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No Free Lunch

Tracking poverty

Who should get the government’s “ayuda” cash grants and who need not? The need to target assistance for households severely affected by the economic standstill during the COVID-19 crisis highlights the importance of having local governments possess a good information base on their residents’ state of well-being. But its importance goes well beyond unusual times like this. An accurate socio-

economic profile of a barangay, municipality, or city is the essential starting point for local development planning. To be of meaningful consequence, the development plan must address all the important dimensions of individual and family well-being. Poverty, after all, is not just about income, but also about deprivation in the human, social, environmental, political, cultural, and spiritual needs of a person. So how do we keep track of all these?

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In 1985, Thailand began collecting household information at the village level on whether their citizens’ basic minimum needs (BMN) were being met. They institutionalized the BMN system in 1990 when the Department of Community Development under the Ministry of the Interior decided to make it an annual activity. Village heads all over the country were tasked to ensure that each household in their village was tracked on their ability to meet their BMN, using 32 straightforward questions mostly answerable with yes or no.

In 1992, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) thought it helpful that I, as the country’s chief development planner in the new Ramos administration, witness a neighbor’s good practice on holistic poverty tracking. UNDP arranged that I go with then Presidential Assistant for Countryside Development Daniel “Bitay” Lacson and Center for Community Transformation founder Ruth Callanta on a study tour to observe Thailand’s BMN system firsthand.

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We saw large charts on the walls of village halls we visited, summarizing the BMN status of every village household. Village heads we talked to knew their members’ welfare status by heart, and how they were progressing through time. Impressed, we moved to copy our neighbor’s system, rearranged the words a bit, and pursued our own MBN (minimum basic needs) poverty monitoring system, for which Congress gave the National Statistics Office a P1 billion budget to start it. We later learned from our Thai hosts that they actually got the idea for BMN from an old unimplemented proposal at our own Department of Social Welfare and Development. (It’s ironic how it has to take foreigners to show us how good our own ideas are, and here we ended up copying what actually came from us in the first place!)

Three categories of needs are tracked by the MBN/BMN system: survival, security, and enabling needs. The first include access to food, clothing, water and sanitation, and health services. Security needs cover shelter, public safety/peace and order, income and livelihood. Enabling needs include basic education, community participation, and family care. For every village household, a knowledgeable household member is asked simple yes-or-no questions (like, “Are you able to eat at least two meals a day?”, “Do you have at least two changes of clothing?”, “Is potable water accessible within 100 meters of your house?” and so on).

Scaling up this system nationwide is understandably a huge challenge. MBN has since been taken over by the Community-Based (Poverty) Monitoring System or CBMS, first piloted under a Canada-funded project in 1995. Different local government units (LGUs) have had varying receptiveness to the system, which requires their strong support in implementation. After 25 years, CBMS has reached 31,202 barangays in 1,103 municipalities and 111 cities in 78 provinces, with 36 doing it province-wide. But the timing of the surveys has varied across local government units, making the data still of limited use beyond each LGU, particularly for national-level econometric analysis. Fortunately, Congress passed Republic Act No. 11315 last year, finally institutionalizing CBMS nationwide, and giving it an accompanying budget.

Used together with the coming national ID, we should henceforth be better equipped to track the poor, and help them better.

[email protected]

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TAGS: basic minimum needs, BMN system, Cielito F. Habito, No Free Lunch, Poverty, UNDP
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