Commercializing social services

Basic social services and decent living conditions are essential to life, dignity and development. The right to these basic social services and the state’s responsibility to ensure that this right is protected and practiced are enshrined in international covenants that the Philippines has committed to uphold: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The Philippines also signed the Alma Ata Declaration in 1978, which states that “governments have a responsibility for the health of their people, which can be fulfilled only by the provision of adequate health and social measures.” Why is it then that in our country, data show that children born to the poorest 20 percent of families are 10 times more at risk of dying than children born to the richest 20 percent?

Because basic social services are increasingly neglected, as reflected in their dwindling allocations in the national budget, government agencies are resorting to creative ways of revenue generation, privatization and other market-oriented policies. The net effect is that basic social services are becoming more and more inaccessible to those without the means to pay for them. The decreasing budgetary investment for social expenditures is forcing the imposition of “free market” policies on education, healthcare and other forms of social investments.

More and more, basic social services are treated, not as human rights, but as commodities to be profited from, their costs determined by markets in privatized systems under a globalized neoliberal regime. In countries where the World Bank has stepped in to restructure the health sector, preventive and curative care have collapsed due to the lack of medical equipment and supplies, poor working conditions and low pay of medical personnel. Higher user fees in primary healthcare have caused the exclusion from health services of large sectors of the population unable to pay. Often, the International Monetary Fund-World Bank and advanced capitalist countries dictate that low-income countries such as the Philippines cut government spending on social services, on grounds that it is “inefficient” and that the market must take over the delivery of such services. This is the opposite of what governments of rich countries are doing; they spend more on social services in response to the demands of their citizens.

If the national budget were indeed a reflection of a government’s real priorities, then it is clear that basic social services are not really the priority of our government, as reflected in its fiscal policy. For if it were propoor and an instrument for social reform, the budget should prioritize the poor’s basic needs and be an instrument to implement propeople programs that address joblessness, forced migration, falling incomes and deepening and widening poverty. The budget must be an instrument to halt privatization, liberalization and deregulation, which have dislocated the poor.

If the government were indeed serious about making public institutions like the educational system “globally competitive,” then it must find ways to improve facilities and upgrade programs and services. These are hardly achievable with the present resources allocated in the national budget. Reducing that social investment will change the essence of public tertiary education from a vital service provided by the state to a profit-generating institution that only lessens the access of poor and low-income students.

Roland G. Simbulan is a professor of development studies and public management at the University of the Philippines, Manila and a former faculty regent of the UP System.

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