By the Ateneo de Manila Department of Political Science

(Third of an eight-part series)

THE COVID-19 pandemic has re-worked the economic, social, and even political fabric of countries around the world. In the Philippines, problems of slower — or even contracted — economic growth, large-scale displacement of workers, and food insufficiency are expected effects of the adoption and extension of the Luzon-wide enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) policy. The pandemic as such has brought to the fore the importance of social policy — both in the form of social services provision, and social protection mechanisms.

A crucial aspect of the National Action Plan (NAP) for COVID-19 is the Social Amelioration Program (SAP). Dubbed by the president himself as the most ambitious social protection policy by far, the SAP intends to aid the sectors made most vulnerable by the pandemic. It includes social assistance in the form of cash or in-kind transfers specifically targeted for the poor, as well as for the workers displaced by the pandemic, including those in the agricultural sector. The program also has an aid package for micro- and small-scale entrepreneurs. Furthermore, the SAP sets up income-generating activities in the form of short-term public employment programs.

Several difficulties in effectively implementing the SAP at once present themselves. The duration and substance of the aid, and the tensions between the implementing agencies, as well as tensions between the national and local levels of government are some of the relevant issues that need to be addressed.

We argue as such that an effective social policy is founded on two interdependent factors. First, it must be designed well. And second, it must be supported by a strong administrative system.

First, the design of social policies and programs should reflect long-term solutions, not just short-term fixes or one-off legislative acts, because social issues transcend beyond a generation. The goal is to achieve intergenerational and sustainable security and productivity, able to absorb shocks brought about by disasters and disruptions.

The pandemic has caught many off-guard, but a country like ours that has experienced multiple disasters in the last decade should have been at least half-prepared to respond. The devastation caused by the typhoons and tropical storms such as Ondoy, Sendong, and Yolanda, the earthquakes in the Visayas and Mindanao, the eruptions of Taal and Mayon volcanoes, and the Marawi siege should have enabled us to create innovative and long-lasting social policies that would cushion many of the impacts most of us are facing today. Hence, social policies must be able to respond to social issues not only of the present, but also of the future by building on the lessons of the past.

Second, there should be broader participation in designing social policies and programs. As Amartya Sen mentioned most recently, add ressing social calamities like this pandemic is less a matter of approaching it like being engaged in a war, but more of engaging in public discussion and participatory governance. It does not also help that most of our policymakers are detached from the realities of ordinary people. Citizens, especially the poor, should be able to voice their concerns and suggestions, for no one understands their situation better than themselves.

However, meaningful participation in policy making is difficult if certain political, economic and social conditions have not yet been achieved. Hence, we need to encourage intermediaries that promote the organization of voice, important of which are social movements, community-based groups, labor unions, and cooperatives to name a few. We also need to encourage new tools and channels of participation as well as the opportunities given by information communication technologies (ICTs).

Third, LGUs must be enabled to contextualize national social policy. Although the pandemic undoubtedly does not choose its victims, its aftermath, and the policies intended to control it will be experienced differently across geographical lines. Public policies do not operate in a vacuum. It is a product of its place. Part of its success or failure will depend on how well it is able to address the specificities of its context.

For instance, the epicenter of the pandemic in the country, Metro Manila, is one of the densest urban areas in the world. It is not only the country’s center of economic, social, and political activities, but also a hotbed of poverty, poor living conditions, unsatisfactory water and sanitation facilities, job insecurity, and overcrowding of public schools and health facilities. Such conditions might not necessarily be true in other places in the country, hence blanket social policies and programs might bring more problems than solutions.

Fourth, social policy should be universal, in the sense that programs should not be targeted only towards the poorest of the poor. There is preference for developing countries whose financial resources are limited, to implement social protection that is residual — one that specifically targets only those who are in most need. While this is the most intuitive way of proceeding, it must be emphasized, however, that finding those who are “in need” is like trying to hit a constantly moving target. For example, many families of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) who were considered “not poor” became vulnerable when cruise ships, construction work, and hotel industries in other countries shut down and sent their workers home.

While targeted social policies might be more economical in the short term, they are more politically problematic as they create tensions between those who are part of the list of beneficiaries, and those who were excluded. More importantly, targeting makes the programs a source of patronage, given the clientelist nature of Philippine politics. In the long term, therefore, a universal social policy is the more effective and enabling way of moving forward.

A strongly-designed social policy will be brought to naught if it is not coupled with an equally strong administrative system. This need for a strong administrative system, however, does not mean a recourse to authoritarianism.

Characteristic of a strong administrative system is recruitment based on ability, technical knowledge, and merit. The COVID-19 pandemic reveals the importance of technical competence. Now more than ever, there is a demand for decision-making based on evidence and data analyzed with the appropriate tools of public health and its allied sciences. A militaristic response to the pandemic is not apt given the different competency of the military; in fact, such a response is indicative of our weak administrative system.

Another cornerstone of a strong administrative system is the presence of mechanisms that promote transparency and accountability. By allowing citizens to access information, check and question decisions, it prevents abuse of power and corruption. This highlights that power comes from the people and the institution should, therefore serve the people, not the politicians. In becoming so, it is able to defend itself from — if not withstand — bad leaders, and adapt as well as maximize its potential in the presence of a good leader.

The administrative system should also allow for, and give value to innovative solutions at the local level. We have seen how local business communities, homeowners’ associations, students, researchers, professional groups, and grassroots organizations have creatively supplied solutions to their respective local government units (LGUs). An administrative system responsive to the needs of its people, and a people critically engaged with the affairs of the administrative system are important ingredients for democratic governance.

Building a strong Philippine administrative system therefore requires having: 1.) public servants who are able to generate evidence-based policies, 2.) mechanisms that promote transparency and accountability, and 3.) trust in the LGU, private sector, and civil society’s capability to share in the governance of social policy.

Post-pandemic, we are given a unique opportunity to construct social policy from below. We have seen how, despite the lack of organized voice, we are able to collectively revise misleading narratives, push for better policy designs, demand for clarity when confronted by incoherent utterances, and find creative solutions to localized problems brought about by COVID-19.

The many disruptions brought about the pandemic have affected both our individual and collective lives. The boundaries we drew to separate ourselves from the others collapsed, because regardless of inequality — the rich, the poor, well-educated or not, factory workers, farmers, business people, jeepney drivers, medical practitioners, teachers, lawyers, OFWs, business process outsourcing (BPO) staff — we are all in the same boat; that we do not have a choice but to rely on each other because our institutions simply cannot protect us all. This sense of fraternity has always been alive in moments of calm and calamity, proof that the “imagined community” theory of political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson is real.

We must seize this moment to reclaim the power to participate in crafting and implementing policies that are and will be affecting our lives and the next generation. This is the only way for our institutions to remain resilient and rational during the most irrational and dysfunctional times.

(To be continued.)