Sunday, January 16, 2005

The Political Economy of Food Coupons


Malacañang announced its plan to distribute food coupons a day after the Social Weather Stations (SWS) released survey results showing that one in every seven families nationwide had nothing to eat at least once in the past three months.-PDI
What irony of ironies! The government that has perpetually been the cause of Philippine poverty for the last four years is now coming up with a new scheme to sugarcoat their inefficiency – the food coupons for the poorest families in the Philippines. It has been conceived by the Social Welfare Department, headed by the social democrat Secretary Dinky Soliman, as a means of giving temporary relief to the thousands of hungry Filipinos. The plan was parroted in the press days after a survey was published indicating the extent of hunger among our people – that a large percentage of our people have felt hungry for several days in the past few months. The timing was perfect, to highlight further the reactionary character of the current regime because the people know quite that this project is a mere palliative of the administration to give a semblance of a government that cares for its people but ends up doing just the opposite. This paper examines the experience of food coupons in other countries and exposes ineptitude of the government in coming up with an ill-advised project for the people.

In other countries, food coupons are used as a transient measure to bridge the purchasing power gap between the privileged and underprivileged portions of its population. In the United States, the benefits for its people are not only for food. The state also has provisions for those who are disabled and unemployed. All they need to do is to go to the local social welfare office and they will be given placed as persons in need of aid, provided certain prerequisites are met. Food coupons are among the privileges its citizens have and such measure has already been institutionalized as a means of redistributing the riches. In the welfare state countries in Scandinavia such as Norway and Finland, the benefits the people get are much immense that these countries are often cited as one of the top nations with the highest human development index, according to the United Nations. The redistributive provisions does not only include that for food. They have laws that ensure delivery of free education and healthcare, disability and pension benefits and even state-of-the art homes for the aged. This was done not as a mere temporary relief for its people something that is part of the development strategy enshrined in the principles of state welfarism. Although in this system, the government makes a milking cow out of its corporations, it does ensure income redistribution. The other first world countries, like Japan and Great Britain, among others, have similar programs for its marginalized sectors which their people continue to enjoy up to now. However, it is important to note the manner in which they have come towards such ability to redistribute – through imperialist wars, colonization, and the more cunning neo-liberal formula. Although their workers enjoy these benefits, most of the workers are also privy to class contradictions between their employers on matters such as work hazard compensations. Their people are also prone to lose heir jobs eventually as most of their home-based corporations are now shifting to Asia as their base of operations due to low labor costs. As such, their governments might not be able to sustain these programs further and regress back to a situation in which benefits and pensions are a thing of the past. This will happen unless these governments strut it out with their corporations through cunning neo-liberal exploitation in investments in Third World countries, which they do with great clout and influence.

In a Third World country such as ours, I have great doubts whether the food coupons will be of any help to the people than helping sanitize the bad image of the President and her failure to concretely address poverty. The target number of beneficiaries would be five million families in which food vouchers will be distributed in the schools. The strategy is two-pronged – to keep the kids in school so that their families may be able eat, according to Sen. Ralph Recto. Again, these are mere palliatives and insincere press releases made by a reactionary government posing itself as championing the cause of the poor. As long as the government des not recognize that their set of priorities in development is the one that hastens the spread of hunger among the people. All efforts such like this will be in vain. At a time of large budget deficits and a looming fiscal crisis, where then will the government get the funds to sustain an ambitious dole-out project such as this. Dinky Soliman admitted that these voucher will not be for long because it is important for the government o intervene in job generation but that precisely is where any hope in this plan dims out. For the longest time, the government has utterly failed in providing the people jobs from their so-called private sector counterparts. It has proven itself wanting in addressing the most fundamental of issues – higher wages, land reform and a government that is sovereign from foreign dictates on the economy and its policies. Food coupons are good as an emergency measure for victims of natural disasters like the one that ravaged Quezon and Aurora, to provide immediate relief for the affected families. But to institutionalize it in the schools to keep the kids inside would also be counter-productive as a large percentage of the poorest families Sec. Soliman passionately talks about are not attending school at all. They are there in the loobans and kanayunans helping their families live it through the day. It is another matter in determining who it really is that would be given the vouchers as there are no efficient databases to figure it out. Moreover, these five million families are only spread across the Metro Manila area and its surrounding provinces. What then will the palliatives be for those in the most depressed of areas like Samar and Bicol? Leave them to their landlords and compradors? The school-for-food program would also then make education lose its focus – that the kids should go to school for the rice and the canned goods and not for the lectures and the lessons. They do not have the books, the notebooks and the money for their projects anyway. The government, instead of wasting much time and money on this program should redirect it to education, healthcare land reform and housing which are more productive avenues to pour in taxpayer’s money. These are the fundamental elements that a country should give importance to because compassion for the plight of the poor should not at all be the prime mover for creating projects the poor. Projects for the underprivileged should be long-lasting and should address not only their situation but also that of the country in the world economic order. A government that is serious enough to do this must be able to face up to its international creditors in asserting an independent economic plan for its people as it has been proven that for as long as the increase in the Debt-GNP ratio continues, poverty will persist as much of the country’s resources will be dished out of the country leaving a very small bit of funding for those social services that really matter. This should be the two-pronged agenda of the government in fighting poverty – pour in funding to social services and adapt an independent economic agenda free from international credit bullying by being more aggressive in asserting rejections of conditionalities and pressure.

Hunger should never be an opportunity for mere photo ops to fuel the pipe dreams of the people.

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