Public access vital to fight graft
The cabinet recently green-lighted measures on the school lunch programme for when classes resume in July.
Meanwhile, education entities are rendering support to vulnerable parents and students to ensure children are being properly nourished.
Per-head subsidies, however, are not all glitz and glamour but have long been mired in malfeasance.
To plug the leaky bucket, one agency is capitialising on big data and information sharing to involve the public in making sure beneficiaries are fully benefiting from government assistance.
Covid-19 has halted legions of economic and social activities but it may have just opened the door to corruption.
Last month, a Facebook page called Patibatkan Ma Fao Ban, or Watchdog Operations, uncovered numerous shenanigans in procurements associated with anti-virus measures.
In one post, the Provincial Administrative Organisation (PAO) in Ratchaburi province acquired about 726,000 face masks for 13.8 million baht.
The quoted price per piece was 19 baht but the market rate was found to be 13, significantly cheaper. This adds up to a 4.4 million baht discrepancy.
In another post, the PAO in Kanchanaburi province purchased 10,000 litres of disinfectant at 1,790 baht per litre, totalling 17.9 million baht. Market figures ranged between 600 and 750 baht per unit.
In other words, the actual budget was inflated by as much as 11.9 million baht, or three times of what was billed.
Although irregularities related to coronavirus have yet to bleed over into schools, the Thai education system is no stranger to impropriety. One avenue that is often exploited is the school lunch programme.
In one of countless such stomach-churning incidents, a school director in Buri Ram Province was alleged to have siphoned meal subsidies in December last year.
The school enrolled 186 students and received 3,720 baht in funding, or 20 baht per child, a day.
Nevertheless, the director paid only 2,000 baht for lunches, misappropriating the remaining 46%.
At just 10.8 baht per pupil, many students admitted they were not properly fed and, on certain days, some only had soup with barely any meat, while there was simply not enough rice to go around.
During this trying time, experts are singing the same tune that one and a half months of school delays have added strain on destitute families who are struggling to make ends meet as incomes and savings dwindle.
In trying to alleviate their plight, the Office of the Basic Education Commission and Equitable Education Fund (EEF) is hovering 600-baht subsidies for 755,497 kindergarten to Grade 9 students under the latter's conditional cash transfer (CCT) programme.
CCT students are from families whose earnings are below 3,000 baht per person per month and who meet the fund's proxy-means test which is based on eight household characteristics.
Upon receiving the transfers, schools can opt to hand the allowance to the target group in kind or in cash given their unique circumstances.
For in-kind assistance, the EEF has promulgated a sample relief bag comprising five items.
This includes 20 kilogrammes of uncooked rice, a pack of 36 eggs, 10 cans of fish, a bottle of palm oil and a bar of soap.
Schools may keep up to 30 baht or 5% of the grant for logistical expenses. For in-cash support, parents will receive 600 baht in full.
The fund has procedures for monitoring and tracking disbursements. At the same time, the EEF deputy managing director Kraiyos Patrawart said information transparency and public audits can help ensure entitlements reach the recipients as envisaged.
This is where the organisation's Information System for Equitable Education (iSEE) comes into play.
The application synchronises data from six ministries, schools and parents.
Users can "see" marginalised students on a map and access detailed intelligence about the kids, including photos of housing conditions and statistics on enrollment, academic attainment, physical development and status of subsidy distribution under CCT.
Mr Kraiyos said with up-to-date info at the public's fingertips, they can engage in advancing accountability by dropping by and helping to monitor schools in their neighbourhoods.
As they can conveniently locate the students, the public can also play their part in providing for the needy the same way they are supporting Covid-19 victims via tu pan suk, or "happiness-sharing pantries", that have mushroomed across the country.
Studies indicate information equality is a pathway to equitable education.
Ritva Reinikka and Jakob Svensson, researchers at the World Bank, analysed an unorthodox policy experiment in Uganda.
The government found average schools received only 20% of per-head grants for non-wage expenses while many received nothing as local authorities gobbled up the entire pie.
To address this enigma, the Ugandan government launched a newspaper campaign in which monthly ads were brought under the public spotlight.
Instead of a top-down approach where enforcement of anti-graft measures was left to such state bodies as the judiciary and police, which were mostly weak and corrupt, the scheme took a bottom-up route by involving communities to achieve checks and balances.
They discovered schools more exposed to the initiative experienced a steeper reduction in embezzlement, hence higher efficacy in spending on teaching materials, meals and uniforms, among others, and a greater increase in enrollment.
This suggests "public access to information can be a powerful deterrent to the capture of funds at the local level".
Once classes resume next month, local administrative offices will provide lunches as usual. In case students study remotely or at home on alternate days, schools will pass the budget on to parents so they can prepare meals for their kids.
Food will also be available in school at weekends if students are there for supplementary lessons.
Covid-19 is already forcing many families to fight tooth and nail for their lives.
We must not allow corruption to make matters worse.
Bundit Kertbundit was a reporter at the Thai Public Broadcasting Service.
Senior Consultant at EY
Bundit Kertbundit is a contributing columnist and writes about public policies.