By Jessica Reyes-Cantos

The pandemic years have been quite difficult for our people. The majority of our vulnerable people have borne the brunt of the shocks — closed schools, lost jobs, sickness, and worse, death. Our nation’s children have been among the most affected by the pandemic and related shocks.

Children’s ability to learn has deteriorated with the closure of face-to-face learning even as many barriers like weak internet connection and poor supervision have slowed down online learning. On top of this was the rising online sexual abuse and exploitation of children.

The number of calls from children to the National Center for Mental Health (NMCH) Crisis Hotline and Center for Wellness increased exponentially between 2019 and 2020. It reached thousands starting in March 2020 when community quarantine was implemented.

Moreover, the closure of schools resulted in delays in delivering nutrition-related services. UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund) reported a 30% reduction of nutrition services in schools in low and middle-income countries; especially those that imposed total lockdowns like the Philippines.

Responding to the immediate needs of our children rests largely on local governments. In this regard, spending matters. It may sound like a cliché, but local governments should put their money where their mouth is. It is sad but true that the Philippines is one of the lowest spenders for children among middle income countries.

And even if there is money, child-focused budgets that are lodged in national agencies and local government units (LGUs) are either lumped in broad budget categories or are given mere attributions. A child-focused budget is the 1% IRA/NTA (Internal Revenue Allotment/National Tax Allotment) allocation for the Local Council for the Protection of Children.

Budget reporting formats differ from the ones used for budget preparation, which makes tracking of actual expenditures a challenge. Presentation of expenditures aggregated by spending class makes it difficult to determine how much is actually spent on children.

In 2009, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child urged the Philippines to utilize a child right’s approach in the elaboration of the State budget by implementing a tracking system for the allocation and use of resources for children throughout the budget, thus providing visibility to the investment on children. The Committee also urges the State party to use this tracking system for impact assessments on how investments in any sector may serve “the best interest of the child,” ensuring that the differential impact of such investment on girls and boys is measured.

Against this backdrop, Social Watch Philippines, with the support of UNICEF and guidance from a Technical Working Group led by the Council for the Welfare of Children (CWC), embarked on developing a Budget Tagging System for Children (or BTS4C) for adoption by local governments.

For almost two years, a lot of work was done in developing the budget tagging system anchored on the core child rights — Survival, Development, Protection, and Participation. This budget tagging system follows the principles of interrelatedness, interdependence, and indivisibility of children’s rights. Thus, the PPAs or Programs/Projects/Activities, tagged under one classification of a “core right,” (for example, Survival) likewise contribute to the promotion of other children’s core rights, namely Development, Protection, and Participation.

The tool does not burden LGUs with additional reporting requirements. That is why it has capitalized on what LGUs are already familiar with: the Child-Friendly Local Governance Audit (CFLGA). It is a mandatory audit chaired by the Department of the Interior and Local Government in support of the country’s commitments to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The audit covers all the 145 cities and 1,489 municipalities.

The gamut of activities that can be classified into different programs and projects falling under each major child right category consists of finer details. Further, an assignment of weights is devised such that various expenses, whether directly or indirectly benefiting children, are recognized. For instance, 100% weight of the amount is assigned for very child-specific budgets such as a school feeding program; 50% for pre-natal check-ups (50% goes to women); 20% if the targeted beneficiaries are the youth population of which children (those 15 to 17 years old) constitute a subset.

The tagging system also has markers attributed to the PPAs if the objective is clearly gender-sensitive, disability-inclusive, promotes the rights of ethnic groups, promotes the rights of geographically isolated and displaced areas (GIDA), provides humanitarian support, and benefits a particular age group.

The tagging will be done from the very start of the local planning, budgeting, authorization, and disbursement following the local public finance processes. It is a very simple excel-based platform with drop-down menus which when filled out can generate all sorts of reports for the LGUs’ child-focused programming and analysis.

The tool was developed through a series of focused group discussions, consultations with pilot areas for field testing in Cagayan de Oro City, Mapanas in Northern Samar, and South Upi in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region. Validation sessions were conducted with national government agencies and civil society organizations that carry child rights mandates and advocacies. Initial capacity building sessions were likewise done in other LGUs like the cities of Valenzuela, Angeles, and Zamboanga and the provinces of Samar and Zamboanga del Norte. Also held was the training of trainers for the staff of the Council for the Welfare of Children, League of Cities, Department of Budget and Management, and the Department of Finance-Bureau of Local Government Finance.

The budget tagging system for children is the first of its kind in the ASEAN. It is designed to follow the money trail — from planning to budgeting and utilization — to facilitate tracking and analysis of LGU spending levels on children’s programs. It will enable LGUs to report and monitor allocation and expenditure for child-focused PPAs vis-à-vis local targets and national goals. It can serve as a useful reference for planning, policy development, service delivery, and in ensuring transparency and informed participation in budgeting for children.

To enhance transparency and accountability of government spending for children and to improve the use of data for policy-making, let us push for the adoption of the budget tagging system for children by all LGUs.

Jessica Reyes-Cantos is Co-Convenor of Social Watch Philippines and President of Action for Economic Reforms