When Stakeholders Build Bridges

(published 15 December 2014, MST)
When we think of public schools, the first thing that comes to mind is the quality of instruction that students get. Are there enough classrooms, are there enough competent teachers, are the textbooks being used accurate and error-free?
Too often, we forget that health and nutrition as well as water sanitation are also among the issues that the Department of Education must address. This is so because students spend a significant amount of time at school on any given weekday. Parents, especially, would be concerned that their children would have access to clean and healthy food within the school premises, could be supported by facilities and medical staff in case of an emergency sickness, and could use clean water and have proper sanitation while at school.
These issues however do not seem to rank high among the priorities of the Department of Education. In fact, the Ateneo School of Government found that in 2012, the approved funding for the Integrated School Health and Nutrition and Water and Sanitation Program of the Department of Education amounted to a mere 0.74 percent of the total budget of the Department. In absolute terms, the budget for the health and nutrition program was only P144 million for more than 44,000 schools in the country, and P1.3 billion for water and sanitation. Total budget for the said year was P201 billion.
The Building Bridges for Better Spending in Southeast Asia project was begun in June of 2012. Over the next 30 months, or until November of this year, BB was implemented, aiming to  determine if the budget of the Deped’s programs reached the intended recipients, show the current health, nutrition and sanitation situation in schools, and to see whether the implementation of the health program was sufficient, effective, transparent and has accountability.
In keeping with its emphasis on social accountability as a way to constructively engage with government, the ASoG team employed three different tools in various phases of the BB program.
The first tool was the Public Expenditure Tracking Survey. Forty schools in the pilot areas of Bulacan province and Antipolo City were chosen. The team wanted to find out whether the funds were properly allocated and disbursed to the target beneficiaries. Through this first tool, ASoG learned that the funds cannot anymore be traced to the beneficiary level (individual schools) after being downloaded to the regional or division office.
The second tool was the Citizen Report Card, which was implemented from January to December 2013. It sought to find out whether the stakeholders were satisfied with the health, nutrition and sanitation programs.  The result: While students were aware of such programs, they also noted that there were no medical doctors, dietitians nor dentists available to them. Some of the schools don’t have canteens. In some schools, parents and teachers helped in preparing the food— but of course the results were inadequate because it was not really their job and they had other responsibilities. Some of the children who resorted to buying food from the streets experienced stomachache or diarrhea 
According to 92 percent of teachers interviewed, they were not aware that their school was supposed to have a budget for the SHNP.
And then, from July to November 2014, the third tool, the Multi-Stakeholder Social Audit, was performed on two schools from Antipolo,which were the ones with outstanding issues in health and nutrition at the beginning of this year.
Specifically, Rizza Elementary School needed to renovate its clinic and have a canteen with facilities. Antipolo Sped Center needed the same. The clinic requirements were especially urgent for Antipolo Sped because of the special needs of its students.
The MSSA, a relatively new tool, is a series of dialogue between and among stakeholders. It is not putting all of the stakeholders in one venue and letting them talk to each other there. It is instead a process that began from the articulation/ determination of needs, priorities, accountabilities and timetables of the schools with regard to their health and nutrition issues. It started from the parents, teachers and school officials who, given the inadequacies in their schools, sought the assistance of other stakeholders like the barangay and the local government unit to address their outstanding needs.
Through it all, the ASoG as facilitator helped set up meetings, and enabled parents and school officials to articulate their needs to the local officials and submit whatever documentary requirements were needed.
It’s “exacting accountability”, yes, but done in a way that neither confronts government (telling them they are not doing their jobs and demanding what is due), nor views it as a favor being done by “benevolent” officials.
It’s a recognition that all stakeholders have to come together in an amicable and constructive way to obtain desired results.
The results so far: For Rizza, the barangay pledged to fund the renovation of the clinic and endorse the request for funds for canteen facilities to the city government. Antipolo Sped, on the other hand, was able to secure the services of a nurse to stay at the school clinic for several days a week.
Other requests are in progress, specifically the contracting of the services of a psychologist and  occupational therapist for the Sped students, and canteen facilities that would offer nutritious and inexpensive options for students’ meals. 
Perhaps the most tangible accomplishment of the BB project is the impact it has created among shareholders. There was an awareness of the various issues, processes and the complexities of the bureaucracy that may hamper the intended benefits of any program.
There was a change in mindset: we are no longer just passive beneficiaries of government service.  Citizens, being stakeholders themselves, must engage government and be active. Governance after all is a partnership between the governors and the governed.
There too was learning-in-action. Since the MSSA was a relatively new tool, there were hits and misses. There was a recognition of challenges, the need for solutions, and improvements towards sustainability, not just for health, nutrition and sanitation issues but also in other aspects of social services.
Sure, there are services not yet delivered, promises and pledges yet to be acted upon. Despite this, it does not do any good to just sit and complain. Here’s to getting out of our comfy chairs and helping build bridges of our own.