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Activists Fear Philippines Budget Crunch Could Harm Efforts to Help Children

The Philippines over the past several years has made steady gains in child health care and access to education. But a looming fiscal crisis raises fears that social programs helping children may see budget cuts.

The Philippines, one of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia, is burdened by a budget deficit of nearly $4 billion, and a foreign debt of $61 billion.

In August, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, warned the nation was "in the midst of a fiscal crisis." She pressed the Congress to carry out financial reforms and called on Filipinos to tighten their belts.

Government budget cuts are expected to hit social welfare programs hardest. So far, officials say programs affecting children will be spared, but international and provincial organizations fear their funds will shrink.

In a country where 35 percent of the population is under the age of 15, that could be a problem.

The village of Bayotbot, 200 kilometers southwest of the capital Manila, receives just $5,300 a year in government funds for child health care and education.

Village chairwoman Bituin Manguera sees the fiscal crisis as a threat to years of hard work to improve health services and education. Villages, or baranggay, that lack support from international aid agencies are particularly vulnerable.

"That's very alarming on the side of the baranggay that do not have [international] partners. That's the reality," she said. "I see other baranggay in our community will make a big problem."

In the 1990's, the Philippines cut its infant mortality rates by more than a third, to less than 30 deaths out of every 1,000 births.

Mrs. Manguera's own village is an example of that success. Ten years ago, three infants in the village died each year from preventable diseases. But with international aid, no babies have died from such diseases in recent years.

Foreign aid also helped the village school grow from one class a decade ago to six classes with 162 students.

Programs to help children are especially important in the Philippines, which has a population growth rate of 2.6 percent - almost double the global average. Each year, 1.8 million children are born in the country.

The Asian Development Bank estimates that 34 percent of the population lives in poverty and says the gap between rich and poor is growing.

The country director for the child aid organization Plan International, Mr. Supriyanto, says the national fiscal crisis will only aggravate poverty levels.

"The effect is that children do not have the access to better health, also to better education…. A lack of teachers, also, or sometimes there is no teacher at all," he explained.

For Mrs. Manguera in Bayotbot, despite the government's money woes, the village and the nation must continue to improve conditions for children.

"We must prepare quality children and promising children for tomorrow, to be the next generation to run the baranggay," she said.

But, she says, since many government welfare programs already are under-funded, she has little hope that officials in Manila share her concern.