Human Development ministers from Grenada and Dominica joined their Belizean counterpart today to learn about Belize's Boost programme. BOOST, as you might now, is a conditional cash transfer programme; the acronym BOOST stands for Building Opportunities of our Social Transformation. It was activated in 2011 in Belize, built on similar programs in Brazil and Mexico. And now, it has been recognized as a model programme, praised by the World Bank for its effectiveness and transparency. So representatives from eight Caribbean countries are in Belize to learn all about it. Social sector policy level workers from Bahamas Barbados Antigua and Barbuda, St. Kitts and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, St Lucia, Grenada and Dominica are at the Radisson for a sort of study session on Boost. CEO Judith Alpuche explained their interest.

Judith Alpuche, CEO Human Development
"A number of countries expressed an interest in taking a closer at BOOST. I think because we are close on size especially to the Eastern Caribbean states."

Laura Blanco, Project Officer - OAS
"The OAS hopes to contribute to the enhancement of the knowledge base on participating countries in the development and management of social protection programming."

And while the OAS is funding the visit - the BOOST programme is all funded by the Government of Belize. It costs about five million dollars annually to provide BOOST to 13 thousand persons across the country. In a country with 41% poverty, that's really just a drop in the bucket, but Judith Alpuche explained how it targets the most needy - hopefully without political interference:

Judith Alpuche, CEO Human Development
"What we have done with BOOST is really trying to put on the ground a program that is technically sound and objective in its targeting, so that we can really focus on those who really need it and the ones that get it. Once families are screen as I said and you reach that criteria and then we start with the process of paying you - the payments are link to where your child is in school etc., if it's a girl or if it's a boy because we do have differentiative payments by sex and by level of school."

Jules Vasquez
"This is because boys have a higher dropout rate?"

Judith Alpuche, CEO Human Development
"We are trying to incentivize boys. Our statistics show that boys fall out of school at a faster rate than girls and they don't transition as well to high school, so we are trying to incentivize boys by giving them a little bit more than girls. If you child misses school, unexcused absence and 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. It also triggers a social work response because the point is not to penalize people, but to really have carrot. So we operate from the model that of the child is not going to school two months, there is something going on and that family may need support, so it triggers a social work response."

Ivan Yerovi, UNICEF Country Representative
"The impact of social protection in children's development last long beyond childhood. It increases adult productivity and contributes to break in the intergenerational cycle of poverty."

Hon. Anthony "Boots" Martinez
"I know that BOOST and the other social safety net programs that this government has put in place have made a big difference in the lives of many of my constituents and for many families across the country."

Judith Alpuche
"It's a paradigm shift in thinking for Belize because we believe and what we have done really is looking at area reps as a legitimate source of referral along with school principals, along with everybody and you send someone and 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 programs that more meets their needs."

"These programs represent quite an investment in public funds and so we have to ensure that they are well targeted and well run because that's the only way they work, if the people who really need it are the ones that are on it."

"We have set the benefit at a level where it provide support but it doesn't provide what the literature calls "perverse incentive" in that you don't want to work."

The study tour - as it is called is a three day event.

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Horizontal Cooperation Exchange on Social Protection focuses on BOOST program

And over at the Radisson, representatives from eight Caribbean countries including the Bahamas, Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Lucia, Grenada and Dominica are gathered in Belize this week. The high level delegations are here as part of a Horizontal Cooperation Exchange on Social Protection. The focus is Belize’s very own BOOST program, which has drawn the attention of the region. Mike Rudon was reports on the opening of the two-day session.

Mike Rudon, Reporting

The information exchange seminar is focused on social protection, specifically Belize’s own conditional cash transfer program, BOOST. With poverty a growing concern in the region, there is increased interest in initiatives which deal with poverty in a meaningful way.

Laura Blanco, Social Protection Project Officer, O.A.S.

Laura Blanco

“Given that poverty rates in participating countries range from eighteen percent to thirty-seven percent, it is of the utmost importance for the O.A.S. in collaboration with key partners such as the OECS, UNICEF and UN Women to provide opportunities for the exchange of knowledge and experiences on social protection and in strengthening the institutional capacities in poverty reaction of the ministries of social development. By lending our support to this cooperation exchange, the O.A.S. hopes to contribute to the enhancement of the knowledge-base of participating countries in the development and management of social protection programming.”

Ivan Yerovi, Representative, UNICEF Belize

“Social protection plays a vital role in the strengthening the resilience of children and families. Effective social protection helps us achieve greater equity and supports national human and economic development. Well-designed social protection systems give children the opportunity to get to school, learn and develop. Social protection is an effect tool to fight any stigma, discrimination and social exclusion. It empowers the helpless and gives boost to the most marginalized.”

Ivan Yerovi

The BOOST program is being highlighted as an example to follow in the region.

Judith Alpuche, C.E.O., Ministry of Human Development

“We really started rolling out this program in early 2011. We have I think 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 or are a little younger than we are. And 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.”

The program benefits thirteen thousand Belizeans across the nation, and costs government five million dollars annually. It is exactly what the name implies – a conditional transfer. Belizeans who meet certain criteria and conditions receive a monthly payment from government. Children of impoverished families going to, and staying in, school is one of the conditions.

Judith Alpuche

Judith Alpuche

“We check, we actually check on this…the education conditionality determine payments. Right now the health conditionality is what we call soft. So we encourage and we check but it is not tied to payment. But the education conditionality is. So if we check along with the Ministry of Education every month; if your child misses school unexcused absence and the child is not going to school eighty-five percent 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. So we operate from the model that if the child is not going to school two months, there is something going on and that family may need support. So it triggers a social response.”

Alpuche says that the program is designed to be objective and meaningful, which translated means that as much as possible, politics has been taken out of the equation.

Judith Alpuche

“What we have done with BOOST is really trying to put on the ground a program that is objective in its target—that is technically sound and objective in its targeting so that we can really focus on ensuring that those who really need it are the ones that get it. We know that it is a transition; it is a paradigm shift in thinking for Belize beucase we believe oh if minister say…what we are trying to do or what we have done really is looking at area reps as a legitimate source of referral along with school principals, along with everybody. And you send someone and 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.”

So is the Haman Development Department seeing the hoped for social transformation?

Judith Alpuche

“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 six children—if they are in school—they 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…has a direct impact on their family’s income because it is tied to attendance. So those are kind 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, 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—not only deal with what Minister Hulse said—but also to take people to the other level.”

According to Alpuche, the program provides support only, and is not designed to foster dependency. Mike Rudon for News Five.

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