Special Feature: Update on Zero Dropout Program in SOCCSKSARGEN

Because of his deep concern to improve basic public education in the Philippines, SGV Founder Wash SyCip worked with the Center for Agriculture and Rural Development – Mutually Reinforcing Institutions (CARD MRI) to initiate a program aimed at reducing the dropout rate among public elementary schools to 0%, the Zero Dropout Education Scheme (ZeDrES). To help implement the program, the Kazarian-SyCip Fund was established to serve as an educational loan fund for its beneficiaries. CARD MRI members, who are mostly from poverty-stricken communities, can borrow up to 5,000 pesos for their children’s school supplies, projects and activities. These loans are payable weekly over 3 to 12 months.

For the past three years, SGV has been engaged to audit ZeDrES, a mission the engagement team has dubbed “Operation Zero”. Apart from the program validation exercises, Operation Zero has its own theme each year that is basically grounded on the aim to alleviate poverty. On its first year, Operation Zero geared towards describing the segment that composed the “poorest of the poor.” The succeeding year focused on the efforts of local government units (LGUs), along with other government offices, to give financially disadvantaged children access to education. In 2014, the ZeDrES team shifted its attention to fostering employment and entrepreneurship through identification of possible ventures in the areas’ agri-value chain.

One of the areas visited by Operation Zero was the SOCCSKSARGEN Corridor (Sarangani, General Santos City, and South Cotabato). We asked Shiela Marie Antonio and Lyca Regina Antonio from the FSRM group about their experiences with the program.

What was the SGV CARD engagement team’s role in the Zero Dropout Program?

We interviewed students, school and division heads, cooperatives, and local officials to gain knowledge and evaluate the current educational and economic situation in the area. We interacted with the program beneficiaries and got a glimpse of how they are doing in school. Also, while attending center meetings, we observed that the primary livelihood of most people in the community, as well as those who are clients of CARD, is farming. Corn and cassava are the major crops in Sarangani, General Santos and South Cotabato.

Taking part in Operation Zero is a like shooting two birds with one stone. While we try to assess how the program helps to alleviate poverty through education, we were also given the opportunity to identify points of improvement in the communities we visited in order to promote employment generation and SME capacity building.

What were the general issues that needed to be addressed?

Based on our on-ground observation, one of the issues is still access to education. According to the school heads, some students still cannot make it to school because of the long distance they need to travel. Their parents would rather make their kids stay and do household chores than go to school, which entails allowance and transportation costs.

Culture is also an issue. In addition to costs, according to the Department of Education (DepEd) officers we interviewed, some parents prefer that their children stay and work because they themselves, being from remote areas, were not exposed to schools. The children’s dreams are also primarily influenced by their environment. One of the children we interviewed said that she is studying because her mom told her it’s the only way to get a decent job, but when she grows up, she wants to go abroad and be a yaya. This left us shaken, but we understand that this is what she is seeing in her community. We just hope (and we will try to act further) that she will realize that through education, there are many other things she can be, beyond what has been set by her community.

In terms of the areas’ economy, Governor Daisy Fuentes and Mr. Abner Navarro, the Provincial Planning and Development Coordinator of South Cotabato, asserted that they were able to attract investments in their area by giving incentives to investors. The only problem is the overall perception in South Cotabato or Mindanao about peace and order. The local officials, in coordination with the Department of Agriculture, are developing ways to maximize the potential of cassava, which is a growing industry in SOCCSKSARGEN. However, it is also observed as a threat to the corn industry due to its higher income potential. The development of a crop should not serve as a threat to another crop since both commodities contribute to the area’s economy.

What are the on-ground observations on how the Zero Dropout Program can improve?

Currently, the program has already reached all municipalities in the country, and has now been expanded to cover out-of-school youth. The loanable amount has also been increased to 5,000 pesos from the maximum loanable amount of 1,500 pesos. But since the program is offered only to primary school students, we recommend extending the financial help to high school students, which have a higher dropout rate according to DepEd.

Also, we think it would help CARD in their endeavors if the program were to partner with the DepEd and other educational institutions. Moving forward, partnership with Department of Trade and Industry and other livelihood organizations can also help promote sources of income for underprivileged families.

What made this engagement different from other engagements you were involved in?

This engagement is partly a form of immersion. We went where the beneficiaries lived, and we were able to listen to their everyday struggles. We see this on the news, learned this when studying economics and had our own experiences back in college, but this engagement gave us a wider sense of involvement and a firsthand view of the real situation facing our less fortunate countrymen. It exposed us to the truth that there is still much that needs to be done and that we can always do something to help. We were there for just few days but the experience undeniably changed the way we viewed ourselves and the world.

How has SGV made a difference in the community and in you as an individual?

SGV actively participates in ensuring that the objective of the Zero Dropout Program is met by doing financial statement audit, program validation and improvement identification exercises. While the fieldwork requires us to gather, consolidate and present information, as well as provide insights for the program, the information we gathered and insights provided can serve as important input for the national development agenda, particularly on policy development both for education and economy.

And personally, the involvement of SGV in this particular endeavor made us more socially responsible individuals and instilled in us a desire to help the needy.

How can others contribute to the Zero Dropout Program?

People who want to help can make direct cash donations to CARD MRI. Also, they can take part in disseminating the information about ZeDrES to inspire others to take action.