Posts

Beware of onerous China ODA – IBON

In its eagerness to raise billions of pesos in funds for its hyped infrastructure program, the Duterte administration is brokering questionable deals with China that could threaten Philippine sovereignty, research group IBON warned.

IBON said that agreements between both governments include China’s official development assistance (ODA) loans for Build, Build, Build infrastructure project like the Php12.2 billion New Centennial Water Source-Kaliwa Dam, which will be 85 percent funded by China.

The Duterte administration needs Php8.4 trillion for its whole term to bankroll Build, Build, Build, said the group, and is apparently counting on China to provide a substantial amount of this.

IBON said the size and value of China investments, loans and interest is not yet as extensive as those of other countries like Japan and the US, or financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB).

However, Filipinos should be particularly wary of the onerous conditions China imposes, which could result in the Philippines virtually giving up its sovereignty, said the group.

For instance, China ODA has been known to stipulate the collaterization of resources and state assets should a country default on its loan payments, noted the group.

The Sri Lankan government, for instance, was forced to lease its strategic Hambantota Port for 99 years to a Chinese company when it was unable to pay back its debt to China.

IBON also noted that another lopsided condition terms of reference in China loans that require the agreement as well as the rights and obligations of both parties be put beyond the scope of Philippine laws and transparency in the public domain. China apparently prefers disputes to be settled at the China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission (CIETAC).

These conditions are included in the Chico River Pump Irrigation loan agreement.

Additionally, IBON questioned the provision in the loan agreement stating that it “shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of China.”

The group expressed concern that this could mean that Chinese law will supersede Philippine law in case there is a conflict between the two.

Also of concern is the Duterte administration’s willingness to give up its territorial resources in the South China Sea to secure China investments and loans, the group said.

In line with this is the administration’s efforts to be a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which supposedly gives access to coveted infrastructure investments.

In exchange, the Philippines has been easing the way for China’s interests in the disputed waters.

IBON said that instead of prioritizing the attraction of one-sided foreign investments and loans for its infrastructure program, the government should put national interest and public welfare first over local and foreign big business interests.

To be beneficial to the country, foreign investments and loans that are being considered should be planned in accordance with the genuine development of domestic agriculture and industries, with close monitoring and regulation by the government. #

Protest greets Xi Jinping visit

Various groups held a mass action at the Chinese consulate in Makati City last Tuesday (November 20) to denounce the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping as they expressed outrage against the Rodrigo Duterte government for its subservience to the Chinese government.

The Pilipinong Nagkakaisa Para sa Soberanya o P1NAS called Duterte a traitor to the Pilipino people as it pointed out that his government is virtually surrendering Philippine territory in the West Philippine Sea to China.

Even after losing in an international tribunal that determined the disputed areas are part of the Philippine exclusive economic zone three years ago, China refuses to recognize the decision  proceeded to militarize some islands.

China’s presence in the area includes so-called “ joint development” schemes with the Duterte government seen as a  weakening of the Philippine claims.

In the said rally, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) expressed concern that Duterte’s economic deals with China may push the Philippines under deeper debt.

In his visit to the Philippines, Xi took home 29 agreements, including an understanding on joint oil exploration in the West Philippine Sea and the construction of mega dams, including the Chico River Pump Irrigation, the New Centennial  Water Source Kaliwa Project, and the Agus-Pulangi Mega Dam project.

Indigenous peoples earlier raised fears that the China-ODA projects will cause their displacement from their lands and livelihood.

“Pawning our lands to an imperialist country like China is a serious crime that may lead to ethnocide,” Kalipunan ng Katutubong Mamamayan ng Pilipinas said. # (Joseph Cuevas)

Unsolicited projects for favored business interests to rise under Pres. Duterte?

By Arnold Padilla / IBON Features

When President Duterte said last month that “all projects of the Philippines would be something like a Swiss Challenge”, media attention has focused on the Swiss Challenge and its implications. But what the presidential statement implied was that in order to supposedly fast track his ambitious Build Build Build program, the administration may encourage more unsolicited proposals and negotiated contracts.

And there lies the real and bigger problem. Unsolicited proposals and negotiated contracts are the worst form of public procurement of infrastructure under the public-private partnership (PPP) scheme. These negotiated deals are the most prone to bureaucratic corruption and to patronage for favored business interests.

Close ties

San Miguel Corporation (SMC) president Ramon Ang, for instance, is among the closest to Malacañang. He is publicly known as one of the (unofficial) major campaign contributors of Pres. Duterte and patron of the Chief Executive’s controversial anti-drug campaign. SMC, a Php255-billion diversified conglomerate and known to cultivate close ties with whoever is in power, is currently implementing theunsolicited Php62.7-billion MRT-7 while awaiting government approval of two more unsolicited mega infrastructure projects.

Based on the revised (2012) Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) of the Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) Law, unsolicited proposals are “project proposals submitted by the private sector, not in response to a formal solicitation or request issued by an Agency/LGU (local government unit) and not part of the list of priority projects as identified by Agency/LGU, to undertake Infrastructure or Development projects.”

A third party could challenge the offer of the original proponent of an unsolicited proposal through what is called the “Swiss Challenge”. In order to bag the contract, the original proponent should match the counter-offer of the third party. In practice, however, all unsolicitedprojects concluded in the Philippines since the 1990s were clinched by the original proponent except in the case of the controversial NAIA Terminal 3 where the challenger (Philippine International Terminals Co. Inc. or PIATCO) won but the contract was declared null and void by the Supreme Court (SC) due to irregularities.

At the start of its term, the Duterte administration’s economic managers already announced that the government is open to unsolicitedproposals aside from its so-called hybrid PPP – i.e. mobilizing official development assistance (ODA) to build infrastructure and later bidding out its operation and maintenance (O&M) to the private sector. Ang, however, called hybrid PPP as “complicated” and expressed preference for unsolicited proposals for supposedly faster delivery of projects.

Following the President’s pronouncement of openness to unsolicited projects, the latter flooded the government, with project proposalsreaching a total of as much as Php3 trillion in the first year of the Duterte administration according to a news report last year. But most of these are just concepts or ideas, with actual proposals under evaluation by the Investment Coordination Committee (ICC) reaching only three as of the latest (January 2018) projects status report from the PPP Center.

But these three unsolicited proposals are among the just five PPP projects that the PPP Center said could probably be rolled out this year. Two of these unsolicited proposals have SMC as the original proponent – the Php700-billion New Manila International Airport and the Php338.8-billion Manila Bay Integrated Flood Control, Coastal Defense and Expressway Project. The third one is the Php51.17-billion East-West Rail Project of Megawide Construction Corp.

A separate news report said that SMC has an unsolicited proposal to the state-run Philippine National Construction Corp. (PNCC) to expand the Metro Manila Skyway and the South Luzon Expressway (SLEX) for Php554 billion.

Combined, the indicative cost of SMC’s reported unsolicited proposals (Php1.59 trillion) already account for 53% of the cost of all unsolicitedproposals (Php3 trillion) reportedly being pitched to the Duterte administration. To get a better grasp of how huge these two projects are, note that the total amount of all (16) PPP projects that have been awarded since the Aquino administration is “just” Php323.06 billion.

Beyond transparency and corruption

Even PPP advocates while recognizing that the presence of unsolicited proposals is on the rise warn governments to use them with caution and within a strict regulatory framework. In a review of unsolicited projects worldwide, a study commissioned by the Public-Private Infrastructure Advisory Facility (PPIAF) of the World Bank noted that among the common concerns on unsolicited proposals are: (1) lack of transparency in selection and implementation of projects; (2) avoidance of competition; (3) avoidance of due diligence processes; (4) opportunities for corruption and political patronage; and (5) acceptance of poor quality projects (design and/or execution) that do not even meet minimum requirements of any sort, in the name of expediency. The World Bank reportedly prohibits the use of unsolicited proposalsin projects that they fund.

Beyond transparency and corruption issues, however, the greater impact of unsolicited proposals involve how such procurement method further weakens the mandate and capacity of the state to design and implement a rational infrastructure program that is responsive to the long-term needs of the people and the economy. Unsolicited proposals also represent how corporate interests that are mainly driven by profit motivation take over infrastructure development and operation, often at the expense of the country’s overall development and social agenda.

Ideally, infrastructure projects are determined by and consistent with the development plan of a country, meaning projects are initiated and prioritized (including in terms of resource allocation) by government based on such plan. Government’s role goes beyond identification, resource mobilization and construction, and extends to operation and maintenance of the infrastructure.

This has been the practice in many countries including the Philippines until the advent of neoliberalism in the 1980s and its rapid expansion in the 1990s. Government’s role has been reduced to listing down of infrastructure projects and soliciting private investors to build and operate them through bidding or direct negotiation. This is already problematic by itself as it essentially privatizes the infrastructure and distorts its economic and social purpose as commercial viability becomes the primary consideration.

Tailor-made public infra for private interests

Unsolicited proposals thus further detach infrastructure development from specific public needs and interests. With the private proponent initiating the process of identification and conceptualization, unsolicited projects are often not reflective of priority infrastructure needs. In addition, unsolicited proposals reinforce the undue concentration of infrastructure development in urban centers and more developed regions at the expense of poorer regions or areas that need more infrastructure, but where commercial prospects or interests are less for private sector proponents.

There are cases where big business proposes infrastructure projects that are not just meant to supply public needs (and directly profit from it) but are also tailor-made to bolster its other private commercial interests. One example is the unsolicited proposal jointly submitted by SM and Ayala groups to build a Php25-billion 8.6-kilometer elevated toll road that will supposedly help decongest traffic along EDSA. But the project will actually benefit the two conglomerates’ property development interests as the proposed toll road would also increase access to the SM Mall of Asia complex and Ayala’s Makati business district. SMC is questioning the SM-Ayala proposal because it will allegedly duplicate the existing SMC-operated NAIA Expressway and affect traffic volume (and profits).

But while SMC is questioning the need for the SM-Ayala’s unsolicited toll road, the wisdom of its own unsolicited New Manila International Airport is also questionable. Under its proposal, SMC will build a massive Php700-billion airport spanning thousands of hectares along Manila Bay in Bulakan, Bulacan with six parallel runways and an initial 100-million passenger capacity (thrice of NAIA’s). But it will also just duplicate the recently awarded Clark International Airport Expansion Project (a solicited PPP deal bagged by Megawide) whose further expansion has lower social (as a new infrastructure, the Bulacan airport could potentially displace more communities) and financial costs (e.g. there are three separate unsolicited proposals to develop Clark airport from JG Summit, Megawide, and Manny Pangilinan’s group with costs ranging from Php187 billion to Php337 billion).

For SMC, the agenda is not just to build and operate an airport that would be an alternative to the highly congested and inefficient NAIA. What SMC wants to build is an “aerotropolis” or a metropolis revolving around an airport. Aside from the 1,168-hectare airport, the plan includes a 2,500-hectare city complex which gives the giant conglomerate additional potential profits from property development as well as a toll road that will link with NLEX, on top of running the airport.

No guarantees

According to the BOT Law and its IRR, unsolicited projects are not entitled to direct government guarantee, subsidy or equity. Nonetheless, like solicited PPP projects, they are still eligible for other perks including investment incentives under the Omnibus Investment Code and performance undertaking (i.e., a government guarantee that it will assume responsibility for the performance of an agency’s obligations under the contractual arrangement including the payment of monetary obligations, in case of default) such as what SMC’s unsolicited MRT-7 project enjoys. They even enjoy “security assistance”, or the deployment of police or military forces in the vicinity of the project site to provide security during the implementation of the project up to completion.

The BOT Law requires as well that proposals be innovative and offer a new concept or technology. But it is unclear what is particularly innovative in an airport in Bulacan or an MRT along Commonwealth Avenue to pass as unsolicited projects. Indeed, a 2012 assessment ofunsolicited projects prepared for the PPP Center (with support from the Asian Development Bank or ADB) concluded that “most (unsolicited)proposals did not really offer new technology”.

What is clear is that there are no guarantees that the country’s chronic infrastructure crisis, which is being used to justify more unsolicitedproposals and negotiated deals, would be solved with more unsolicited projects. On the contrary, undue public burden could increase as numerous but disjointed or impractical networks of roads, airports, and other infrastructure are built through self-serving unsolicitedprojects by big business interest.

Will the poor benefit from paying higher taxes?

by Audrey de Jesus/Ibon.org

Ibon graph.

Among the hyped claims of the Department of Finance (DOF) about the government’s tax reform package is how taxes paid by the poor will go back to them in the form of infrastructure projects and social services. The reality however is that the taxes will go largely to big-ticket infrastructure projects in and around the National Capital Region (NCR) that the poor will hardly benefit from.

TRAIN: easy money for the rich

Currently undergoing Senate deliberations, the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) bill is the first of five packages under the Duterte administration’s Comprehensive Tax Reform Program (CTRP). The DOF’s version of the CTRP aims to raise an additional Php157 billion in revenues per year, while the version passed by the House of Representatives (HOR) will raise Php130 billion.

Under TRAIN, there will be higher consumption taxes through the removal of value-added tax exemptions, such as on socialized and low-cost housing and power transmission; new excise taxes on fuel, sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB), and automobiles; and reduced personal income tax rates, estate taxes, and donor’s taxes.

Despite DOF claims that the poor benefit most from their tax reform program, the truth is that the poorest majority of Filipinos bear a heavier tax burden than the rich.

The poorest 60 million Filipinos will pay Php47.0 billion in additional taxes next year, or 2.3% of their combined family income of some Php2.0 trillion. Meanwhile, the highest income 40% will pay Php47.6 billion, or only 0.8% of their total family income of some Php4.1 trillion.

This means the highest income 40% who have twice as much income as the poorest 60% of Filipinos will be paying virtually the same amount in additional taxes. Measured as a share of their total income, the poorest 60% will pay three times as much as the highest income 40% including the richest Filipinos.

TRAIN to nowhere?

Aside from covering up how much the CTRP will burden the poor, the DOF claims that the poor will mainly benefit from these tax revenues, as these will be used for the government’s infrastructure program and social services.

Studying the 2018 Budget of Expenditures and Sources of Financing (BESF) that the Duterte administration submitted to Congress is revealing. The 2018 national government budget submitted to Congress presumptuously assumes that the TRAIN will be passed and implemented next year. Yet the government’s spending pattern is not consistent with the claim that TRAIN will benefit mainly the poor.

It is misleading for the DOF to say that the TRAIN is for funding infrastructure AND social services.  TRAIN is really about funding the infrastructure program, while much-needed social services continue to take a back seat, as seen in the proposed 2018 national budget.

The 2018 BESF shows that there is an exceptional 27.5% increase in infrastructure spending in 2018 to Php1.1 trillion from Php861 billion in 2017. The government reportedly needs an estimated Php8 to 9 trillion over the next five years, or Php1.6 to 1.8 trillion per year, to fund its ambitious “Build! Build! Build!” infrastructure program.  The Duterte administration is clearly counting on additional tax revenues to help fund this.

However, social services spending increases by only 5.4% including just a 5.2% increase in social welfare, a 5.8% increase in education, and a 9.2% increase in health, among others. These increases are unremarkable and follow the same trend as in previous budgets even before TRAIN.

The DOF itself also explains that government infrastructure spending will increase from 4.3% of the gross domestic product (GDP) in 2017 to 6.1% in 2022, i.e. a 1.8 percentage point increase. In contrast, over the same period, health spending will only marginally increase from 0.9% to 1.0%; social protection from 1.9% to 2.0%; and education from 4.4% to 4.9 percent. Cumulatively, spending in health, social protection and education will increase from 7.2% to 7.9%, or just a 0.7 percentage point increase.

There are actually even notable cuts to the social service budget. The housing budget will be markedly cut by 68.9 percent. Under the health budget, Department of Health (DOH) hospitals will see an average 24% cut in their maintenance and operating expenses, and many regional hospitals will see cuts of 30-40 percent. The budget for preventive health programs will be cut by Php16.7 billion or 52%, including those focusing on significant public health concerns like tuberculosis, malaria and HIV.

Infra for the poor?

The DOF claim that the much higher infrastructure spending will go primarily to the poor is also misleading.

Comparing the regional distribution of the government’s flagship infrastructure projects by value and poverty incidence by region, there is a general trend of higher infrastructure spending in regions of low poverty incidence, and of low infrastructure spending in regions of high poverty incidence.

For instance, the NCR has the lowest official poverty incidence of 3.9% but takes up the largest chunk of flagship projects at Php343 billion, while the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) with the highest official poverty incidence of 53.7% accounts for among the least flagship projects at just Php5.4 billion. Central Luzon (CL; Region III) and part of Southern Tagalog (ST; Region IV-A), which also have low poverty incidences of 11.2% and 9.2% respectively, are also among the top recipients of the flagship projects. (See Chart)

It may be argued that infrastructure spending has to consider the nature and degree of economic activity, population density, geographic conditions, and a host of other considerations. But none of these detracts from how infrastructure spending is biased away from poor regions and, indeed, is biased away from the kind of infrastructure projects that the poor directly need and will be directly using.

The flagship projects, which are concentrated in urban areas, especially in NCR, CL and ST, will mainly benefit big foreign and local corporations. Such targeted big-ticket infrastructure like mass transit, roads and bridges, railways, seaports, airports, communication and information, will primarily serve and boost the profit-making enterprises of these corporations that contribute little to develop and strengthen domestic industries.

Tax the rich, not the poor

As much as the DOF claims otherwise, the Duterte administration’s tax reform program is ultimately anti-poor and pro-rich. The poor majority will have to fork over more of their already meager incomes to pay higher consumption taxes. Revenues generated from these taxes will go towards infrastructure projects that hardly benefit them, while funding for much-need social services will be cut or remain stagnant.

Instead of further burdening the poor, the Duterte administration should be challenged to implement a genuinely progressive tax reform program and aggressively collect taxes from the wealthy and big corporations. It can raise hundreds of billions of pesos by increasing direct income taxes on the wealthiest Filipinos and by correctly collecting taxes especially on the biggest corporations.

The revenues generated from a progressive tax system should then fund infrastructure projects spread throughout the country that will support real development of local industry and agriculture. It should also be used for much-need social services and development that will truly benefit the poor. ###

Building destruction? Foreign creditors gain more from Duterte’s infra plan

by Arnold Padilla

#PeoplesSONA2017 / IBON Features — One of the anticipated highlights of President Rodrigo Duterte’s second State of the Nation Address (SONA) is his grand infrastructure plan dubbed “Build! Build! Build!” There are concerns that it would result in a heavy debt burden. The issue is valid. After all, the price tag of what economic managers call as the “boldest infrastructure program” ever is a whopping Php8 to 9 trillion.

Economic managers, however, assure the public that they have everything figured out. The plan is that government appropriations, not debt, will mainly fund the so-called “golden age of infrastructure.” The Finance department’s tax reform package aims to raise Php157 billion in additional revenues a year; the version passed by the House could generate Php130 billion.

At Php8 to 9 trillion, the annual cost of building infrastructure from 2017 to 2022 would be Php1.6 to 1.8 trillion. Clearly, the additional revenues from the tax package will not be enough even as it bleeds the poor dry.

In reality, the infrastructure program would be mostly debt-funded. But again, the public is being told that a debt crisis will not rear its ugly head. In fact, the Budget department expects that by the end of President Duterte’s term, the debt-to-GDP ratio would even fall to 38.1% from 40.6% in 2016.

Such optimism hinges on the economy not only sustaining its expansion but posting even more rapid growth. To outpace debt, the gross domestic product (GDP) must grow by 6.5 to 7.5% this year and 7-8% between 2018 and 2022.

It is tough to be as upbeat as administration officials given the structural weaknesses of the economy and amid a global crisis. For this year, debt watchers and creditors put Philippine GDP growth at 6.4 to 6.8% – below the range being hoped for by the economic managers. That’s the most bullish the projections could get.

Whatever rate the GDP grows by, the budget deficit is sure to increase as government ramps up infrastructure spending. The plan is to let the budget shortfall climb to 3% of GDP as infrastructure spending reaches as high as 7.4% of GDP.

While a bigger deficit means greater borrowing, there is supposedly no need to be anxious as the Budget department claims they will borrow in a fiscally sustainable way. Eighty percent of the deficit would be funded by domestic debt and only 20% foreign. Such borrowing mix lessens foreign exchange risks that could cause public debt to balloon.

Japanese and Chinese loans

But a review of what the Duterte administration has identified as its flagship infrastructure projects tells a different story. To be sure, the flagships – numbering 75 as of June – are just a fraction of the more than 4,000 infrastructure projects that government plans to do. They nonetheless represent the largest ones in terms of cost and are the top priorities for implementation.

Of the 75 flagship projects listed by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), 48 will be funded by foreign debt or official development assistance (ODA). Only 14 will be bankrolled through the national budget or General Appropriations Act (GAA). Just two projects are planned to be implemented via public-private partnership (PPP) while 11 have yet to be identified which mode to use.

As of June, only 53 out of the 75 flagships have estimated costs totaling PhpPhp1.58 trillion. Of the 53, 41 are ODA-funded projects worth Php1.40 trillion. The remaining Php181 billion would be funded through the GAA. In other words, almost 89% of the total cost of projects with already determined amounts will be paid for by foreign debt.

Just nine of the 41 ODA-funded flagship projects have identified donors/creditors, based on NEDA’s June list. These are Japan with three projects worth Php226.89 billion; China, three projects (Php164.55 billion); South Korea, two projects (Php14.06 billion); and World Bank, one project (Php4.79 billion).

The Japanese and Chinese are backing the Duterte administration’s largest mega-projects, an indication of how the two economic behemoths see “development cooperation” as one of the key arenas of their competition in the region. Japan is funding the Php211.46-billion PNR North 2 (Malolos-Clark Airport-Clark Green City Rail); Php9.99-billion Cavite Industrial Area Flood Management Project; and the Php5.44-billion Malitubog-Maridagao Irrigation Project, Phase II.

Meanwhile, China is bankrolling the Php151-billion PNR Long-haul (Calamba-Bicol); Php10.86-billion New Centennial Water Source – Kaliwa Dam Project; and Php2.70-billion Chico River Pump Irrigation Project.

Although not yet identified in the latest NEDA list, Japanese and Chinese loans are also being linked to other big-ticket rail projects. These include the Php134-billion PNR South Commuter Line (Tutuban-Los Baños); the Php230-billion Manila Metro Line 9 (Mega Manila Subway Project – Phase 1); as well as the Mindanao Rail Project, of which the first phase (Tagum-Davao-Digos) costing Php35.26 billion will be funded via the GAA.

Gains beyond interests

Over-reliance on debt is obviously problematic but by itself tapping concessional loans to build much needed infrastructure is not a wrong policy. Sadly, ODA is shaped not by genuine development cooperation but by the narrow agenda of lending governments and the corporate interests they represent. Thus, potential economic and social development gains for a borrowing country are greatly weighed down by bloated costs of ODA-funded infrastructure.

Big infrastructure lenders like Japan and China profit not only from the interests accruing from their loans to build rails and roads. The larger gains they make are from the conditionalities they tie to these loans such as requiring the Philippines to exclusively source from Japanese and Chinese firms the goods and services needed to build the rails and roads.

Lenders dictate the technology, design and construction of the infrastructure to accommodate their own suppliers and infrastructure firms. As such, Japanese and Chinese contractors are also favorably positioned to corner operation and maintenance contracts once the rail systems and other infrastructure are privatized under the Duterte administration’s hybrid PPP scheme.

Lastly, creditors also favor the development of infrastructure in areas where they have business interests. This explains the concentration of Japan-funded infrastructure in Central and Southern Luzon where export zones with Japanese investments are concentrated. China’s interest in building infrastructure in Mindanao is tied to its plantation and mining interests in the region.

All these make the cost of infrastructure development in the Philippines more expensive and the debt burden onerous. Tied loans for infrastructure development create commercial opportunities for Japanese and Chinese companies that are otherwise not available to them. In China’s case, infrastructure lending in poor countries is even used to create employment for their own workforce at the expense of local labor.

At a time of prolonged global recession and slowdown in profit rates of the industrial economies, these opportunities become even more important. Alas, these opportunities only arise by undermining the debtor’s own development needs.—IBON Features