Ephemeral universalism in the social protection response to the COVID-19 lockdown in the Philippines

By Emma Lynn Dadap-Cantal, Andrew M. Fischer and Charmaine G. Ramos

Since March 2020, the Philippines has implemented one of the world’s strictest and longest lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused severe disruptions in peoples’ livelihoods. The government’s emergency social protection response, the ‘Social Amelioration Program’ (SAP), has also been notably massive, introducing one-off near-universal income protection. It is an insightful case given that the country’s existing social assistance system has been celebrated as a model for developing countries, even though it has been mostly bypassed in the emergency response. Moreover, the country’s highly stratified and fragmented social policy system has resulted in implementation delays and irregularities that have fostered social hostilities and undermined the potential for such momentary universalism to have lasting transformative effects.

The Philippine government first imposed its ‘community quarantine’ on 15 March, which has since been extended until 30 June. Thus far, the pandemic has not been severe relative to evolving global indicators, with 302 confirmed infections per million people and 11 confirmed deaths per million people as of 25 June (although at only 5,760 tests per million people, these confirmed rates are likely to be significantly underestimated). However, as elsewhere in the Global South, the lockdown has thrown the country into an employment crisis given that more than 60 percent of its workforce is informal, most in precarious situations even when earning above the official poverty line.

In response, the government rolled out the ‘Social Amelioration Program’ (SAP), comprising at least 13 different schemes and with an estimated total budget equivalent to as much as 3.1 percent of the country’s GDP [1]. The largest scheme is the Emergency Subsidy Program (ESP), which has been allocated 200 billion Philippines pesos (PhP; about 3.5 billion euros), more than three times the combined budget of all the other schemes.

The ESP was initially intended to cover 17.9 million households, while the other SAP cash subsidy schemes were to target more than 5.2 million individuals. Assuming that none of these overlapped (e.g. only one subsidy recipient per household), the SAP would have covered over 23 million households, or more than 96 percent of the roughly 24 million households in the country. This extent of coverage is effectively universal, representing an attempt to provide basic income support to all but the richest five to ten percent of households.

The ESP initially sought to provide cash transfers to low-income and vulnerable families during the months of April and May, the projected duration of the lockdown. The transfers range from 5,000 to 8,000 PhP per month (about 90 to 140 euros), depending on the minimum wage of the region of residence. This is notably more generous than the existing poverty-targeted conditional cash transfer programme, the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (hereafter Pantawid), which provides families with at most 3,450 PhP per month (approximately 60 euros). The 4.4 million Pantawid families have nonetheless been included in the ESP and the amount they receive has been topped-up to the ESP amount.

Despite these ambitions, the SAP has already been faltering. Based on our research [2], a number of problems can be discerned:

Delays and backtracking in the distribution of the ESP. While the ESP was supposed to be paid in two monthly tranches in April and May, the first tranche was yet to be completely distributed as of 15 June [3]. It was later announced that the second tranche, whose distribution only began on 11 June, would only be distributed to beneficiaries living in communities where the lockdown conditions had not been eased – about 8.5 million families – as well as to an additional five million ‘waitlisted or left out’ families, or, as explained by the DSWD, those that did not make it to the list of first tranche beneficiaries [4]. It is not clear whether either of these numbers include the Pantawid households mentioned above or why there would have been ‘left out’ families from a programme that was ostensibly universal.

Vague and fragmented selection guidelines. In addition to this lack of clarity at the aggregate level, the guidelines in the selection of ESP beneficiaries have also been vague and fragmented, which subjects them to different interpretations and discrepancies on the ground. There is no single document that describes the process in detail or provides even an overview. The social registry that is used for poverty targeting in the Pantawid – the Listahanan – was not used for the identification the non-Pantawid families, who constituted 75 percent of the ESP target beneficiaries in the first tranche. Instead, the government reverted to reliance on village-level government functionaries, who have proven decisive in identifying ESP beneficiaries and distributing assistance. This has re-politicized the administration of social protection after years of supposed attempts at depoliticization by means of the Listahanan and the Pantawid.

Failed attempts at overcoming residualism. The SAP reflects an attempt to overcome the limitations of the country’s polarised and fragmented social protection system, even while this system has rendered almost impracticable its universalist impulses. The existing system notably excludes close to half of the population at the middle of the income distribution – often referred to as the ‘missing middle’ [5]. This refers to the 40 percent of employed people working in the informal sector who are not covered by the contributory social insurance designed for those formally employed, which covers about 40 percent of employed people, while at the same time they are not covered by the Pantawid, which covers about 21 percent of the population. The Pantawid beneficiaries are presumed to be the poorest people, although there have been serious concerns regarding its accuracy of targeting, meaning that it excludes many of the poor, while including many who are not (at least, not according to the poverty lines used by the programme) [6].

Social hostilities in the face of systemic confusions. The confused and fraught implementation of the SAP has therefore exacerbated fundamental schisms entrenched within the existing social protection system, including confusions about who is in fact targeted by the ESP and contestations by local government officials over the number of beneficiaries set for their respective cities or municipalities [7]. In particular, given the perception that Pantawid families are prioritised by the ESP (in the sense that they are automatically eligible for the programme), they have drawn public attention and scrutiny, even though they only accounted for about 25 percent of targeted recipients of the ESP in the first tranche. As a result, anti-poor sentiments have proliferated on social media since the distribution of the first tranche [8].

The inadequacy of celebrated models of poverty-targeted social assistance

These confusions and tensions show how the pursuit of genuine universalism within an existing stratified, fragmented and residualist social protection system presents major in-built challenges for advancing beyond moments of crisis. While the Philippines has been able to roll out a massive emergency social protection response to the COVID-19 lockdown, with near-universal coverage of possibly more than 90 percent of the population, reliance on the existing institutional infrastructure has had the effect of fostering social hostilities and potentially quelling support for such universalism among the population.

This is particularly significant given that the flagships of this infrastructure – the Pantawid and the Listahanan – have received huge support from international financial institutions and successive governments for 13 years prior to the pandemic and have been promoted as models up to the crisis, yet they have proven to be utterly inadequate for identifying systemic vulnerabilities at such a crucial time as the pandemic. The enormity of need engendered by the COVID-19 crisis evidently pushed the government to go beyond its conventional focus on poverty-targeted social assistance. As it scrambled to do this, it mostly bypassed the targeted system that had been so carefully groomed and adulated by donors, which has been neither fit for the purpose of actualizing universalistic aspirations, nor politically facilitative for their perpetuation.

Emma Lynn Dadap-Cantal is a PhD student at ISS. Her dissertation is a comparative case study of the political economy of social protection in Cambodia and the Philippines, with particular emphasis on the role of external donor influences in shaping the social protection systems in these two countries.

Andrew M. Fischer is Associate Professor of Social Policy and Development Studies at the ISS and the Scientific Director of CERES, The Dutch Research School for International Development. Since 2015, he has been leading a European Research Council Starting Grant on the political economy of externally financing social policy in developing countries. He tweets at @AndrewM_Fischer.

Charmaine G. Ramos is a Lecturer at Leiden University College, Leiden University, The Netherlands. Her current research focuses on analysing social policy and resource governance, as a means for exploring how political economy dynamics constrain and structure institutions for social transformation and productive expansion in developing economies.


[1] Memorandum No 1, Series 2020

[2] This work builds on our ongoing research that we have been conducting since 2015 into the political economy surrounding the institutional evolution of the Philippine social protection system, as part of ERC-funded research project entitled ‘Aiding Social Protection: The Political Economy of Externally Financing Social Policy in Developing Countries’ (grant agreement No 638647). Our current research on the COVID response has been based on deskwork ¬– by necessity given that all three authors have been in lockdown in Europe – and has involved the collection and analysis of official documents (including relevant laws, presidential reports, and other administrative edicts) and media coverage concerning the Philippine government social protection responses to the pandemic, and selective remote interviews with  social workers from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) who have been involved with the COVID-19 response at various levels of government.

[3] SAP Monitoring Dashboard.

[4] See here  and here.

[5] Cf. Fischer 20182020ILO, 2017Rutkowski, 2020.

[6] The rampant inaccuracies of the Pantawid are detailed in our forthcoming article currently under review. Also see Kidd and Athias (2019).

[7] For instance, see here.

[8] E.g., see viral posts on Facebook like this and news reports like this.

This article was originally published on the International Institute of Social Studies’ (ISS) blog on Global Development and Social Justice, Bliss. Image Credit: Asian Development Bank on Flickr

Misunderstanding the average impact of microcredit?

Photo: Peter Haden. Microfinance center leaders tally the week’s loan payments in India.

By Milford Bateman and Maren Duvendack

A recent article on the “average impact of microcredit” by Dr. Rachel Meager (LSE) has received much praise over the past few weeks. Meager deploys Bayesian hierarchical modelling to provide a new take on the argument in favour of a reformed system of microcredit. Her work builds on the data provided by six randomized control trials (RCTs) conducted by Abhijit Banerjee and colleagues (see Banerjee, Karlan and Zinman, 2015). Meager makes an attempt to exculpate the microcredit model from the awkward fact that its impact on the poor has been very much less than originally envisaged. She also claims to show that the critics have overstated the negative impact of microcredit. Microcredit should therefore continue to be a policy intervention, she goes on to say, but there need to be changes in the operating methodology for a more meaningful development impact to be possible in the future.

While seemingly a well-meaning attempt to explore the impact of microcredit, we were struck by the way that her overall argument appears to seriously misunderstand, and it definitely misrepresents, the existing research on microcredit as a development instrument. Read More »

The Curious Case of M-Pesa’s Miraculous Poverty Reduction Powers

M-PESA kiosk outside Kibera centre in Nairobi. Picture credit: Fiona Graham / WorldRemit

By Milford Bateman, Maren Duvendack and Nicholas Loubere

Over the past decade the expansion of digital-financial inclusion through innovations in financial technology (fin-tech) has been identified by the World Bank, the G20, USAID, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and other major international institutions, as a key way to promote development and alleviate poverty in the Global South (GPFI, 2016; Häring 2017; World Bank, 2014). Perhaps the most influential and widely reported publication pushing forward this narrative is an article examining M-Pesa written by US-based economists Tavneet Suri and William Jackand published in the prestigious journal Scienceentitled ‘The Long-run Poverty and Gender Impacts of Mobile Money’. M-Pesa is a mobile phone, agent-assisted platform for transferring money from one person to another. It was originally developed with funding from DFID and has quickly become a darling of the digital-financial inclusion movement. In this particular article, the authors make the far-reaching claim that ‘access to the Kenyan mobile money system M-PESA increased per capita consumption levels and lifted 194,000 households, or 2% of Kenyan households, out of poverty’ (Suri and Jack, 2016: 1288).

Suri and Jack’s article in Science has sent ripples through the global development community and has servedas perhaps was intendedto solidify support for upping the promotion of digital-financial inclusion initiatives across the Global South. Importantly, the article’s claims of unprecedented poverty reduction have been uncritically picked up by all of the international development agencies and microcredit advocacy organisations, as well as by many mainstream economists, so-called ‘social entrepreneurs’, tech investors, and media outlets. Much like microcredit in the 1980s, fin-tech and digital-financial inclusion is now very widely seen as a key—if not the keyto reducing global poverty and promoting local development.

In this post we summarise our recent article entitled ‘Is Fin-tech the New Panacea for Poverty Alleviation and Local Development?’ (Bateman, Duvendack, and Loubere, 2019), which challenges Suri and Jack’s findings, and urges the global development community to take a second, more critical look at their study. We argue that the article contains a worrying number of omissions, errors, inconsistencies, and that it also employs flawed methodologies. Unfortunately, their inevitably flawed conclusions have served to legitimise and strengthen a false narrative of the role that fin-tech can play in poverty alleviation and development, with potentially devastating consequences for the global poor.Read More »

If India gave minimum support incomes to the rich before, it can do the same for the poor. Rahul Gandhi can do it.

rahulghandi.jpgIndia’s opposition leader has recently floated minimum income support. The 1.5% GDP equivalent it requires can be financed through a 3% tax on the richest 3000. It is not just an idealized safety net for the poor – it has been done before, for the super elites. If it works, it can be a model for adoption in other emerging democracies. Read More »

Why positive thinking won’t get you out of poverty

attitude-be-positive-draw-262532.jpgBy Farwa Sial and Carolina Alves

In a recent article in the New York Times, the development economist Seema Jayachandran discusses three studies that used Randomised Controlled Trials (or RCTs) to understand the benefits of enhancing the self-worth of poor people. Despite wide differences in context, all the cases explore the viability of ‘modest interventions’ to ‘instill hope’ in marginalised communities, concluding that ‘remarkable improvements’ in the quest for poverty reduction are possible.

One of the studies from Uganda, for example, argues that “a role model can have significant effects on students’ educational attainment,” so the suggestion for policy-makers might be “to place more emphasis on motivation and inspiration through example.” Another case study of sex workers in Kolkata Brothels argues that “psychological barriers impede such disadvantaged groups from breaking the vicious circle and achieving better outcomes in life,” so small but effective changes that address these psychological constraints can alleviate the effects of poverty and social exclusion.

The underlying theme of these studies is that individuals can surmount the structural challenges of poverty through their own efforts using tools like ‘effective role models,’ the generation of ‘more hope,’ and the ‘improvement of their mental health.’ Positive psychology of this kind and an emphasis on behavior change to meet the goals of individuals have been around at least since the 1950s, first in the popular literature of self-help books and now in academia, where they form part of an increasingly fashionable trend to ‘do poverty reduction differently.’Read More »

Think Positive, Climb out of Poverty? It’s Just Not So Easy!

quehoraselavolta_open license.jpg
Social mobility in Brazil: Positive thinking and ambitious aspirations can create lots of frictions“

A few weeks ago, Professor Seema Jayachandran from Northwestern University published an article in the New York Times in which she discussed the role of positive thinking and of believing in oneself for overcoming poverty. Jayachandran argues that there is “growing evidence that it can used as an anti-poverty strategy”, while also warning about placing too much emphasis on positive thinking alone. This post will dwell on the latter point, arguing that we should pay much more attention to limitations and broader contexts of positive thinking in development. I do not want to deny the role of self-worth and forward-looking aspirations for poverty reduction and quality of life more generally, but I will emphasize the importance of considering their role only as part of a broader policy mix.

Read More »

Revisiting Hirschman’s Tunnel Effect and Its Relevance for China


As within-country inequality is on the rise worldwide, considering how people actually perceive inequality in their societies and how they respond to it is a question worth asking. In 1973 Albert Otto Hirschman proposed an explanation of changing tolerance for inequality associated with different ‘stages’ of the development process. In this post I’ll revisit Hirschman’s theory and link it to emerging studies of how inequality is perceived in China. The Chinese people generally seem to be satisfied with rising inequality, yet it is unclear how long this tolerance will last.Read More »

A Critical Review on the documentary “Poverty, Inc.”


The documentary “Poverty, Inc.” has become so influential that it is now part of many courses at the university level. The good news is that at universities we apply critical thinking to the information we receive (or we are supposed to). As a development economist, I share here my views on this famous documentary.

On the positive side, the documentary does a good job in making some points for an audience unfamiliar with economic theory, such as the idea that dependency does not end poverty, or that current foreign aid (money flows between governments) has “unintended consequences that do more harm than good.” However, both ideas are not new in development studies. The much quoted “teach a human to fish” is an idea associated with many philosophers, including Maimonides (about 850 years ago). This criticism of the structure of current foreign aid is a relatively old idea in the development literature. Perhaps the best point made by the documentary is the argument that Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) can do a better job if they base their strategies on effective communications with local entities, although this idea is not new either.

What are, then, the problems with this documentary? Many. Firstly, the development literature has two main perspectives; namely, the conservative and the progressive. A documentary that omits a whole branch of argumentation is not responsible and carries “unintended consequences,” such as misinforming that unfamiliar audience. Besides mentioning supranational entities, the documentary did not expose crucial structural problems: there is no serious analysis on geopolitics, global power relations, or class issues, among others. A class analysis would not, for instance, focus on stressing that “NGOs need the poor to exist” but that “the rich need the poor to exist”.Read More »