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Govt stinginess worsens Filipinos’ suffering and PH economic collapse

by IBON Media & Communications

The -11.5% growth, or contraction, in gross domestic product (GDP) in the third quarter, confirms that the Philippines is on its way to becoming the worst performing economy in Southeast Asia in 2020. The economy is saddled by the Duterte administration’s refusal to spend on aid for Filipino families and support for small businesses so needed amid the pandemic.

A fiscal response commensurate to the crisis at hand is critical but the economic managers are tying the government’s hands. The government package’s demand-side effort is grossly insufficient and even undermines its supply-side measures.

The Php3 trillion in government spending in the first three quarters of 2020 is only a 15.1% increase from the same period the year before. While this is larger than the 5.5% year-on-year increase in the same period in 2019, it is still much less than the corresponding 23.6% increase in 2018.

It remains to be seen how much more spending the administration can manage in the fourth quarter of 2020. The Bayanihan 2 law is supposedly the government’s main response to COVID in the remaining months of the year.

However, as of the president’s last report to Congress at the start of November, it appears that at most just Php28.4 billion has been spent so far. With only a little over a month left in the law’s effectivity, this is just 20.3% of Bayanihan 2’s Php140 billion in appropriations and just 17.1% of its Php165.5 billion including its standby fund. The report mentioned Php76.2 billion in allotments and releases which appears relatively large.

However, the same report did not mention any actual disbursements in major items especially for aid or support to small businesses or agriculture. These items with allotments released but not reported spent include: Php6 billion for the social amelioration program (SAP); Php13.1 billion for the COVID-19 Adjustment Measures Program (CAMP), Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged/Displaced Workers (TUPAD) and Abot-Kamay ang Pagtulong (AKAP) programs; Php9.5 billion for public utility vehicle (PUV) programs; and Php12.1 billion for the agriculture stimulus package. While there is supposedly Php8.1 billion for small businesses, only Php893 million worth of loans were reported.

There is also little real stimulus in the proposed 2021 budget. The proposed Php4.51 trillion budget is a 9.9% increase from the 2020 budget. This is however smaller than the 13.6% increase in the programmed 2020 budget from the year before, and even smaller than the historical annual average 11.1% increase in the national budget over the 35 years of the post-Marcos era. The Development Budget Coordination Committee (DBCC) actually projects an even smaller 5.3% increase in 2022 which will be less than half the historical average.

The DBCC initially projected the economy to have -5.5% growth in 2020. To achieve this, GDP will have to grow an impossible 6.6% in the last quarter of the year which is all the more impossible with the administration refusing to give meaningful aid to millions of distressed families and small businesses including in the country’s vast informal sector.

Additional direct cash assistance to households is already pitifully small under Bayanihan 2 and virtually non-existent in the proposed 2021 budget. The record joblessness and collapse in family incomes because of the government’s poor COVID response compels much larger support to alleviate wide and deep suffering.

The economic managers also keep insisting that the CREATE law’s corporate income tax cuts will most of all benefit micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). This is untrue. Large taxpayers account for an overwhelming 72% of all corporate collections as of 2019 which means that large firms will be the biggest beneficiaries of CREATE. Moreover, many MSMEs are also unregistered and in the informal sector so will not really benefit from any tax cuts under CREATE.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects the economy to contract with -8.3% GDP growth in 2020. This is the worst GDP performance in the region with other countries either contracting less or even registering positive growth: Thailand (-7.1%), Malaysia (-6%), Cambodia (-2.8%), Indonesia (-1.5%), Singapore (-6%), Brunei (0.1%), Lao PDR (0.2%), Vietnam (1.6%), and Myanmar (2%).

Even the IMF’s projected 7.4% GDP growth rebound in 2021 will still not be enough to bring the economy back to its level last year in 2019. As it is, the 2020 Philippine economy is going to be as small as it was three years ago in 2017, and with GDP per capita approaching as low as it was in 2016.

The Philippines’ COVID response is the smallest among those announced by the region’s major economies, according to the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) COVID policy tracker. This earlier reported the Philippines’ response as equivalent to just 5.8% of 2019 GDP which is smaller than in Singapore (26.2%), Malaysia (22.7%), Thailand (16%), Indonesia (10.9%), and Vietnam (10.1%).

Months into the worst economic collapse in the country’s history, the Duterte administration’s obsession with creditworthiness and the myth of a fundamentally strong Philippine economy is preventing it from taking the measures needed for real and rapid recovery. Its insensitivity is placing the burden of rebound and protracted recovery on millions of poor families and distressed small businesses. #

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Kodao publishes IBON articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Swept away – Philippine agriculture bears wrath from government neglect

by IBON Media & Communications

Government’s long-time neglect of the country’s agriculture sector has been disastrous to small producers. The recent series of super-typhoons – Quinta, Rolly and Ulysses – has highlighted this.

The country’s geophysical characteristics as well as geographic location make it exposed to natural hazards. What makes it extremely vulnerable to risks is government’s lack of relevant policies to strengthen the agriculture sector and the larger economy, including policies and practice of disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM).

Fresh damage

According to a combined bulletin by the Department of Agriculture-Disaster Risk Reduction Management Operations Center (DADRMMOpCen), Quinta left damages to agriculture amounting to Php2.7 billion, with a volume production loss of 149,475 metric tons (MT) in Regions I, II, III, CALABARZON, MIMAROPA, V, VI, and VIII. This affected 57,858 farmers and fisherfolk with 96,474 hectares of agricultural areas.

Still reeling from this devastation, the regions again felt Rolly’s wrath and sustained Php5.79 billion in damages and losses affecting 48,682 farmers and fisherfolk in 127,298 hectares of agricultural areas. The volume of production loss was at 177,091 MT. The National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC) further reported that Rolly damaged 170,773 houses and infrastructure worth some Php12.9 billion.

Then, Ulysses happened, leaving 73 dead, 24 injured, and 19 missing in Regions II, CALABARZON, V, and CAR. Damages to agriculture are estimated to be worth Php4.2 billion, to infrastructure some Php6.1 billion, with a total of 67,391 houses partially or totally destroyed. Affected were 102,500 farmers and fisherfolk in 99,660 hectares of agricultural areas. Production loss in commodities including rice, corn, high value crops, fisheries, livestock and poultry, irrigation facilities, and agricultural infrastructures was estimated by the DA to be at 167,385 metric tons (MT).

Some 62,220 hectares planted to rice alone sustained damages and losses amounting to Php1.98 billion with volume of production lost at 124,437 MT. Some 14,132 hectares planted to high variety crops (HVC) areas sustained Php907.7 million worth of damages with volume of production lost at 35,487 MT. As for areas planted to corn, up to 23,308 hectares were affected, with volume of production lost at 7,461 MT amounting to Php371 million. In the fisheries, some Php712 million was lost in terms of affected fin fish, milkfish, hito, tilapia, carp, crabs, and prawns. Livestock and poultry sustained Php51.69 million in damages affecting 72,146 heads. Some Php11.9 million were damaged or lost in terms of irrigation and agriculture facilities.

Quinta and Rolly damages and losses totaled to Php8.46 billion affecting 106,540 farmers and fisherfolk in 223,772 hectares. Volume of production lost reached 326,566 MT. Combined estimates of damages and losses in the Philippine agriculture sector due to typhoons Quinta, Rolly and Ulysses are estimated to have reached some Php12.4 billion to date.

The devastation in agriculture was also grave particularly for Catanduanes province, a top producer of abaca in the country, which is second biggest world producer of the cash crop. According to the Philippine Fiber Development Authority (PhilFIDA), the province accounted for 30% of the country’s annual abaca output. But then Rolly battered Bicol and other abaca-growing regions – CALABARZON, MIMAROPA, and Eastern Visayas, resulting in Php1.2 billion worth of farm damages. The 30% decline in abaca output due to the typhoon as per the estimate of PhilFIDA would land at only 50,000 metric tons (MT) of produce, the crop’s lowest in 20 years. Using PhilFIDA estimates of Php1,000 income for every 10 kilos harvested, this decline is equivalent to a Php2.1 billion loss in farmers’ incomes.

What preparedness?

Government’s DRRM plan, actual implementation, recovery strategy, and even budget allocation of calamity funds are all telling – there is little acknowledgment of the Philippines being a calamity-prone country. It is no basis to say that the country is indeed disaster-prepared.

The Philippines ranks 9th among countries with the highest disaster risk index according to the World Risk Report of 2019. An average of 20 tropical cyclones enter the Philippine area of responsibility annually. Yet the budget allocation for disaster risk reduction in 2020 of Php16 billion declined from the already meager Php20 billion or 0.5% share in the 2019 national budget. The NDRRMC is again set to get Php20 billion in lump sum calamity funds in the 2021 national budget. But it remains a mere 0.4% of the total budget.

Components of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Plan (NDRRMP) 2011-2028 are: disaster prevention and mitigation, disaster preparedness, disaster response, and disaster recovery and rehabilitation. This should mean building massive evacuation and shelter infrastructure, for instance. This should also mean making available competent education, health, and housing, and providing sufficient energy, water, communication and transport mechanisms that can withstand any weather hazard. For a largely agricultural country, it should also mean the availability of crop insurance, food stocks, production support at all times, whether or not during recovery, and other measures that ensure farmers, fisherfolk, and farmworkers’ continued sustenance when calamities strike. Neither the NDRRM Plan nor the DARRMOpCen explicitly mandate these as part of the mitigation and preparedness steps of DRRM.

The NDRRMC reported Php115 million worth of assistance provided to Ulysses victims. The DA assured Php400 million in Quick Response Funds and Php300 million worth of emergency loans with zero interest and no collateral, payable in 10 years under the Survival and Recovery (SURE) Loan Program of Agricultural Credit Policy Council (ACPC) for farmers and fishers affected by Quinta and Rolly. The agency has also assigned the Philippine Crop Insurance Corporation (PCIC) to provide insurance protection to farmers against losses arising from various calamities. Those insured under the PCIC are set to receive Php10,000-15,000 in insurance claims for damaged farm equipment, fishing boats, and gear. But this measure is premium-dependent and ties impoverished farm producers to indebtedness.

PCIC coverage is quite limited and leaves millions of agricultural producers behind. PIDS explains that the amount of cover is based on the cost of production inputs specified in the farm plan and budget submitted by the farmer upon application of insurance. Insurance premium rates vary based on the type of insurance cover, risk classification, type of farmer, and type of insurance cover availed. Premium for high value crop insurance is solely shouldered by the farmers, ranging from 2-7% of the total sum ensured. Premium rates for fisheries are solely determined by the PCIC.

According to latest available Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) and PCIC 2018 figures cited by the Philippine Institute for Development Studies, only 2.2 million farmers in 1.8 million hectares are insured. This is a small number compared to the over 10.9 million farmers, farmworkers and fisherfolk in the government’s Registry System for Basic Sectors in Agriculture or RSBSA. It was also noted that while a huge chunk or 1.1 million of listed farm parcels reported by the Census of Agriculture and Fisheries (CAF) were less than 0.5 hectare in size, the penetration rate of the PCIC in these holdings was quite low compared to parcels of bigger sizes.

Long-time neglect of agriculture

Even given the backdrop of being a natural hazard-prone nation, government action for the farming and fisheries sectors has long-been either too little or too detrimental. Weather disturbances have even gotten worse over the years due to climate change, increasing further havoc on the country’s agriculture communities.

Philippine agriculture is in crisis, growing at an average 2.1% in 2017-2019, its slowest pace after 70 years of growing at 3.5% annually on the average. In the same period the sector lost over one million jobs. In the third quarter of this year, the sector grew only by 1.2%.

In 2018, the country’s agricultural trade deficit was the largest in history, and in 2019 the Philippines began importing its staple food rice.

However, despite the sector’s decline and disaster vulnerability, the budget for agriculture and agrarian reform averaged just a measly 3.6% of the total national budget annually from 2017-2019. This has been reduced further to 1.7% in 2020 and 1.6% for 2021 under the Duterte administration.

Calamity-battered Bicol

An example of the vulnerability and crisis of the country’s agriculture is the Bicol region. The region is prone to natural calamities such as typhoons, volcanic eruptions, drought and flooding, almost on a yearly basis. It is among the areas whose agriculture sector was hard-hit by the recent consecutive typhoons. The several calamities that have torn through the region in recent years resulted in billions of pesos in agricultural damage.

These include, for instance, tropical depression Usman which left Php1.6 billion worth of agricultural damages in Bicol at the end of 2018. Typhoon Tisoy, which hit the country in early December 2019, resulted in over Php1.7 billion worth of agricultural damages in the region, affecting its major crops. Bicol’s agriculture has also suffered crop losses from the El Niño drought last year and its abaca sector’s battle with the Abaca Bunchy Top Disease.

The region’s agriculture sector is now reeling from damages wrought by Quinta (Php395.8 million), Rolly (Php3.6 billion), and Ulysses (Php168.5 million).

Bicol’s abaca and coconut industries have not yet recovered from the havoc wreaked by Typhoon Tisoy. In the second quarter of the year, coconut production and abaca production both registered negative growth rates of 8 and 4 percent, respectively, from the same period last year.

Build Back Better” vs. inclusive response

The region’s disaster risk reduction bodies undertook early warning measures such as preemptive evacuation and advanced harvesting during typhoons Usman and Tisoy. In a way, mitigation was leveled-up. Yet, the Bicol Region’s agriculture sector, as with the rest of the country’s, was left vulnerable to destruction. The DADRROpCen practices the integration of DRR measures in the plans of government agencies. But like the NDRRMC plan, it is weightier on response, relief and recovery rather than building the core capacity of the agriculture sector. Making it flourish and able to stand on its own is not part of the plan.

The bottomline of the Philippines’ disaster risk reduction plan is the global-inspired “Build Back Better” which has been used in various calamities worldwide but saw big contractors and businesses taking the upper hand in rehabilitation and recovery. This is instead of focusing on really strengthening communities per se in terms of ensured rights to basic needs including food and jobs, adequate standards of living, a balanced ecology, ample services and development. These would be what will forge the capacity to withstand disasters.

In the case of agriculture, policies destroy rather than hone the sector’s own contribution to building this capacity. Decades of subscribing to global market dictates have crippled the agriculture sector and reduced it to being a supplier of cash crops, now being enhanced by the Plant, Plant Plant program. The National Land Use Act will accelerate the conversion of agricultural lands into commercial ones. Rice import liberalization meanwhile is destroying farmers’ incomes with falling palay prices and results in the shutdown of mills.

Through these policies, the government pushes Philippine agriculture off the cliff and keeps our farmers poor and vulnerable to calamities. Government lacks the sense of urgency to aid the calamity-stricken agricultural producers and only promises some farm inputs and limited financial assistance, not to mention in the form of burdensome loans. This jives with its non-interest to develop the sector other than for what the global market needs it to be.

The only way the country can really be disaster-prepared would be if risk reduction and response followed a comprehensive plan across pre-calamity and calamity scenarios. This needs to start with strengthening the heart of the economy and that is Philippine agriculture and manufacturing. Agriculture programs from the most token to those that destroy the industry and Filipino producers’ livelihoods must be stricken out especially liberalization and commercialized and profit-oriented insurance and credit-facilitation.

Land should be free for the tillers and not converted to non-agricultural use; the decision on how to make it productive theirs; give them substantial farm subsidies and direct farm facilities, machine and inputs support; and ensure their social protection. Especially during a pandemic such as the one that grips the nation and the world now, sustained financial assistance and direct support for producers is very much in order.

Governance that decides to sovereignly boost agriculture this way will be the same one that will forge policies and infrastructure for domestic industry, a healthy environment, people’s rights, and funding development, which are certain foundations of people-centered disaster preparedness. #

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Kodao publishes IBON articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Red Red Whine

by Sonny Africa

IBON staff reflect on red-tagging and its attack on the ideas of the Left

Two weeks ago, as floodwaters reached a new high to trap thousands of Filipinos on the roofs of their homes and force hundreds of thousands more to evacuate, red-tagging reached a new low.

The nation struggled to mobilize help beyond what the government was giving but the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) saw it as just another day at work to whine about Reds. It tried to dissuade donations for relief work of youth activists, took a swipe at CNN Philippines for being infiltrated, and even thought it worthwhile to meddle in a call for support among co-parents in a high school group chat.

The sad episode is a case study of the depths the Duterte government goes to in calling people Communists or terrorists and organizations as fronts or infiltrated. The hysterical claim last week is that the call for donations is “extorting money and goods to fund and support their terrorist activities”. Go figure.

But it also prompts deeper reflection on what red-tagging is and why we all lose from it. It isn’t the mere labelling that the government and its security apparatus like to pretend it is and which, they insist, even the Left does to itself. Red-tagging is labelling to attack not just people and organizations but also the very ideas and values so needed to make tomorrow better than today.

Fear of ducks

These are the coordinates of their lunacy: Communists are terrorists, Communist ideas a.k.a. Leftist ideas are passé, and anyone spouting Leftist ideas is a terrorist or a brainwashed puppet.

But the thing is, with the world and the country the way they are, it’s obvious what anyone concerned about humanity will cherish for their absence – social justice, equality, and a decent life for all. An honest grasp of history, politics and economics also points to what’s needed for these values to become real – people taking control of society and their lives.

Drilling down further shows what makes ‘Reds’ look, swim and quack like the ducks that elites fear so much – the rejection of capitalism, redistribution of wealth, and the imagining (or even building) of a socialist alternative. There’s a diversity of ducks but they all have these feathers.

Reds proudly embrace these ideas, and are famously relentless in putting these ideas into practice as conditions allow. They wear their red hearts on their sleeves and wave their red flags, literally and figuratively, because it isn’t enough for the ideas to be compelling. They have to be grasped and embraced and practiced by as many people as possible.

Which brings us back to red-tagging. Leftist ideas are the floodwaters of social change but instead of homes of the poor they wash away the structures of power. These waters are rising – maybe not like a storm surge but inexorably rising nonetheless.

Red-tagging aims to put a stop to that. Starting with activists and their organizations, including their supporters, and then really anyone daring to think differently and taking a stand. It wants to reduce radical ideas to a trickle of disembodied voices embellishing a fake democracy but threatening no one.

Progressive ideas will be tolerated if spoken from armchairs or as rhetoric in speeches and policy-making. But red flags are raised when these ideas are connected to each other and, especially, when they’re borne by the organized power of politicized Filipinos in a mass movement for change.

Capitalism and wannabe authoritarians don’t want that. They need a blind and docile public that doesn’t question why the economy leaves them behind, nor that opposes unrelenting corruption and the abuse of power.

Duck-hunting

The Duterte administration is averse to Leftist ideas but is incapable of arguing against them beyond shrill banalities. The government admits as much whenever it laments losing the “propaganda war,” as verbalized by the NTF-ELCAC, National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA), and even a militarist senator.

What they don’t see and can’t concede is that they’re losing because they’re on the wrong side of history – so they’ve gone duck hunting instead.

This wouldn’t be a problem if they were going after armed ducks. The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP)-led New People’s Army (NPA) is waging armed revolution in the countryside and, for that, is prepared for an equally armed response. The state can’t seem to defeat them in the battlefield and is in a virtual stalemate. But that’s another story.

The problem is that the Duterte administration is going after anything that quacks, wherever they might be, even if they aren’t doing anything illegal in their advocacies, projects, humanitarian work, law-making, and fiscalizing. In a back-handed compliment, the state is starting with the biggest, most influential, and deepest-rooted mainstream Left forces. The calculation may be that if the powerful radical flank is broken then moderates become more manageable.

The new Anti-Terrorism Law (ATL) is bringing a tactical nuke cannon to a duck hunt with the same kind of widespread and excessive damage. Red-tagging today is in cheap posters and flyers, bad PowerPoint presentations, loose media statements, and troll-like social media posts.

The ATL will make red-tagging graduate from these – bypassing courts where they’d just be a mess of inadmissible evidence – to become the first step towards thinly ‘legalized’ surveillance, freezing of assets, warrantless arrests, and indefinite detention. The brazen abductions and assassinations by shadowy state security forces before the new law will still continue.

Fantastic tales

Red-taggers won’t admit it but they know they would never win a battle of ideas. So they fight with twisted fantasies instead and bank on sheer repetition using the vast propaganda apparatus of the government.

Armed Reds and Leftist activists, or armed Leftists and Red activists, are crudely lumped together — this only exposes that it’s Red and Left ideas that they fear most of all. The NTF-ELCAC’s banal propagandists think that they’ve stumbled on irrefutable wisdom and repeat this ad nauseam.

A Philippines that would be idyllic if not for the renegade violence of NPA bandits in the countryside? As if it isn’t the government that’s been killing tens of thousands of alleged drug offenders and unarmed activists. The Duterte government’s state-sponsored and -sanctioned violence against civilians kills more than the guerrilla war does in the countryside.

Families blissfully happy if not for youth brainwashed to hate their parents? As if children, youth and students can’t see for themselves how their families and many others are exploited while a fraction have uncountable wealth and luxury. Our best and brightest love their country and their families. Their choices come from maturity and deserve respect.

Activists whose real agenda is hate, death and destruction? As if they aren’t among the most consistently compassionate, dedicated and productive defenders of human rights or enablers of oppressed and exploited folks wherever they might be. The self-sacrifice is out of a deep love for others.

Lumad communities in picturesque harmony if not for NPA recruiters? As if they don’t know that soldiers and paramilitary goons pave the way for mining, logging and energy projects that won’t benefit the Lumad communities. The government exploits the Lumad many times over when they are paraded as propaganda props.

The NPA are rapists, murderers and extortionists? As if a roving army of such deviants could survive for decades, attracting idealistic youth and getting the support of rural communities knowing them and seeing for themselves who they are.

And an economy made poor by Communist armed conflict? As if the economy wasn’t poor before the rise of rebellion, and isn’t kept poor by neoliberal policy incantations from worshipers of the Gods of Capitalism. And as if the most rapid economic growth in decades hasn’t benefited oligarchs, government functionaries, and foreign capital while leaving the majority poor and farther behind than ever.

The red pill

Part of red-tagging is the Duterte government wanting us to take the blue pill. To swallow their disinformation, stay ignorant, and live in the confines of an unjust, unequal and unchanging world. It’s a pill to make people not just clueless but ultimately helpless and hopeless.

The red pill, on the other hand, frees us from the enslaving control of thinking that there is no alternative to capitalism and the status quo. It affirms the working class coming together as the most powerful force for change for the better.

It also makes us see how everything is commodified where the presidency, elections, legislators and laws, even the judiciary can be bought. And how oligarchs, foreign investors, business cronies, and government officials have become wealthier – as well how the wealth of the president and his family has become suspiciously invisible.

At one level, the NTF-ELCAC propagandists are just indoctrinated military personnel and folks with a quasi-religious devotion to the president (or maybe just a crush). At a deeper level, the NTF-ELCAC is the spearhead of the system trying to put down dissent and the rising waters of social revolution.

A line is being drawn in the dolomite sand. But it isn’t between those for or against ‘Communist-terrorists’ – it’s between those embracing or enabling the status quo and those choosing to change this for the better. More than ever, it’s time to take sides. #

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Kodao publishes IBON articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Govt stinginess worsens Filipinos’ suffering and PH economic collapse

Govt stinginess worsens Filipinos’ suffering and PH economic collapse

November 10, 2020

by IBON Media & Communications

The -11.5% growth, or contraction, in gross domestic product (GDP) in the third quarter, confirms that the Philippines is on its way to becoming the worst performing economy in Southeast Asia in 2020. The economy is saddled by the Duterte administration’s refusal to spend on aid for Filipino families and support for small businesses so needed amid the pandemic.

A fiscal response commensurate to the crisis at hand is critical but the economic managers are tying the government’s hands. The government package’s demand-side effort is grossly insufficient and even undermines its supply-side measures.

The Php3 trillion in government spending in the first three quarters of 2020 is only a 15.1% increase from the same period the year before. While this is larger than the 5.5% year-on-year increase in the same period in 2019, it is still much less than the corresponding 23.6% increase in 2018.

It remains to be seen how much more spending the administration can manage in the fourth quarter of 2020. The Bayanihan 2 law is supposedly the government’s main response to COVID in the remaining months of the year.

However, as of the president’s last report to Congress at the start of November, it appears that at most just Php28.4 billion has been spent so far. With only a little over a month left in the law’s effectivity, this is just 20.3% of Bayanihan 2’s Php140 billion in appropriations and just 17.1% of its Php165.5 billion including its standby fund. The report mentioned Php76.2 billion in allotments and releases which appears relatively large.

However, the same report did not mention any actual disbursements in major items especially for aid or support to small businesses or agriculture. These items with allotments released but not reported spent include: Php6 billion for the social amelioration program (SAP); Php13.1 billion for the COVID-19 Adjustment Measures Program (CAMP), Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged/Displaced Workers (TUPAD) and Abot-Kamay ang Pagtulong (AKAP) programs; Php9.5 billion for public utility vehicle (PUV) programs; and Php12.1 billion for the agriculture stimulus package. While there is supposedly Php8.1 billion for small businesses, only Php893 million worth of loans were reported.

There is also little real stimulus in the proposed 2021 budget. The proposed Php4.51 trillion budget is a 9.9% increase from the 2020 budget. This is however smaller than the 13.6% increase in the programmed 2020 budget from the year before, and even smaller than the historical annual average 11.1% increase in the national budget over the 35 years of the post-Marcos era. The Development Budget Coordination Committee (DBCC) actually projects an even smaller 5.3% increase in 2022 which will be less than half the historical average.

The DBCC initially projected the economy to have -5.5% growth in 2020. To achieve this, GDP will have to grow an impossible 6.6% in the last quarter of the year which is all the more impossible with the administration refusing to give meaningful aid to millions of distressed families and small businesses including in the country’s vast informal sector.

Additional direct cash assistance to households is already pitifully small under Bayanihan 2 and virtually non-existent in the proposed 2021 budget. The record joblessness and collapse in family incomes because of the government’s poor COVID response compels much larger support to alleviate wide and deep suffering.

The economic managers also keep insisting that the CREATE law’s corporate income tax cuts will most of all benefit micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). This is untrue. Large taxpayers account for an overwhelming 72% of all corporate collections as of 2019 which means that large firms will be the biggest beneficiaries of CREATE. Moreover, many MSMEs are also unregistered and in the informal sector so will not really benefit from any tax cuts under CREATE.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects the economy to contract with -8.3% GDP growth in 2020. This is the worst GDP performance in the region with other countries either contracting less or even registering positive growth: Thailand (-7.1%), Malaysia (-6%), Cambodia (-2.8%), Indonesia (-1.5%), Singapore (-6%), Brunei (0.1%), Lao PDR (0.2%), Vietnam (1.6%), and Myanmar (2%).

Even the IMF’s projected 7.4% GDP growth rebound in 2021 will still not be enough to bring the economy back to its level last year in 2019. As it is, the 2020 Philippine economy is going to be as small as it was three years ago in 2017, and with GDP per capita approaching as low as it was in 2016.

The Philippines’ COVID response is the smallest among those announced by the region’s major economies, according to the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) COVID policy tracker. This earlier reported the Philippines’ response as equivalent to just 5.8% of 2019 GDP which is smaller than in Singapore (26.2%), Malaysia (22.7%), Thailand (16%), Indonesia (10.9%), and Vietnam (10.1%).

Months into the worst economic collapse in the country’s history, the Duterte administration’s obsession with creditworthiness and the myth of a fundamentally strong Philippine economy is preventing it from taking the measures needed for real and rapid recovery. Its insensitivity is placing the burden of rebound and protracted recovery on millions of poor families and distressed small businesses. #

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Kodao publishes IBON articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Filipino rice farmers need support, not liberalization

by IBON Media & Communications

In a statement, National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) acting secretary Karl Kendrick Chua said: “The Philippines generally does not have a natural comparative advantage in rice production compared with neighbors like Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar which all have large flat plains, fewer or no typhoons, less history of land inequality, and access to the Mekong River system, which serves as a great source of natural irrigation, as well as lower population growth rates.”

On that basis, NEDA argues that rice liberalization is the logical thing to do and that the Rice Liberalization Law (RLL, or Republic Act 11203) is already benefiting the country. The problem with this argument is that it treats food security like a game that you lose just because you do not have the right starting conditions. That’s a free market-based argument that only has a semblance of sense in economics textbooks.

In the real world, and as proven by the experience of literally every successful developed economy, comparative advantage can and should be modified with government intervention. Chua omits how government neglect and policies like the Rice Liberalization Law (RLL) are what undermine Philippine rice production and domestic agriculture. The Philippines can improve productivity, increase production, and provide enough rice for Filipinos with sufficient government support to rice farmers and the rice sector. The government’s defeatist attitude and blind surrender to market forces is the biggest reason why Philippine rice production and domestic agriculture as a whole remains so backward.

The RLL is captive to that narrow-minded thinking and just makes things worse.

Misplaced praise

NEDA hails the Rice Competitive Enhancement Fund (RCEF), a component of the RLL, which supposedly guarantees Php60 billion pesos from rice importation revenues for six years. RCEF will supposedly help rice farmers to modernize and innovate. This seems to be helping rice farmers.

Instead, RLL is killing the rice industry. Over a year into RLL and because of unrestrained rice importation, palay prices have fallen to as low as Php8-10 per kilo. This is a huge 50% drop from the Php20 per kilo price of palay before the law was passed. Rice farmers have cumulatively lost some Php84.8 billion in earnings in the first full year of implementation or around Php35,328 per rice farmer. Earnings are not enough to pay for the cost of production.

As a result, farmers from Philippine rice granaries such as Isabela, Nueva Ecija, Laguna and Mindanao are already thinking to stop planting rice. At least 3,000 rice mills have already stopped operating.

Farmers were facing worse prospects for selling palay even before the RLL. The government earlier clipped the powers of the National Food Authority (NFA) to influence and support the price of rice in the market by restricting the amount of palay and rice it buys locally .

RCEF claims to enhance farmers’ competitiveness through mechanization, seeds distribution and trainings. However, its coverage is actually limited and can even aggravates farmers’ indebtedness.

RCEF reportedly aims to cover 1.9 million rice farmers listed in the Registry System for Basic Sectors in Agriculture (RSBSA) and Department of Agriculture (DA)-accredited rice cooperatives and associations. This still leaves out at least half a million rice farmers. The Integrated Rural Development Foundation (IRDF) has for instance already estimated that the annual Php10 billion RCEF allocation will not be enough to offset the losses that RLL causes rice farmers, which it computes to be between Php60-Php110 billion.

Loans may also just worsen indebtedness if productivity or earnings do not increase much and if farmers’ expenses are still too high. Loans are too easily eaten up by production costs such as for expensive commercial seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and tools. The government does not make any effort to make these more affordable. Landless farmers may just end up using loans to pay their land rent to landlords.

These are why so many government loan programs have just kept so many farmers in a cycle of debt. The Agricultural Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (ACEF) and the Sugar Industry Development Act (SIDA) also provide rural credit. RCEF and the older ACEF and SIDA reportedly make Php2.1 billion in funds available for easy credit to rice farmers. About Php2.5 billion of ACEF funds were allegedly lost to corruption in 2014. Meanwhile, stakeholders lament that SIDA funds reportedly amounting to some Php2 billion per year since 2015 have so far been underutilized.

Worsening neglect

NEDA’s negativity about the country’s rice industry glosses over the government’s accountability for the agriculture sector’s backwardness because of its long-standing neglect. Government policies on land and food such as the RLL, relying on imported agricultural products, allowing rampant land use conversion, and flawed land reform only worsen the impact of this neglect.

The agriculture sector shed over one million jobs between 2017 to 2019 which is the most jobs lost in a 3-year period in 21 years. The sector’s 2.1% average annual growth in the same period was below its 3.5% average annual growth for 70 years from 1947-2016. Agriculture’s share in gross domestic product (GDP) has fallen to its smallest in Philippine history at 7.8 percent. The agricultural trade deficit in 2018 was also the largest in the country’s history at US$8 billion.

Agriculture is still such a significant part of the economy and these signs of weakness point to how much needs to be done to bolster the sector. And yet, under the Duterte administration, the budget for agriculture and agrarian reform averaged just a measly 3.6% of the total national budget annually from 2017 to 2019. This is even slashed further to just 1.6% in 2021. This means that the government’s capacity to support farmers with facilities, subsidies and other assistance is declining.

Rice farming households are also among those who will not be getting any more cash assistance. Although agricultural production was among the least affected sectors by the pandemic, earnings from rice farming are so poor that many rural families also rely on various odd-jobs in the informal sector which have been adversely affected. Yet the proposed 2021 budget for cash assistance has been reduced to just Php9.9 billion from over Php260 billion under the emergency Bayanihan 1 and Bayanihan 2 laws.

Support our producers

The Philippines’ annual average rice self-sufficiency ratio over the last 30 years was 91% and the country was 93% rice self-sufficient as of 2017. Yet rice can be much cheaper and the country can be fully self-sufficient if only there was enough support, subsidies and facilities for the country’s 2.4 million rice farmers. We do not have to import our staple food and rice farmers can have decent incomes.

Why do we have to risk not having rice on the table from rice-exporting countries stopping exports to make sure that they have enough to feed their own people? How sure are we that the price of rice will remain stable if domestic production remains backward and global rice prices are volatile?

Why make our farmers suffer? Along with other producers, they provide the nation with food to eat, yet they are among the poorest.

The government is liberalizing the critical rice sector out of blind adherence to so-called free market and globalization policies. All this does is create opportunities for giant agribusiness corporations to make even more profits from selling their expensive, chemical-laden, unhealthy, and environmentally-destructive products.

Filipino farmers have to deal with so many man-made woes aside from the vagaries of the weather. Yet they are not passive to these. Farming communities nationwide practice sustainable agriculture. These should be recognized and supported. Indigenous peoples’ schools teach organic agriculture and oppose corporate encroachment on their lands. These should be hailed not vilified or shut down.

Peasant organizations struggle for their own land to till. They deserve to be given these as well as given the means to make these productive. Precarious rural incomes and livelihoods should become a thing of the past. And, as every Filipino deserves, farming communities should have decent education, health and housing as well as the conveniences of water, electricity, telecommunications and transport. In all of these, the government’s role in running an economy for the people is the most important intervention of all. #

IBON asks: How much of Villar wealth is driven by BBB?

by IBON Media & Communications

Sen. Cynthia Villar has just been reported as the richest government official with a reported net worth of Php3.81 billion. Sen. Villar’s net worth is by far the biggest among the Senate, House of Representatives, and Cabinet. The Villar family is one of the largest property developers in the country. Because of this, IBON points out, it is among the biggest beneficiaries of soaring land values from transport projects under the Duterte administration’s flagship Build, Build, Build (BBB) infrastructure program.

Sen. Villar is the wife of the Philippines’ richest man – former senator Manny Villar who has a net worth of US$5.6 billion (about Php271 billion at current exchange rates). Similarly, their son Public Works Secretary Mark Villar has been reported as the second richest Cabinet member with a net worth of Php1.41 billion. The public works secretary’s personal wealth was even used by Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque to argue that he is “above corruption”.

Corruption in public infrastructure projects is normally understood as referring to kickbacks or bribes from public works contractors. There are however also huge windfall profits to be made by well-placed real estate developers from public transport projects, IBON said.

The Department of Transport (DOTr) for instance has already pointed out how MRT-3 projects can cause residential and commercial land values within one kilometer of stations to increase four-fold, from Php3,700-6,300 per square meter to Php14,000-22,100 per square meter.

Likewise, real estate consultancy firm Colliers International Philippines sees residential land values around the planned Mega Manila Subway project’s stations rising by at least two-fold and commercial land values by at least three-fold from the start of construction to full operation of the subway. Another firm, Leechiu Property Consultants, meanwhile points out how real estate values around rail stations can even increase as much as thirteen-fold.

IBON noted that the Duterte administration’s BBB program has already increased public infrastructure spending nationwide from Php590.5 billion in 2016 to Php785.6 billion in 2019, increasing further to Php1,017.3 billion in 2021. Transport infrastructure projects include roads, bridges, rail, airports, sea ports and others. Out of the government’s 104 flagship infrastructure projects worth Php4.1 trillion, 70 are transport projects cumulatively accounting for Php3.7 trillion or 91% of the total value of projects.

IBON says that the huge windfall wealth for the country’s real estate developers including the Villar family is likely among the reasons for the Duterte administration’s stubborn insistence on its transport-heavy BBB program despite emerging pandemic-related needs for cash assistance, health systems development, and enterprise support.

The systematic use of public funds to support private oligarch wealth is among the reasons for 12 Philippine real estate developers to be counted among Forbes’ World’s Billionaires list, IBON noted. This raises huge conflict of interest issues around the Villar family’s direct involvement in government, IBON stressed, specifically in the Senate and Cabinet public works portfolio.

The dominance of real estate and related interests in the economy and their influence on economic policymaking also goes far in explaining the bias against developing domestic agriculture and Filipino industry, IBON said. #

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Kodao publishes IBON articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Dirty Duterte admin: More coal energy than ever

by IBON Media & Communications

In his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Pres. Rodrigo Duterte called on all signatories of the Paris Agreement to do their part in reducing carbon emissions. He said that he will consider declaring a “climate emergency” because mitigating the effects of climate change is a priority. Meanwhile, Congress is deliberating on a higher proposed budget for renewable energy.

This is a seeming turnaround from the president’s 2016 declaration that the Philippines will not honor commitments under the Paris climate change deal. But maybe not – the country’s increasing reliance on coal betrays the Duterte administration’s green turn as mere posturing. The government is maintaining the country’s high dependence on coal. This puts into doubt whether it is genuinely concerned about the Philippine environment and declaring a climate emergency. A higher proposed budget for renewable energy also does not necessarily indicate seriousness towards greener energy.

Using more coal than ever

A real shift to renewable energy will help the country phase out of relying on coal and fossil fuels. But the heavy and mounting use of coal shows that the government is not really keen on this. The highly privatized power sector is predictably choosing to source energy where it is most profitable for it.

Energy supply in the Philippines is still primarily sourced from fossil fuels. Non-renewable oil and coal made up 61% of energy sources in 2018, while the rest were renewable sources including geothermal and biomass. Oil is largely used for transportation and commercial purposes. The industry and electricity sectors meanwhile rely heavily on coal which takes up 32% and 31.5% of 2018 energy consumption, respectively.

The government is increasingly reliant on coal for power generation. Department of Energy (DOE) data shows that, under the Duterte administration, power generated from coal rose from 43,303 gigawatt hours (Gwh) in 2016 to 57,890 Gwh which is over half of total power generated (106,041 Gwh) in 2019. Only 22,044 Gwh of power was generated from renewable energy.

In its study “The State of the Philippine Environment”, IBON noted that 11 of the 49 committed power projects across the country are coal-fired power plants and account for 78% of the projects’ combined rated capacity of 6,280 megawatts (MW). Out of 345 indicative power projects, 18 are coal-fired accounting for 28% of the rated capacity.

The Philippines is also increasing coal imports. Imported coal made up 13.1% of the primary energy supply mix in 2016, 15.8% in 2017, and 17% in 2018; the share of indigenous coal as well as renewable energy correspondingly decreased . Coal self-sufficiency fell from 45.2% to 37.9% over the same period.

IBON also stressed that coal is cheap but hazardous to the environment and the people. Yet, the country continues to receive imported fossil fuels, technology, and foreign investment. Some of these have been rejected or banned in their countries of origin due to environmental concerns. As a result, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the Philippines increased by 425% annually from 1990 to 2016, mostly coming from power generation. Coal was responsible for half of the GHG emissions.

Serious about renewables?

Clearly, getting rid of the Philippines’ coal dependence will be a concrete step towards embracing sustainable energy. Environment-friendly sourcing of energy is possible through community-based, people-determined solar, air and water energy generators.

In the proposed 2021 budget for the DOE, the Renewable Energy Development Program gets a higher allocation at Php117.9 million from Php112.5 million last year. However, Philippine governments’ push for renewable energy – specifically geothermal, biomass, hydropower and biofuels, can actually harm the environment, IBON’s study bares.

The construction of geothermal plants destroys forest cover and disturbs the natural habitat. For example, in the Southern Negros geothermal area, trees near the well sites shed their leaves due to emissions of sulfur oxide.

Hydropower generation through large dams is meanwhile pursued to attract foreign direct investments. However, the large impounding areas common with such projects submerge the lands where they are built, disrupt the natural ecology of river systems, and displaces communities in inundated areas. They also cause sedimentation which eventually weakens power and water generation capacity.

The construction of the Kaliwa and Laiban dams, for instance, will displace over 6,000 households and flood barangays in Tanay, Rizal and General Nakar, Quezon, mainly where the Dumagat and Remontado indigenous people live. Agricultural, forest, and wildlife areas inside the Kaliwa Watershed Forest Reserve will also be flooded.

The Biofuels Act of 2007 aims to encourage investment in locally produced biofuels. This however diverts attention and scarce resources from food production and supply. Biofuel farms also usually involve the use of large amounts of fresh water, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and fossil fuel, in agrichemical monocropping.

If the government is sincere about declaring a “climate emergency” and protecting the Philippine environment, it needs to give more value to the environment and to people’s needs over the profits of energy businesses. If it does so, then it can pursue more sustainable options in sourcing and distributing energy across residential, commercial and industrial sectors. #

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Kodao publishes IBON articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Transport budget for infra but none for affected jeepney drivers

by Jose Lorenzo Lim

The COVID pandemic has led to massive income losses for Filipinos. The Duterte administration suspended mass transport, including jeepneys, when the enhanced community quarantines (ECQ) in Luzon and other parts of the country were declared in March. Quarantine measures have eased in general community quarantine (GCQ) areas and public transport has resumed in phases. 

The government is attempting to usher economic activity back but public utility jeepney (PUJ) drivers keep getting left behind.

Lost income and jeepney modernization program

Three months into the pandemic, the social welfare department reported some 36,200 jeepney drivers of over 200,000 nationwide getting cash aid under Bayanihan 1. Even so, many jeepney drivers only received one tranche of the Php5,000-8,000 of social amelioration. IBON estimated that around 55,000-70,000 jeepney drivers in Metro Manila each lost an average of Php26,000 per month of lockdown over the first three months of suspended mass transport for a total of Php78,000 each.

When quarantine measures eased, the Department of Transportation (DOTr) prioritized modernized jeepneys in resuming operations in Metro Manila which left most PUJ drivers still unable to operate. More traditional jeepneys have recently been allowed back on their routes but physical distancing protocols make them operate on just half-capacity and, thus, their earnings are also halved accordingly.

The PUJ sector along with other vulnerable sectors have been calling for additional aid as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage. However, although the government is moving to gradually resume economic activity, it is allocating less and less for emergency subsidies.

The Php5.58 billion in aid promised PUJ and transport network vehicle (TNV) drivers under Bayanihan 2, for instance, only means an average of Php116-225 per driver per day* spread across four subsequent months of lockdown since the expiration of Bayanihan 1 in June 30. The 2021 proposed national budget allocation for overall emergency aid is even smaller at just Php9.9 billion.

The DOTr announced that it was doubling the subsidy for jeepney operators switching to modernized jeepneys from Php80,000 to Php160,000. However, this is still not enough as modernized jeepneys cost around Php1.6-2.2 million each.

The slow modernization of jeepneys is also a sign that the program is failing. During the 2019 budget hearing of the DOTr, it was reported that the jeepney modernization program was only able to modernize 1.5% of its initial target more than two years after it started. Thus, the DOTr took a step back on the jeepney modernization program and said that it will allow old jeepneys on the roads provided they pass “roadworthiness” standards.

Transport budget for infrastructure

The DOTr is proposing a Php143.1 billion budget for 2021. Of this, Php112.8 billion are capital outlays for railways, seaports and airports.

Of this, Php96.2 billion will be funded by ODA. Specifically, this ODA funding will cover the rail transport program or the construction of the Metro Manila Subway Project Phase 1, North-South Commuter Railway System, and Philippine National Railway (PNR) South Long-Haul Project.

If the government was sincere about its jeepney modernization program not displacing so many drivers and small operators, it could have increased the subsidy for this program. The government counterpart funding for these 3 railway infrastructure projects is worth Php12.6 billion. This could have been an additional Php181,000 jeepney modernization subsidy if shared among 70,000 jeepney drivers in Metro Manila. 

While these expansive mass transport projects will provide faster trips across longer distances, Filipinos still rely on jeepneys as a mode of transportation for short distances or the first or last miles. Increasing subsidies for jeepney modernization is actually a win for both the government and jeepney drivers with the government taking strides towards its goal and jeepney drivers keeping their livelihood.

Keyword: Pandemic

Because of the coronavirus crisis, the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) issued Memo Circular 2020-017 which only allows modernized jeepneys and traditional jeepneys under a corporation or cooperative to operate. This leaves out small jeepney operators and drivers. Unlike big corporate fleet operators, they can ill-afford the costly modernized jeepneys, or even the fees and requirements to form a cooperative. They are even less able today after months of lost incomes and depleted savings.

The government should prioritize subsidizing small jeepney drivers and operators and at least postpone costly infrastructure projects that are less urgent because of the pandemic. More railways, seaports, and airports might always seem like a good thing. However, it has always been questionable if these deliver the best economic and development returns for the huge spending on them and the increased debt taken out. Certainly, the emerging needs of vulnerable sectors because of the pandemic should be a more pressing use for scarce funds.

The Duterte administration should support drivers and operators with emergency subsidies for upgrading or replacing their units to meet safety, health and environmental standards. Getting them back on the road will contribute to spurring economic activity. It will also increase the mobility of the working people who are the most crucial elements in economic recovery. #

Four reasons why the Kaliwa Dam Project loan is onerous

by IBON Media & Communications

The loan agreement for the New Centennial Water Source-Kaliwa Low Dam Project (NCWS-Kaliwa Low Dam) is onerous and should be cancelled. President Duterte has reportedly ordered a review of loan agreements to determine if any are onerous and disadvantageous to the Filipino people. Yet the Kaliwa Dam project which has come under fire for its unfavorable Chinese loan agreement has already started.

The Php10.2 billion (US$211.2 million) loan agreement financing most of the Php12.2 billion NCWS-Kaliwa Low Dam has the following questionable provisions:

1. Costly to pay. The commercial loan agreement has a 2% annual interest rate, commitment fee of 0.3% annually, management fee of US$633,600, and a 20-year maturity with a 7-year grace period. The nominal interest rate is higher than other recent loan agreements with Japan or Korea which range from 0.08-0.26 percent. The loan is also not necessarily the cheapest loan even if US dollar equivalent interest rates are used.

2. Project is exclusive to Chinese contractors. While a Philippine project,only Chinese contractors are qualified to bid and Philippine corporations were excluded from the process. The China Energy Engineering Company, Inc. (CEEC) bagged the project. The contract is between the Metropolitan Waterworks Sewerage System (MWSS) and Chinese corporations.

3. Loan agreement is biased for Chinese laws. Article 8.4 of the loan agreement stipulates that Chinese Law will govern disputes pertaining to the agreement. Meanwhile, Article 8.5 says that disputes will be dealt with under the auspices of the Hong Kong International Arbitration Court.

4. Philippine patrimonial assets and property may be compromised in case of default on the loan. In the Article 8.1 Waiver of Immunity, the country “waives any immunity on the grounds of sovereignty or otherwise for itself or its property in connection with any arbitration proceeding”.

The loan agreement is financially disadvantageous, tied to Chinese contractors, and an affront to Philippine sovereignty. These issues are also on top of other issues raised by the Dumagats and Remontados, farmers and community folk, environmentalists, engineers, hydrologists, scientists, public servants, consumers, and many more. The dams projects will displace communities, inundate ancestral lands, and destroy the environment.

The Philippine government should not enter into loan agreements having such terms whether with China or any other sources of official development assistance (ODA). The Filipino people bear the burden of paying these onerous loans. This is even getting worse under the Duterte administration which is imposing new and higher consumption taxes while lowering taxes on the rich and on corporations. #

Ombudsman’s efforts hide admin corruption

by Sonny Africa

n 2016, Pres. Rodrigo Duterte famously warned government officials against corruption: “Not even a whiff or whisper – I will fire you.” 

The Ombudsman restricting access to the statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) of public officials and proposing to do away with lifestyle checks is only this administration’s latest effort to hide the growing stench of corruption. Yet with the government’s infrastructure budget bloating and the pork-filled 2021 budget being railroaded through Congress, every check on corrupt government officials is more urgent than ever.

Developments with the proposed pre-election 2021 budget make vigilance especially critical. The unprecedented Php1.1 trillion in infrastructure funds takes up almost one-fourth (24%) of the Php4.5 trillion national government budget. Infrastructure projects are notorious sources of corruption with so-called SOP (‘standard operating procedure’) of 10-40% on projects still acknowledged as pervasive. Presumbably most under scrutiny are the administration’s flagship infrastructure projects but these only account for Php158.2 billion or 14% of total infrastructure projects, implying Php941.8 billion worth of projects prone to ‘SOP’ across the country.

The Office of the President (OP) also has an equally unprecedented Php27.3 billion in potential pork barrel funds consisting of the OP’s Php8.2 billion budget and the Php19.1 billion National Task Force to end Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) recently created under it. The Commission on Audit (COA) has already lamented being unable to audit the president’s intelligence and NTF-ELCAC funds. The presidential declaration of a state of calamity until September 2021 also threatens to give legal license for public funds to be misused.

SALNs are vital tools for the public to keep watch of government officials. It is common knowledge that SALNs are routinely understated but there is just so much lying that can be done under oath so even inaccurate SALNs can be indicative. Combined with lifestyle checks on spending habits, the public can start to get an idea if public officials’ lifestyles are commensurate to their lawful income.

SALNs are weaponized because this is exactly what they are – weapons against corrupt public officials. Unlike private citizens, public officials have powers that can be abused for self-serving gain through bribes, kickbacks and malversation. Any flaws in how they are used should just be corrected because discontinuing them will favor corrupt public officials more than benefit honest ones.

None of which is to say that SALNs and lifestyle checks are currently effective in curbing corruption. The Ombudsman and Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) are understaffed and grossly lack the resources to properly check on over 1.7 million government officials and employees. The Ombudsman and PACC are also helmed by San Beda schoolmates of Pres. Duterte – Samuel Martires and Danilo Yang, respectively – which cannot add confidence about how the office will be used especially against those close to the president.

In this context, media and the public are vital force multipliers to combat systemic and entrenched corruption in government and should be empowered. However, the Ombudsman’s retrogressive efforts significantly cripple media and the public from their vital watchdog role. The Ombudsman is also rolling back gains from the Ill-Gotten Wealth Law (RA 1379) which boldly, even on paper, put the burden of proof on government officials to show that wealth and assets not commensurate to visible sources of income were lawful.

The majority of public officials and employees are honest and do not fear SALNs. Indeed, holding public office also only becomes more honorable if public servants allow themselves to be held to a higher standard. Conversely, hiding corruption and hindering the vigilance of citizens only diminishes public office and officials. #