler.com/nation/257316-reinstate-original-beneficiaries-metro-manila-mayors-dswd

[8] E.g., see viral posts on Facebook like this and this, and news reports like this.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here.

About the authors:

Emma CantalEmma Lynn Dadap-Cantal is a PhD student at ISS. Her dissertation is a comparative case study of the political economy of social protection in Cambodia and the Philippines, with particular emphasis on the role of external donor influences in shaping the social protection systems in these two countries.

Charmaine G. Ramos

Charmaine G. Ramos (c.ramos@luc.leidenuniv.nl) is a lecturer at Leiden University College, Leiden University, The Netherlands. Her current research focuses on analysing social policy and resource governance, as a means for exploring how political economy dynamics constrain and structure institutions for social transformation and productive expansion in developing economies.

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Andrew M. Fischer is Associate Professor of Social Policy and Development Studies at the ISS and the Scientific Director of CERES, The Dutch Research School for International Development. His latest book, Poverty as Ideology (Zed, 2018), was awarded the International Studies in Poverty Prize by the Comparative Research Programme on Poverty (CROP) and Zed Books and, as part of the award, is now fully open access (http://bora.uib.no/handle/1956/20614). Since 2015, he has been leading a European Research Council Starting Grant on the political economy of externally financing social policy in developing countries. He has been known to tweet @AndrewM_Fischer


Title Image Credit: Asian Development Bank on Flickr

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