This week, senior government officials – including Ministers – from 8 eastern Caribbean states are meeting at the Radisson Fort George Hotel as part of a 3-day Horizontal Cooperation Exchange which is being focused on a social protection scheme known as the BOOST program which was initiated by the Government of Belize (GOB) in early 2011.
Amandala understands that the main objective is to facilitate social policy dialogue between Caribbean countries, and to enable the officials from the visiting countries to study and understand Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) programs – primarily the BOOST program, which is aimed at providing financial support to our country’s most impoverished constituents, particularly in Belize City’s southside and in the rural areas and southern districts.
Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Human Development, Social Transformation and Poverty Alleviation, Judith Alpuche, said, “We really started rolling out this program in early 2011. I think we have a solid framework on the ground and we have quite a bit to share in terms of what we’ve learnt and our experiences, and many of these countries are just starting that process, so over the next two and half days, we are really opening up the space to all look at BOOST and use it as an example to talk about how we can put effective programs on the ground.”
It costs GOB about five million dollars annually to provide BOOST to about 13,000 Belizeans across the country, and Alpuche says that the program is designed to be objective, meaningful and without political interference, and that there are systematic reviews to ensure that those who are on the program qualify to remain on it, but even so, approximately 41% of our population is considered poor.
Notwithstanding that fact, CEO Alpuche specified that the program provides support only, and is not designed to foster dependency.
“What we have done with BOOST is to put on the ground a program that is objective in its target and that is technically sound in its targeting so that we can really focus on ensuring that those who really need it [assistance] are the ones that get it. We know that it is a transition; it is a paradigm shift in thinking for Belize because we believe, ‘oh if Minister say…’ What we have done really is to look at area reps as a legitimate source of referral along with school principals [and] others in the community. When you send someone, they go through the process of screening and if they meet the criteria, then they are put on the program. If not, we look to see if there is some other program that more meets their needs”, she stated.
Belizeans who meet certain criteria and conditions receive a monthly payment from GOB, and according to Alpuche, the program has been thriving and they have been seeing results, especially with children of impoverished families going to and staying in school.
She mentioned, “We check along with the Ministry of Education every month – if your child misses school due to unexcused absence or the child is not going to school 85% of the time, we cut your benefit by half and the second month, it gets cut completely. But it also triggers a social work response because the point is not to penalize people, but to really have a carrot.”
“Schools are reporting that the parents are interfacing more, we are seeing better attendance; we are also seeing some registration from certain children because families now know that up to 6 children—if they are in school—can get a benefit if the family qualifies. So we are seeing kids going back to school. We are getting wonderful stories from teenage boys who feel proud and empowered that they are actually going to school which has a direct impact on their family’s income because it is tied to attendance. So those are kinds of things that are coming out. We hear from the credit unions that families are using that steady flow to leverage little loans to buy books and to buy little things to try to get into some little micro-business and stuff, so that’s exactly what we are trying to accomplish here”, stated Alpuche.
The social sector policy level workers from the Bahamas, Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Lucia, Grenada and Dominica are thus conducting a study session on BOOST, which stands for Building Opportunities for our Social Transformation, in an attempt to replicate some of its successes.