[ANALYSIS] How Duterte’s drug war is negating key anti-poverty programs

JC Punongbayan

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[ANALYSIS] How Duterte’s drug war is negating key anti-poverty programs
For as long as Duterte’s drug war continues, existing policies meant to alleviate poverty will only come off as futile, insincere, and hypocritical

President Rodrigo Duterte likes to invoke the welfare of children whenever he justifies his brutal war on drugs.

In his 2017 State of the Nation Address, for instance, he told those who deal in drugs: “You harm the children in whose hands the future of this Republic is entrusted, and I will hound you to the very gates of hell.”

Yet there’s growing evidence that Duterte’s drug war itself is opening the gates of hell – at least insofar as it worsens the plight of women and children left behind by innocent victims of drug-related killings or DRKs.

A new study by a trio of researchers – Abbey Pangilinan, Ica Fernandez, and Tanya Quijano – sheds light on the plight of DRK victims’ families who are also beneficiaries of the government’s flagship anti-poverty program, called the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program or 4Ps.

They found that not only does the drug war induce victims’ children to drop out of school, the drug war also reduces victims’ families’ incomes and makes their lives more miserable. Worse, the government is not doing nearly enough to look after them.

By condemning these poor families deeper into poverty, the drug war effectively contradicts and negates the government’s key anti-poverty programs.


We already know that Duterte’s drug war is profoundly anti-poor. (READ: Why the drug war thwarts our pursuit of inclusive growth)

Until recently, however, we had no idea how the drug war stands vis-à-vis the government’s anti-poverty programs.

The study by Pangilinan et al. helps to fill this gap.

First, the researchers meticulously built a database of 2,267 people in Metro Manila who were confirmed DRK victims. Then, they confirmed that at least 333 of the identifiable cases were 4Ps beneficiaries. See below a map of these cases.

Source: Pangilinan et al. [2019].


The assembled dataset is, needless to say, incomplete and the sampling imperfect. Nonetheless, the study – a mix of quantitative and qualitative data – is the first of its kind and provides us a valuable empirical glimpse into the socioeconomic fallout of Duterte’s drug war.

Economic hardships

The identified DRK victims who were also 4Ps beneficiaries were overwhelmingly male and between 30 and 44 – hence, breadwinners who typically earn “between 4,000 to 10,000 pesos per month, often from informal jobs in construction.”

The death of poor breadwinners represents a severe economic shock to their families.

A number of widows were reportedly at a loss how to pay for the burial of their murdered husbands. Worse, the widows later had “a hard time sustaining rent and food needs especially of their school-aged children. As such, the tendency is for the children to stop schooling.”

This is on top of the usual hardships of poverty, such as catastrophic expenses in the event of illnesses in the family or disasters like floods or fires.

Unfortunately, all interviewed widows were unaware of the benefits they’re entitled to under the Solo Parents’ Welfare Act of 2000.

Absent this and other formal coping mechanisms, a lot of the poor families were left to their own devices. Many moved out of their rented homes and lived with relatives. Some widows chose to “remarry as a means for survival,” leaving behind their children to the grandparents.

Grandparents, in turn, can hardly play the role of breadwinners. So many children left in their care, usually aged 5 to 18, have no choice but to help out and find work. Some teens who were both orphaned and abandoned reportedly entered prostitution.

A vicious cycle is at play here. 4Ps is a conditional cash transfer program: poor families receive money regularly for sending their children to school or to health clinics for regular check-ups.

But the necessity of work makes these children ineligible to receive 4Ps’ education-related transfers. Mothers and grandmothers busy providing for their families also miss out on Family Development Sessions and fail to receive 4Ps’ health-related transfers.

A lot of the families also felt isolated as neighbors and relatives distance themselves for fear of retribution, while children routinely get traumatized and bullied by their peers. Families also learned to distrust authorities, especially the police who they suspect to be involved in the killings themselves.

Negating 4Ps

With all these ill effects, the drug war is counteracting the government’s anti-poverty programs.

In April Duterte signed the 4Ps Act, which makes permanent the 4Ps program and mandates the provision of funds every year. But with a brutal drug war still firmly in place, this new law – no matter how well-meaning – only comes off as hypocritical.

For starters, the law aims to “achieve universal primary education.” But the children of DRK victims often fail to go to school because of the need to work to provide for their kin.

The law also aims to “[improve] delivery of basic services to the poor, particularly education, health, nutrition, and early childhood care and development.” But poor families are reluctant to avail of these services due to stigma, relocation, distrust in authorities, or a general climate of fear.

The law aims to “promote gender equality and empowerment of women and children’s rights.” But it is precisely women and children who face needless additional hardships because of the sudden death of their husbands and fathers due to DRKs.

Finally, the law aims to “break the intergenerational cycle of poverty.” But the drug war pushes many poor families ever deeper into poverty, rather than delivers them from it.

Focus on the laylayan

More than 3 years since Duterte took office, we’re only beginning to learn about the broader socioeconomic impacts of his drug war.

The study by Pangilinan et al. is a valiant effort in this regard. Obviously there’s much room for improvement in the way the data was collected, and future studies can address this.

Perhaps the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) itself – in cooperation with multilateral partners like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank – can expand the study using their unhindered access to the comprehensive database of poor households called Listahanan as well as the database of all 4Ps beneficiaries.

For the authors, the way forward is clear: “Further deaths need to be prevented, and support must be provided to those left behind.”

Apart from 4Ps, such support may come in the form of psychosocial interventions to help children cope with the loss of loved ones, livelihood programs for single parents and aging breadwinners, cash-for-work programs, or even unconditional cash transfers.

For as long as Duterte’s drug war continues, existing policies meant to alleviate poverty will only come off as futile, insincere, and hypocritical.

The Duterte administration has all too often prioritized the “common good,” even if it means neglecting, if not sacrificing, the welfare of the poor.

In the future, we need leaders who will once more seriously look after – and not just pay lip service to – the poor and the marginalized. In other words, our society’s laylayan. – Rappler.com


The author is a PhD candidate at the UP School of Economics. His views are independent of the views of his affiliations. Follow JC on Twitter (@jcpunongbayan) and Usapang Econ (usapangecon.com). Thanks to the authors for sharing their study and providing useful comments and suggestions to this piece. They are also part of the team behind Kolateral, a new rap album about Duterte’s war on drugs.

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JC Punongbayan

Jan Carlo “JC” Punongbayan, PhD is an assistant professor at the University of the Philippines School of Economics (UPSE). His professional experience includes the Securities and Exchange Commission, the World Bank Office in Manila, the Far Eastern University Public Policy Center, and the National Economic and Development Authority. JC writes a weekly economics column for Rappler.com. He is also co-founder of UsapangEcon.com and co-host of Usapang Econ Podcast.