It’s 12.30 pm and people are arriving. We are in a Wichí indigenous community in Rivadavia, in the northern province of Salta, Argentina. About 35 women quietly stand in line while their children play. They are waiting for their turn to talk with Analía, an employee from the National Social Security Agency (ANSES). She is part of an active search operation with a clear goal: to find every child or adolescent without social protection, and to include them in the Universal Child Allowance (AUH), a conditional cash transfer program for the children of unemployed or informal workers.
A few meters away, people are gathering under a tree for the assembly that will soon take place. Local leaders will discuss community issues with representatives of national and provincial government agencies, to try and find joint solutions.
Argentina is known for its large swathes of land, and Salta is no different. Actions like these are aimed to bring the state closer to the people who live in scattered communities, many of them with large indigenous populations, in the province’s rural areas. For a few hours, people who live kilometers apart come together with government officials to receive direct access to state services. To achieve this, with UNICEF’s support, Salta’s Ministry of Early Childhood, the Indigenous Provincial Institute, the National Institute of Agricultural Technology, and national and provincial Ministries (Health, Education, Indigenous Affairs and Labor) work jointly
The first step is a census to gather information about children and their families. This data is organized into consistent databases to help focus public policy responses, fine-tune current social protection coverage, and to gauge the location of children that need to be reached.
After identifying priority communities, the working group plans a visit to the area to work on issues related to their fields of action. UNICEF provides technical support to the Ministry of Early Childhood to implement and improve the platform, and strengthen intergovernmental coordination for the search operation. This way, UNICEF boosts the link between a sophisticated data gathering system and the targeted evidence-based policies addressing the needs of children and their families.
In this instance, Rivadavia Banda Sur, one of the poorest municipalities in Argentina, is the chosen area. A team of 15 workers travelled 325 kms from Salta’s capital, through dusty roads and mountainous areas, to Santa Rosa, La Unión and Rivadavia – where the search begins.
Carolina arrived early, at about 9 am. At 30, she is the mother of four boys: Francisco (8), Jonatan (6), Rodrigo (4), and Valentino (9 months). They used to live on a farm but had to leave after it flooded, and recently settled in Rivadavia. A single mother without the support of her family, Carolina is not able to work as she is the only caretaker. “The children are restless,” she says, and explains that her day starts at 6 am when Valentino wakes up, and goes on until the last one goes to sleep, at about 10 pm.
As many women in this village, Carolina depends on the AUH to provide for her four children. The program requires that the children get vaccinated and attend school, and all except Valentino do. She uses the money to buy clothes and food, and this month, after moving off the farm, she had to buy a mattress and a bed. As she hadn’t been paid Valentino’s allowance, she approached the ANSES for assistance on the steps, processes and documents needed to enroll their children.
“I had presented all the paperwork but I haven’t been paid. Apparently, there was a paper missing so I had to file a form” says Carolina. They live in the outskirts of Rivadavia and had to walk over half an hour. That’s still closer than the 230 kms she traveled to a neighboring town to get the paperwork done.
“For a provincial government, this is a hard area to approach due to a widespread population, long distances, lack of infrastructure and poor living conditions,” explains Diego Cipri, of the Ministry of Early Childhood. That is why “it’s a priority area, because we think the most vulnerable people need our intervention the most,” he adds.
As the assembly comes to an end after a long debate, the last women are finishing their children’s paperwork to get the allowance. “Next time we are here, we can check if the paperwork went through,” Analía tells one of the last in line. This was the first visit to Rivadavia in 2018. Three more are scheduled.
The active search operation aims to provide public policy responses people right where they live. It assists them in the processes needed to benefit from the social protection system. This includes problem-solving on the ground, birth registration and identification, compiling documents, certification of conditions, etc. to assure their enrollment to the AUH.
The AUH was designed as the non-contributory component of a broader family allowance system implemented by the ANSES. It aims to equalize the rights of children whose parents work in the informal sector or are unemployed. Currently, it benefits nearly four million children and adolescents (30.3 per cent of the total) whose parents receive a monthly payment of US$69 (more if the child has a disability). In June 2016, the Argentine government announced that it would identify and include of another 1.6 million children (12.6 per cent of all children and adolescents) who, in spite of being eligible, are currently excluded due to bureaucratic details.
Search operation in 2017 saw over 4,060 children in Salta included in the Universal Child Allowance, which helps remove children from extreme poverty. UNICEF is working to scale up this project.
The intergovernmental working group will return to Rivadavia Banda Sur, as well as other rural areas of Salta and the rest of the country, to make sure no child is left behind.
Belén Arce Terceros is a Communications Consultant at UNICEF Argentina.