Implications of the Pandemic to Social Welfare Delivery System: The DSWD Experience

Philippine Association of Social Workers Incorporated (PASWI) National Convention
Speech by Dir. Gemma B. Gabuya, National Program Manager, Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program
November 28, 2020 via Zoom Meeting

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Good afternoon to all my fellow social workers! This year’s PASWI convention is one of its kind as we virtually meet altogether in the middle of a pandemic to exchange insights about the social work profession in the Philippines and how it has adapted with the COVID-19 pandemic. Nine (9) months into the pandemic, we are now seeing the negative impacts of COVID-19 not just on health but more so on the social and economic aspects.

To cite a few: (1) on education, national enrollment data from the Department of Education as of July 15 shows that the total number of enrollees for School Year 2020-2021 has reduced by 27.3% relative to the previous school year. (2) On health, UNICEF estimates that at least 2 million children under 2 years old has missed out on vaccinations in April when a majority of communities in the country were placed under enhanced community quarantine, with routine immunization services disrupted or suspended. (3) On nutrition, the Social Weather Stations (or SWS) reveals that at least about 5.2 million Filipino families went hungry at least once, more than twice as many as reported experiencing hunger before the COVID. (4) On employment, the Philippine Statistics Authority (or PSA) announces that the pandemic has rendered about 7.3 million Filipinos jobless starting April. In all these aspects, we can expect that the poor, vulnerable, and disadvantaged have been affected the hardest. We can also expect that some of them have slid back to poverty, especially those who are just nearly above the poverty threshold. To back up this expectation, the Philippine Institute of Development Studies (or PIDS) has estimated that about there are about 1.5 million ‘new poor’ households in the country now primarily due to COVID-19. This figure will even go higher to 5.5 million households, had there been no Social Amelioration Program (or SAP) according to the same study done by PIDS in its discussion paper in August 2020 entitled “Poverty, Middle Class, and Income Distribution amid COVID-19”.

The Social Amelioration Program or SAP as we call it is by far the biggest social protection program ever rolled out by the national government in so short time. The program was entrusted to the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), but in partnership with the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), Department of Agriculture (DA), Department of Finance (DOF), Department of Budget and Management (DBM), and Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG). The trust bestowed to DSWD to spearhead such a huge project is a testament of the unwavering capacity of its workforce – who are primarily social workers – to deliver with a culture of integrity and service excellence.

The SAP originally targeted 18 million Filipino families, but later increased to 23 million, with a whopping budget of 200 Billion pesos produced swiftly from the government coffers that is already draining at the time when the economic activities have been temporarily stalled. The very reason why SAP was set in place was to minimize the expected socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 arising from loss of jobs, closure of markets, among others thru the provision of SOCIAL AMELIORATION, or social safety nets designed to cushion the impact and allow the poor households to tide over any crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. With the huge resource and expected results, not to mention that it’s first in DSWD’s history to roll out such a large project, the social welfare delivery systems, including those at the forefront LGUs, medical practitioners, public school teachers, who all form part of this web of service delivery system was overwhelmed.

In this next slide, and learning from the experiences of Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps), I present to you the globally accepted four pillars of almost any cash assistance projects, including DSWD’s SAP. The first pillar, considered as the foundational pillar, is about program and policy development, monitoring and evaluation, capacity building, communications, among others. The second pillar talks about beneficiary targeting. The third pillar is about data verification. And lastly, the fourth pillar is about the actual delivery mechanisms of cash benefits. Applying these to SAP, the project results framework can be presented in this manner.

The framing of SAP is towards minimizing the dreaded socioeconomic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic towards sustained well-being of Filipinos (impact). It specifically aimed to sustain the basic needs of low-income families and an additional income support (outcomes) thru the provision of social amelioration or ‘safety nets’ (output) so that low income families are able to tide over the economic shocks brought by the COVID-19 lockdowns. DSWD specifically had provided these cash assistance in three modalities: (i) Emergency subsidies to 18m low income families, (ii) Livelihood Assistance Grant, and (iii) through DSWD regular programs that are already in place even before the pandemic, such Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situation (or AICS), Food and Non-Food Items (or FNIs), among others. And here come the four set of major activities carried out by DSWD in order to reach out to the target beneficiaries – still aligned with the global practice in setting up cash transfer programs: (i) program management, (ii) targeting, (iii) verification, and (iv) actual cash delivery. All financed by 200-million peso appropriations from Republic Act 11469 or the “Bayanihan to Heal As One Act.”

In the next slides, I will briefly discuss how these pillars were institutionalized, breakthroughs for DSWD, and lessons learned at the same time, especially as we gather here today to reflect on how the social work profession that can adapt with a pandemic of this scale, especially as we champion the agenda on shock-responsive social protection.

Under the foundational pillar that cuts across program and policy development, monitoring and evaluation, among others, I would like to particularly highlight the 4Ps PAGBAGON framework that upholds the welfare of both the clients and the service providers — our social workers. The Bayanihan to Heal As One Act and the Bayanihan to Recover As One act both identify 4Ps households as automatic beneficiaries of SAP emergency subsidies. The PAGBANGON framework served as our guide in refocusing our priorities such that the 4Ps households are able to (first) tide over during the crisis and (second) be able to recover and improve their living conditions. PAGBANGON framework is still aligned with the larger goal of the Department to sustain the well-being of poor Filipino families through responsive social protection. Specifically for 4Ps, it is about effecting behavioral change among poor families to sustain younger children’s school participation, health services availment, and access to other complementary services, especially amidst the COVID-19 crisis when vulnerabilities were expected to get worse for the poor households covered by 4Ps. PAGBANGON also aligns itself to the results framework of 4Ps as a human capital development program of the government.

In summary, the response and recovery measures of 4Ps that shall be implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic, described as PAGBANGON, or “rising”, include:

P rovision of emergency subsidies to current and new 4Ps beneficiaries

A ccelerating payment delivery mechanisms

G uaranteeing inclusive and gender-responsive program implementation

B uilding partnerships to support crisis response and recovery with the parent leaders

A lternative delivery of essential capacity building activities, including FDS and YDS

N avigating opportunities for the recovery of 4Ps households

G enerating updated and reliable vulnerability data and studies to support evidence-based decision making

O ccupational health and safety among 4Ps workforce

N eeds-based and responsive communication strategy

What were our guiding beacons in developing a strategic response and recovery plan. There are 3 things that propelled us to develop this:

First, 4Ps is a human capital development program. It is producing positive impacts on education, health, and nutrition – the core tenets of human capital – because of the ‘conditions’ imposed coupled with other support interventions. Progressively suspending all of it just because of a crisis poses a risk to human capital development. The more it is necessary to keep the poor children in school, healthy, and nurtured by a family, especially during a crisis.

Second, the direction therefore is alternative mode of delivering social protection. Instead of suspending, we are innovating to ensure an uninterrupted social protection. NEDA is strong in championing for the ‘digital delivery of social protection. Our Family Development Sessions and case management, usually done physically, are now shifting towards electronic platforms. We are happy to share with you that we have introduced electronic-FDS, FDS on-air, and other reforms to make sure uninterrupted service delivery especially during a crisis. Our case management shall also shift from physical methods to digital platforms.

Third, the PAGBANGON will operationalize policy review, structural reforms, and re-engineering our ICT systems – all needed to realize the alternative mode of delivering social protection programs and services. We are now back to the drawing boards with the different government agencies in converging different government programs and services, including the digitization and integration of ICT systems of different agencies, to jumpstart long-term recovery among the poor households affected by the pandemic.

These are humble testaments how the social work practice has evolved and is still evolving especially as we are still reeling from the pandemic. This is also a gentle manifestation of how social workers are not only creative but also discerning of much larger issues able to develop longer term response and recovery measures that put the best interest of the ones we serve and also the ones who serve, especially our frontline workers. Some of them are even here joining virtually and juggling their time to cope with the demands of the profession. And the demand now is shifting towards digital delivery of social protection.

On the next pillar that talks about targeting or the identification of beneficiaries. It is noteworthy to share with everyone that DSWD up to this time is maintaining the Listahanan, a contraction for “Listahan ng mga pamilyang nangangailangan” or the database of poor households nationwide. The number of poor households it generates is consistent with PSA’s poverty estimates done every two (2) years. 4Ps targets the poor households surveyed by Listahanan. The added value of Listahanan is really providing names to statistical estimates, giving names to the numbers, and be able to locate where they are. Since SAP is about covering the low-income households, one can readily conclude that Listahanan can be a good source of data. Because our realization is, there is none to this date any database of low-income households, or any list of workers in the informal economy, even at the level of the Local Government Units. The Magna Carta for the Workers in the Informal Economy (or MACWIE), which provides, among others, an enabling statute to setup the database of ‘workers in the informal economy’ remains pending at the legislature.

But without any ‘inclusive’ list that captures not just the poor households but also those hanging a little above the poverty threshold, including those at the lower bracket of the ‘middle class’, DSWD has to setup a mechanism to immediately identify and locate the target families involving LGUs and other stakeholders, by distributing Social Amelioration Cards or SAC Forms that are heavily dependent on pen-and-paper method at a time when strict physical distancing was discouraged. Our social workers assisted in identifying who the low-income households are relying on their professional judgment as quick as possible. The public expectation also came into play that somehow pushed back further the social workers’ diligence to thoroughly assess family situation first before providing any treatment plan. We had to make ends meet given the compounding challenges that confronted us, all for efficient service delivery at a time when government assistance is needed the most.

But the larger issue here is making it a targeted project as against ‘universal’. We understand that the ulterior reason is the limited fiscal space of the government then, but a universal SAP would have made the job easier and the project inclusive. After all, the actual count of households served almost corresponds to the actual count of households in the country. We have spent much efforts and resources in identifying the ‘deserving’ households when the ‘undeserving’ ones are just a few and a universal project would have been an efficient option.

On the verification of identities, or making sure that those in the list are correct and properly profiled. While this was partially fulfilled during the targeting of beneficiaries, the highly coveted Philippine National ID system or PhilSys – which is designed to provide a valid identity to each Filipino aged 5 years and up, with high-level of assurance, eliminate identity fraud, and strengthen integrity of functional identification registries – was not yet usable at that time. While DSWD is known in the government for having well-oiled and heavily invested ICT systems in place with experienced IT people, it was also overwhelmed with deduplication activities just to ensure a list with a stronger integrity, using its in-house algorithms and systems that are already in place even before the pandemic. It is good to know however that the PhilSys is already pacing up its calendar.

And finally, on the delivery of payments or the SAP emergency subsidies, it is good that the DSWD is recognized as the agency with an established payment delivery network, especially for 4Ps. About 9 out of 10 4Ps beneficiaries are already claiming the cash grants via digital platforms thru Landbank cash cards, even before the pandemic came in. Having cash cards allows 4Ps beneficiaries to withdraw their cash transfers anytime they plan to, without lining up at Landbank servicing branches as it was several years ago when the mode of payment was still thru over-the-counter transaction. The 4Ps cash cards can also be used in purchasing food and grocery items, medicines, vitamins, , hygiene essentials, among others, by just swiping their cards in grocery stores, pharmacies with Point-of-Sale (POS) terminals. More importantly, it is the most efficient means in delivering cash transfers that can cover about 2 million households in a day or a 2 to 3 day payout for the 3.8 million 4Ps cash card holders as against the month-long payouts when it used to be over-the-counter. As expected, the SAP emergency subsidy was efficiently credited to the accounts of 4Ps beneficiaries and they were the first to receive the much needed social assistance.

But the challenge was with the non-4Ps households as they have to rely on off-site payments in gymnasiums, schools, and other open spaces and venues provided by the LGUs, quieting in long lines that are sometimes reaching at night just to receive the cash subsidies. Not every Filipino therefore has a bank account and it was a challenge. This corroborates the 2017 Financial Inclusion Survey done by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas which indicates that only an estimated 15.8 million adult Filipinos, or 22.6 percent, have bank accounts, while an approximate 52.8 million, or 77.4 percent, remain unbanked. Globally, the percentage of account holders is 62 percent with variation among high income (at 91 percent), middle income (at 58 percent) and low income (at 28 percent) countries.

As a solution and as testament to DSWD’s innovativeness, DSWD has embarked on partnering with Financial Service Providers (FSPs) to make the distribution of SAP emergency subsidies more efficient and ‘digital’ to minimize person-to-person contact between the disbursing officers of DSWD and the beneficiaries. In June 2020, DSWD has successfully entered into a multilateral memorandum of agreement with the Land Bank and the FSPs, namely: GCash, Rizal Commercial Banking Corporation (RCBC), Robinson’s Bank, PayMaya, and Starpay to distribute the second tranche of SAP. Recipients only need to bring their registered mobile phones and present their Beneficiary Reference Number along with an accomplished SAC Form and an ID. We are happy to share with everyone that our FSPs will still be tapped by our DSWD Field Offices in delivering emergency subsidies under the “Bayanihan 2” for households in granular lockdown areas. This effectively expanded further the breadth of social welfare delivery systems as it now involves the FSPs. It may have shown inevitable birth pains but it has provided a solid proof of concept that digital platforms work and it has started to reach the marginalized sectors effectively. This will also pave way for our social workers to shift from mere disbursing officers to something developmental by focusing on social work practice, especially amidst the pandemic.

In this whole plethora of triumphs and challenges in implementing the largest social protection project in the country today, how did social work as a profession effectively positioned itself that is distinct from other profession? What aspect of the COVID-19 multi-professional response and recovery measures can be said to have pivoted from the social work as a profession. Reflecting on our experiences in the last nine months, we have seen the “integral role” of the DSWD and the social workers who primarily comprised the institution. More than the monetary subsidies that we have distributed to aid them during the crisis, we have promoted for the welfare of those in most need of support, by developing policies that are strategic and responsive to family welfare, overcoming communication barriers, and using relationship building skills to work with the most affected individuals and families, including sharing difficult news, to enable and support them in coping with the pandemic. At the community level, we have also acted as the rallying point and cornerstone of bringing resources together to facilitate community development and sustainability. We have also beefed up the social welfare administration under the ‘new normal’ through more innovative and digital means.

To this end, I would like to enjoin all my colleagues in the profession to continuously invest time on your professional development adaptive to this new era. Much is yet to be done. As social workers, we have witnessed and experienced countless times how crisis situations like this present opportunities to rebuild better, more inclusive, and more stable communities. This crisis is no exception. Our role as social workers is to bring to attention long-term social solutions. Social workers who espouse a vision beyond the crisis. A vision where our social delivery systems can actively eradicate the conditions that have led to disorders that develop and explode in the context of poverty and social injustices.

In closing, I would like to echo a statement from South African leader Nelson Mandela. “In this new century, millions of people in the world’s poorest countries remain imprisoned, enslaved, and in chains. They are trapped in the prison of poverty and it is time to set them free.” But it should be seen that “overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life. And as long as poverty, injustice, and gross inequality exist in our world, none of us can truly rest.”