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To give or not to give SAP tranche 2

by Xandra Liza C. Bisenio

How many mothers have been forced to leave their little ones at home, walk far, and stand in long lines for ayuda only to go home empty-handed? How many senior citizens and persons with disability (PWD), despite their frailty and limits, still tried to get support but in vain?

What can government say to people asking: “Paano na kami, ano nang kakainin namin sa sunod? Kung ano-ano nang ginagawa sa itlog – nilalaga, sinisigang, inaadobo.”, or “Itinutulog na lang ng mga anak ko ang agahan at tanghalian, kasi pang-isang kain na lang ang meron kami.” There are countless, grimmer accounts of such despair.

As of May 16, exactly two months after Luzon and some parts of the country were put under a lockdown to contain COVID-19, the official count of beneficiaries that have not received the first tranche of social amelioration was still quite a number – 811,193 families or some 4 million people. Even if everyone gets served eventually, the point is that millions of Filipinos were made to wait that long for the much-needed aid to come. Yet the Duterte administration dilly-dallies about distributing the second tranche of the social amelioration program (SAP), as if it is an option to give or not to give.

Those who are in modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) areas unarguably need continued support from government. The lockdown has caused two months of difficulty in terms of jobs, livelihood and incomes.

But the over 13 million families who now fall in the category of general community quarantine (GCQ) also still need continued support. They were also under lockdown for six to eight weeks and, at best, only got a small amount of support under the first tranche. Moreover, data as of the exact second month of the lockdown showed that there were even 659,850 households in GCQ areas who have actually not yet received their first tranche. This included 189,467 households in the new GCQ areas.

There should be no question that the second tranche needs to be distributed not just in the remaining MECQ areas but in the GCQ areas as well.

Bayanihan is explicit about it

The SAP targets 17.7 million beneficiaries. The National Capital Region, Region III except Aurora and Tarlac, Laguna, Mandaue City and Cebu City are under MECQ until the end of the month, covering about 4 million beneficiaries. Erstwhile ECQ areas Benguet, Pangasinan, CALABARZON except Laguna, Ilo-ilo, Cebu, Davao City and Bacolod City now join the rest of the country under GCQ – bringing the number of SAP beneficiaries in GCQ areas up to 13.7 million.

The usual economic activities can resume in GCQ areas. There are still minimum health requirements such as physical distancing, frequent handwashing, and bodily protection because the battle against the coronavirus continues. MECQ areas meanwhile maintain restrictions on mobility outside the home, as well as on non-essential activities.

Malacañang initially announced that only MECQ areas will get the second tranche of social amelioration. Soon after, the president gave orders to not just give it all 18 million families but to actually add 5 million more, earning him additional popularity points. Yet is this really something for the president to give or not give according to how generous he is feeling?

The Bayanihan to Heal as One Law or Republic Act 11469 is actually clear. Section 4 (c) of explicitly states that the government shall “Provide an emergency subsidy to around eighteen (18) million low income households: Provided, That the subsidy shall amount to a minimum of Five thousand pesos (P5,000.00) to a maximum of Eight thousand pesos (P8,000.00) a month for two (2) months.”

Making the people wait

At the onset of the Bayanihan law, the government promised Php250 billion for social amelioration and health response. It acknowledged the huge task of strengthening the country’s health system to contain the coronavirus and to save lives. It also recognized that the lockdown would result in widespread displacement of jobs and disruption of livelihoods, badly hitting the majority of the country’s low-income households.

Two months later, there is still no consensus among scientists and medical professionals on whether or not the pandemic curve is flattening. The number of confirmed cases continues to rise, now exceeding 12,700, and also deaths at over 830 already. Our health workers and frontliners are holding the line as best as they can. But they are also the first to take the brunt amid a private sector-dominated health system that is itself ailing from a gross lack of equipment, facilities, infrastructure and manpower to  deal with the pandemic.

The government owes the health sector a grand boost, in the same way that it owes the people in the GCQ areas the second tranche of SAP.

To what end

Is the administration’s dilly-dallying part of a script where, to be able to give help to now 23 million SAP beneficiaries, the government will now be forced to sell public assets to fund social amelioration? Who is buying – China?

Time and again, Malacañang has said that it doesn’t have enough funds, and that it’s only thanks to the president’s prudence that the government has found money to spend. Still, resources are limited so the people have to wait. Or even sacrifice – social welfare secretary Rolando Bautista even once said that not receiving the second tranche is perhaps actually in the spirit of Bayanihan, in freeing up resources for others.

Yet there are funds that can be tapped without the government selling off its assets. IBON estimates a universe of Php3 trillion worth of funds that can be explored and tapped. This includes: realigning Build, Build, Build and confidential and intelligence funds; realigning debt service payments by pushing for a debt moratorium, restructuring or even cancellation; and raising new revenues from issuing COVID-19 solidarity bonds and higher income taxes and wealth taxes on the super-rich.

This would indeed mean a big shift for the Duterte administration whose economic managers already have their minds set on a recovery program that pushes instead of thwarts those business-biased measures, for example, big-ticket infrastructure, tied debts, lower corporate income taxes, and tax incentives for investors. But there should be no second thoughts either about doing everything necessary to help the people survive the crisis.

Some Metro Manila local government units (LGUs) did not make people trapped in the lockdown wait for too long. They defied the apparent limitations of the bureaucracy by tapping internal funds to distribute assistance to their constituents early in the ECQ. They combined technology and people’s volunteerism to deliver help as expediently as they could.

The people have been at the center of these LGUs’ emergency relief operations. This does not seem to be the case with the Duterte administration or even its predecessors. Because, if they were, why is our health system still at a loss with COVID-19? Why can’t the government drop everything to make sure that all vulnerable households get the first and second tranche of social amelioration immediately?

Why are more hapless citizens arrested than are tested? Also, why are relief volunteers, community leaders, mobile kitchens, and even journalists – who are merely trying to fill in gaps in emergency assistance – being harassed, arrested, or even killed by law enforcers?

The huge health and economic crisis that the country is facing now can only be hurdled, humanely and effectively, if the people were heeded and not hindered from actively participating. #

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Xandra heads IBON’s Media and Communications Department. She loves to write songs, listen to her panganay’s music and play chess with her bunso on the side.

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

The fate of BBB in the time of COVID-19

by Jose Lorenzo Lim

The COVID-19 lockdown and further containment measures are drastically slowing down economic activity in the Philippines and elsewhere. The government sees the Build, Build, Build (BBB) program as jumpstarting the Philippine economy in the time of the pandemic. But with its current neoliberal framework, will BBB be enough?

Even before COVID-19, multilateral funding institutions like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB) have been pushing for an infrastructure offensive especially in developing countries. Moreover, as early as the late 1980s the World Bank proposed using the private sector to fund and undertake these projects in lieu of the Keynesian idea of giving the State a bigger role in the economy especially in terms of large public spending.

The Golden Age of Infrastructure

Infrastructure is a tool for reducing poverty and driving economic growth. But the current framework of infrastructure development in the Philippines and other developing countries is profit-driven and hence overly focused on economic infrastructure. Contrarily, development in so-called advanced and high-income countries such as the US, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan also included substantial public investment in social infrastructure such as education and health.

The Duterte government’s focus on a narrow set of economic infrastructure is aimed at attracting foreign capital. This is driven by the belief that having better infrastructure attracts more foreign investments, which enables countries to attain economic development. The World Bank claimed that, in Asia, around US$8.6 trillion worth of infrastructure investments are required in 2010-2020 to achieve economic development. It cited a huge infrastructure investment gap in Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America, which are mostly composed of developing countries.

One of the promises of the Duterte government is to usher in a “Golden Age of Infrastructure” through its grandiose BBB program. The project includes high-impact projects under the Department of Transportation (DOTr), Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), and the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA) to build more railways, urban mass transport, airports and seaports, more bridges and roads, and new and better cities.

In selecting the original 75 flagship projects, the government applied the following criteria, among others: 1) consistency with regional and national development plans; 2) implementability (i.e. must be accomplished within the Duterte administration); 3) high economic impact with 10% minimum social discount rate; and 4) “big-ticket” (above Php500 million or US$10 million).

Issues, from 75 to 100

Despite the supposedly meticulous criteria for identifying the most important projects to undertake, many issues surround the infrastructure flagship projects (IFPs). Its neoliberal fixation with pleasing investors and big business puts to question whether or not it will benefit the people and lead to genuine development.

First, the identification of IFPs was problematic from the start. In November of 2019, the government announced that it revised the list of IFPs from 75 to 100. The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Board chaired by the President approves each project before it is even considered as a flagship infrastructure project. However, the BCDA said that the Duterte administration put the wrong projects on the list. Moreover, some projects turned out to be unfeasible, which is strange because this was presumably a basic criterion for selecting the 75 flagship projects in the first place.

The Duterte administration had been boasting of the 75 IFPs since assuming office in June 2016. Former Budget and Management Secretary Benjamin Diokno was even optimistic that the Duterte administration would complete 74 of the 75 projects before its term ends in 2022. Now, the BCDA expects only 38 of the 100 IFPs to be completed by the time Duterte steps down.

The Metro Manila Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Line 1 and Line 2 and Cebu BRT project, for example, were taken out of the 75 IFPs due to narrow roads and right-of-way issues. The DOTr even wrote a letter to the NEDA Investment Coordination Committee (ICC) to cancel the projects. Yet the projects were eventually re-included after a technical inspection by the World Bank and NEDA on Quezon Avenue (one of the main stations of Metro Manila BRT) and in Cebu.

The Metro Manila and Cebu BRT projects are targeted to be funded by France and the World Bank, but they have faced problems with financing. It also did not augur well that Pres. Duterte suspended all talks on loans and grants from the 18 countries that supported a United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution to probe his controversial drug war, which included France. Ultimately, the fate of the Metro Manila BRT is in limbo since it is no longer among the 100 IFPs. The Cebu BRT meanwhile is still included and is targeted for completion by 2021.

Second, the priorities of the infrastructure projects are questionable. The majority of the projects are for transport when the country badly needs social infrastructure. For instance, there is a need especially for more hospitals and health facilities as bared by the country’s glaring incapacity in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The country also badly needs infrastructure for agriculture production, and to support local industries.

The 100 IFPs are now composed of projects for transport and mobility (73), water resources (10), urban development (9), information and communication technology or ICT (6), and power and energy (2). The overwhelming majority are for transport and mobility. In the absence of a basic strategy for developing agriculture and domestic industry, these will mainly end up supporting the overly import-oriented and export-oriented enterprises constituting our economic backwardness.

Third, BBB will be hugely funded by loans from other countries and financial institutions and will further bloat Philippine debt. The 100 IFPs are worth around Php4.3 trillion and official development assistance (ODA) is the biggest funding source of projects. There will be Php2.4 trillion funded with ODA, followed by Php1.2 trillion through public-private-partnership (PPP) funding, and Php172 billion funded solely from the General Appropriations Act (GAA).

Leading the ODA funders is Japan with a total of around Php1.3 trillion, China with Php700 billion, and ADB with Php273 billion. Data from NEDA as of June 2019 show that the Philippines has US$8.1 billion worth of ODA loans from Japan, US$2.8 billion from ADB, and US$273 million from China.

Fourth, contrary to the goal of infrastructure pushing development, most of the 100 IFPs are still centered in Luzon, where poverty incidence is relatively lower compared to other parts of the country.

Of 26 projects worth Php1.6 trillion in Luzon, the biggest concentration of 22 projects worth Php916.5 billion will be built in the National Capital Region. Meanwhile, there are 17 projects worth Php474.6 billion in Visayas, and 25 projects worth Php474.4 billion in Mindanao. Additionally, there are projects worth Php913.5 billion that will be implemented nationwide, the bulk of which is taken up by the New Manila International Airport located in Bulacan.

Fifth, vested interests appear to be benefiting from the BBB infrastructure offensive. Bong Go’s family has been accused of being the largest contractor in BBB projects. Go’s father, Desiderio Go, owns the Davao-based construction company CLTG builders. Through CLTG builders, the Go family secured 20 contracts in 2017 for road networks in Davao. These were worth around Php3 billion in solo projects and joint ventures. In 2018, CLTG Builders also bagged Php116 million worth of projects in Davao.

Aside from Go’s family, other businessmen may also be gaining from the BBB program. For instance, DPWH secretary Mark Villar’s father, Manuel Villar, through Prime Asset Ventures Inc. (PAVI) is eyeing two unsolicited proposals worth Php213.3 billion. These include the LRT 6 Cavite Line A project worth Php56.3 billion and the Cavite LRT Line 6c and Sucat Line 6b projects worth Php157 billion.

The COVID-19 pandemic does call for a “new normal”. This should include a change in the way the government spurs economic growth where the current infrastructure push is becoming irrelevant.

Jumpstarting the economy

The BBB program is seen by the government as essential in jumpstarting the economy. While economic managers have already insisted that they will hardly touch funding for infrastructure projects to augment the budget for COVID-19 response, they took a step back and realigned some of the infrastructure budget.

The DOTr in April realigned funding for infrastructure projects worth Php16.9 billion that is from 35 projects. The MRT-3 rehabilitation and the PNR Clark Phase 1 are some of the projects that had their budget realigned for the government’s COVID-19 response, which are transportation related.

Data from NEDA show that there are 34 projects from the 100 IFPs that are already being implemented. Of the 34 projects, 26 are transport and mobility related, 2 are ICT projects, 3 are urban development, and 3 are water resources.

Meanwhile, there are 43 pending projects in the 100 IFPs to be implemented within 6-8 months. Majority is still composed of transport and mobility projects with over 30 projects, 4 water resource projects, 4 ICT projects, and 5 urban development and redevelopment projects.

These roads and airports under the 100 IFPs would have been useful to aid economic activity in the long run, particularly tourism and trade. But will these be useful in the “new normal”? For instance, the Department of Tourism has already acknowledged that the number of foreign visitors will drastically fall until at least next year. The United Nations World Tourism Organization estimates that foreign travel will fall by 20-30% and tourism receipts by one-third in 2020. Meaning, the tourism industry in the time of COVID-19 is practically suspended indefinitely.

The 2020 Budget of Expenditures and Sources of Financing shows that the government has allotted Php989.2 billion for infrastructure outlays. Of this, the highest share or Php349.9 billion is allotted for road networks. Government should review the budget for road network projects which could be additionally used for the country’s COVID-19 response. Another source could be the outlay for airport systems worth Php2.4 billion.

The composition of BBB projects being mostly road networks and airports is attributed to its business and trade inclined framework. Basically, the aim of the government’s infrastructure program is to push for high-impact projects to stimulate the economy and arrest its further slowdown and possible decline. But while the Philippines does need these types of infrastructure, the factor of the COVID-19 pandemic highlights a long-overdue change in this framework.

The future of infrastructure

Looking at IBON’s economic blueprint dubbed People Economics, developing the countryside, building Filipino industries and protecting the environment could be used as the new framework for the government’s infrastructure development.

One way to reframe the government’s infrastructure program in the time of COVID-19 is to focus on social infrastructure such as government hospitals and health centers in the provinces, sanitation facilities on barangay level, and housing projects for the poor. This should be coupled with a plan for countryside development and building rural and national industries. This puts substance in a ‘Balik-Probinsya’ program if it genuinely aims inclusive development.

With a plan of building Filipino industries and making them competitive, the Philippines won’t have to be dependent on importing a wide range of commodities. The countryside could also benefit from a much-needed infrastructure push with irrigation, post-harvest facilities, farm-to-market roads, and ICT projects such as marketing, prices and production support. This does not end with a basic social services and infrastructure push but ensuring that people have decent jobs and living wages to support domestic consumption and demand. Decongesting Metro Manila then won’t be a problem.

The Philippines has to improve the current state of infrastructure especially in the context of COVID-19: one that supports a strong public health system and the stable production of the nation’s needs in order to withstand and battle a pandemic. The problem with the BBB program is how this massive infrastructure program is not only disconnected from correcting but even reinforces the fundamental problem. BBB ignores the need for reliable, strong and public-controlled social services and public utilities infrastructure, for agricultural development and national industrialization, and healthy environment.

What infrastructure to build should figure in a larger strategic plan that supports sustainable consumption and production and social well-being. The current infrastructure framework needs to be transformed. #

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The author is a researcher at IBON Foundation. His research topics include Build, Build, Build, the oil industry, and social services. Prior to IBON, he served as Editor-in-Chief of the UPLB Perspective for the academic year 2016-2017. When not in the office, Jose Lorenzo enjoys writing with his fountain pens and trying out new ink.

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

Oil tax hike insensitive and will make poor Filipinos suffer more

by IBON Media & Communications

Research group IBON said that raising taxes on imported oil products will push prices up and burden many poor households already struggling with jobs and income losses amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The group said that government should instead look to better sources of response funds such as taxing the super-rich.

The Duterte administration recently issued an executive order increasing taxes on imported crude oil and refined petroleum products to 10 percent. This is supposed to fund government’s COVID-19 response.

IBON said this oil tax increase will ultimately be passed onto consumers, especially the poor, through higher prices. Some 18.9 million working people and their families are already dealing with mass unemployment, income losses and delayed and insufficient social amelioration.

The oil tax hike comes on top of additional oil excise taxes already from the government’s regressive Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) program.

The TRAIN law hiked oil excise taxes by Php6 per liter of diesel, Php5.65 per liter of gasoline, Php5 per liter of kerosene, and Php3 per kilogram of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).

The additional oil tax will make socially-sensitive products more expensive as well as increase the general price level.

Instead of pursuing this grossly insensitive revenue measure, IBON said that government should instead impose a wealth tax on the country’s super-rich.

The Philippines’ 50 richest have Php4.1 trillion in combined wealth, which is more than what the poorest 71 million Filipinos own put together, the group said.

A tax of 1% on wealth above Php1 billion, another 2% above Php2 billion, and another 3% above Php3 billion will raise Php236.7 billion from these 50 richest individuals alone.

The wealthy can well afford to pay more taxes and this will not have any effect at all on their already extremely high standards of living, said IBON.

Tax revenues from this can then be prioritized towards fighting the COVID-19 crisis and providing sufficient social amelioration for poor and vulnerable Filipinos, the group said. #

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

Why can’t food self-sufficiency be our new normal?

by Rosario Guzman

From the outset of the Duterte government’s military lockdown as its response to the spread of the coronavirus, it has directed the continuous flow of food commodities, along with medicines and other essentials. Food is inarguably essential to people’s survival during a pandemic and in its socioeconomic aftermath.

Government’s response however has fallen short in ensuring food production and supply. In fact, the military and authorities have controlled even the movements of the direct producers, both in tending their farms and selling their produce to the markets. Even activist volunteers who endeavored to bridge the farmers’ produce to urban consumers and to deliver relief goods to the farming families were detained and accused of violating quarantine rules and inciting to sedition.

The thing is, government has erased “food self-sufficiency” from its agricultural planning principles, now totally unheard of in the Philippine Development Plan 2017-2022. It has instead focused on “economic opportunities” anchored on “market orientation”. The country’s lack of food self-sufficiency has made government’s coping with crises such as COVID-19 utterly chaotic.  It is the economy’s sinkhole that will make us fall deeper into a COVID-aggravated economic crisis.

Yet, eight weeks into the military lockdown, while it continues to wrestle with its insufficient health response, the Duterte government is talking of a “new normal” in agriculture. A closer look at the plan, however, reveals it to be a bunch of old habits that have hampered Philippine agriculture from achieving even the most basic goal of food security, much more self-sufficiency.

Pre-COVID crisis

Only eight weeks ago, the country’s “normal” agriculture was having its worst crisis in decades. The sector lost 1.4 million jobs in 2017-2019, the highest number in a three-year period in the last two decades. Its average annual growth rate of 2.1% in the same period is also lower than the 3.5% average in the last 70 years. The sector has also reached its smallest share in history at just 7.8% of the country’s gross domestic product.

In the first quarter of 2020, agriculture posted a 1.2% decline in output, finally collapsing after a momentary recovery from a decline in 2016 and a three-year slowdown thereafter.

Neoliberal policies that government has recklessly implemented are the culprit in agriculture’s near demise. Starting off with the evasion of free land distribution to tillers and rampant land conversions to favor finance capital, government has oriented agriculture towards commercialization, high value cash crops, inorganic chemicals dependency, paid-for irrigation, imported machinery, and trade liberalization. Agriculture is not a government priority, which is putting it mildly when the figures clearly manifest state neglect. The 3.5% average share of agriculture and agrarian reform in the 2017-2020 budgets is the lowest in two decades. In 2018, the Duterte administration delivered the coup de grace with the liberalization of rice imports.

Landowners and merchants have exploited this “normal” – that is the classic story why our food frontliners are the most destitute and hungry in Philippine society. And like adding insult to injury, the government points to farmers’ lack of capacity and technology (and interest to carry on) as the reason why food self-sufficiency is not feasible.

Government gross neglect

Then, COVID-19 happened. Government agencies could not even provide a full picture of our food buffer stocks. The Philippine Statistics Authority has stopped updating the rice inventory, for instance. This showed that, as of March 1, our rice stocks were enough for only 65 days, quite below the 90-day buffer. Vietnam’s announcement that it would implement a rice export ban added to Filipinos’ anxieties – Vietnam accounts for about 38% of Philippine rice imports.

A day before the declaration of a lockdown, euphemized as ‘enhanced community quarantine’ (ECQ), the Department of Agriculture (DA) made assurances that there was enough food for everyone in Metro Manila. The stocks of rice, vegetables and root crops, poultry and meat products, fish, and eggs were sufficient. It took time before some local government units started distributing relief foods, and even then mostly unhealthy canned sardines.

Farming has been disrupted. IBON estimates about 2.5 million farmers, farm workers and fisherfolk economically dislocated by the ECQ. The ECQ guidelines specifically allow establishments engaged in food production and trade but are painfully quiet about the farmers. Farmers’ organizations have said it succinctly – there is no work from home for them. They are subsistence farmers who will go hungry if they are not allowed to farm.

The Duterte government’s COVID response for agriculture under the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act is to provide Php5,000 cash assistance each to only 591,246 beneficiaries under the Financial Subsidy to Rice Farmers (FSRF). But as of 28 April 2020, seven weeks into the lockdown, the Duterte government has served only 266,284 rice farmers.

Farming families may have been given cash assistance through the social amelioration program of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), which even then has only served 57% of its target 18 million beneficiaries as of 1 May 2020.

Granting that the rice farmers have indeed received subsidies, IBON estimates these to be equivalent to only Php80-119 per day over 49 days of lockdown, or less than one-fourth of the already low official poverty line of Php353 per day for a family of five.

Government’s meager and much-delayed response to the pandemic is pushing the poor and vulnerable farmers and fisherfolk deeper into poverty and hunger, which gets more and more morally unacceptable at this point in our crisis.

Photo by Lito Ocampo

Neoliberal inertia

The DA is among the first agencies to talk of a new normal. We should rethink and restructure our policies and practices, said DA secretary William Dar. But the DA’s emphasis on the continuation of neoliberalism especially under a global economy that is about to plunge into a grave depression cannot be missed. The Duterte government cannot fake a new normal narrative when its transition plan remains neoliberal.

The budget priority for the DA to transition to its “new normal” remains for cash assistance instead of production support. This is under the Rice Farmers Financial Assistance (RFFA), which is in line with the implementation of the Duterte administration’s rice liberalization law. The RFFA targets to provide Php5,000 to rice farmers who are tilling 0.5-2 hectares. The FSRF is in addition to RFFA and is packaged as the COVID-19 response, which targets rice farmers who are tilling one hectare and below. The total target beneficiaries of both packages are 1.2 million rice farmers nationwide, but there are 2.5 million rice farmers in the country who are definitely dislocated by rice liberalization.

The program priority is a food resiliency action plan that is aimed at an unhampered flow of food and agri-fishery products. It is anchored on the aforementioned cash assistance as consumption stimulus and market links such as the Kadiwa program, market satellites and market on wheels. In short, it is anchored on trade, again not so much on strengthening farmers’ production. The plan is also about popularizing urban and backyard gardening, which is overly focusing on individual consumers to go on survival mode instead of improving the production and conditions of farming communities in the real spirit of bayanihan.

The DA has proposed to implement nationwide the “Ahon Lahat, Pagkaing Sapat (ALPAS) Laban sa Covid-19” or what it dubs as Plant, Plant, Plant program to “increase the country’s food adequacy level”, with an approved Php31-billion supplemental budget. But this will be done by intensifying the use of quality seeds, inputs, modern technologies – which have been proven from experience to only add to the farmers’ debt burdens. The DA unfortunately has perennially acted as a marketing agent and endorsed the sale of seeds, inputs and farm machinery of big agribusiness to Filipino farmers, while it has shunned the promotion of agroecological practices.

The Duterte government still emphasizes that in order for agri-fishery to grow and cope with emergencies such as pandemics, the sector needs to attract more investments and resources and partner with the private sector. And there we are back on the neoliberal road.

Photo by RB Villanueva

Build the momentum

Surely, food self-sufficiency can be our new normal. But first in the face of a pandemic, farmers need fast and sufficient relief assistance, both for their daily needs and health services and as production subsidy. In the same manner that urban consumers should be relieved of paying their bills during COVID-19, farmers should have been long ago condoned of their mounting debts from unpayable land amortizations, loans from unscrupulous traders, and even from availing of government lending programs. Then, farmers and fisherfolk should be allowed to go to their farms and on fishing trips and deliver their produce to the markets.

But in the long-term, food self-sufficiency is about the assertion of an entire range of human rights. The state should recognize the right to food, the right to produce food, the right to till the land, and to have control of the land that farmers have been tilling for generations. Farmers have the right to choose their own production system, so as not to be dictated by the whims of the market and made vulnerable to market vagaries. We can envision an agriculture that is moving away from the profit-oriented concept of value chain that disregards the small producers and their environment, and move towards sustainable farming practices.

In the end, we can build the momentum for food self-sufficiency only from the farmers’ struggle and movement for genuine agrarian reform. And that should be our new normal. #

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

PH economy was already slowing – COVID-19 just made it worse

by IBON Media & Communications

The Philippine economy was already weak coming into the COVID-19 crisis, research group IBON said. Growth will remain slow if the government does not acknowledge pre-existing weaknesses that the pandemic merely intensified.

The group said that recognizing the problem is the first step to the bold measures needed for long-term growth and development.

The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) reported -0.2% growth in gross domestic product (GDP) in the first quarter of 2020, marking a significant drop from the 5.7% growth in the same period last year.

The National Economics and Development Authority (NEDA) attributed this to the Taal volcano eruption in January, decrease in trade and tourism due to COVID-19 in February, and the eventual lockdown in March.

IBON said however that the economy was already slowing for three consecutive years and headed for its fourth such year even before COVID-19 came into the picture.

Official figures show annual GDP growth falling from 7.1% in 2016 to 6.9% in 2017, 6.3% in 2018 and 6.0% in 2019.

Year-on-year first quarter growth also reflects this trend, falling from 6.9% in the first quarter of 2016 to 6.4% in 2017.

This slightly increased to 6.5% in 2018 but fell to 5.7% in 2019. In 2020, first quarter growth dove to -0.2%, which is the first GDP contraction since the fourth quarter of 1998 (-3.4%).

Important accustomed drivers of growth were falling even before the eruption of Taal Volcano in January and the COVID-19 crisis since February and especially since the lockdown starting mid-March.

Growth in overseas remittances slowed from 5.3% in 2017 to 3.9% in 2019, and foreign investment flows from US$10.3 billion to US$7.6 billion over the same period.

The manufacturing sector slowed from 8% in 2017 to 3.2% in 2019, and agriculture from 4.2% to 1.2% over the same time.

Tourism had also been lackluster, said the group. Growth in gross value added of tourism industries remained virtually stagnant from 10.1% from in 2016 to 10.3% in 2017 and 10.6% in 2018.

In terms of expenditure, gross capital formation considerably slowed from 10.9% growth in 2017 to 2.5% in 2019 and exports from 17.4% to just 2.4 percent.

Household consumption spending remained steady at 6% in 2017 and 5.9% in 2019.

Hence, overall economic growth has just been artificially driven by government consumption spending, which increased from 6.5% in 2017 to 9.6% in 2019 and by public infrastructure projects rather than an underlying dynamism from vibrant domestic agriculture and industry.

These basic economic weaknesses result in record joblessness and the proliferation of informal and irregular work.

Correcting the official methodology which underreports joblessness, IBON estimated that the number of unemployed reached a record 4.7 million in 2019.

The group also estimated that 27.2 million or 64% of employment in the same year was really poor quality work comprised of non-regular and agency-hired, government contractuals, and informal earners.

Widespread poverty is another indicator of a sluggish economy, said the group.

According to PSA data, some 12.4 million or over half of 22 million families nationwide were trying to survive on less than P132 per person per day.

IBON pointed out that the last three years of slowing growth has been despite the Duterte administration’s expanding Build, Build, Build infrastructure program.

Despite annual appropriations for infrastructure increasing to 4.7% of GDP in 2019, economic growth still fell for a third consecutive year.

The group explained that infrastructure spending is a short-term stimulus at best and that domestic agriculture and Filipino industry have to be strengthened for growth to be higher and more sustained.

The agriculture sector has been weakening due to long-time government neglect. It grew from -0.1% in 2016 to 4.2% in 2017, but steadily declined thereafter to 1.1% in 2018 and 1.2% in 2019.

First quarter growth in agriculture slid to -0.4% in 2020 from 0.5% the previous year. Continued agricultural liberalization, such as of the rice subsector, will only weaken agriculture further.

Growth in manufacturing, which has long been foreign-dominated and export-oriented, has also been dwindling. The sector registered 6.8% growth in 2016, which increased to 8.0% in 2017. But this dropped to 5.1% in 2018 and 3.2% in 2019. First quarter growth in manufacturing went down to -3.6% in 2020 from 5.2% in 2019.

IBON said that the government will be making this same mistake in overly relying on infrastructure spending as its response to the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis.

The group stressed that the government needs to implement bolder measures that prioritize the needs of Filipinos, especially the most vulnerable, and that genuinely develop the national economy.

These include: immediate emergency relief, and especially with unemployment soaring, extended income support to poorest households; expanding the public health system and providing universal social protection; and repurposing the economy for domestic demand-driven employment and growth by strengthening agriculture and building Filipino industry.

The resources needed for these can be raised by imposing a wealth tax, higher personal income taxes for the richest families, and higher corporate income tax for the largest corporations.

IBON said that if the government insists on its old neoliberal policies and does not change course, the economy will be even weaker after the COVID-19 crisis. #

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

Why do we keep on begging China for friendship?

By Rosario Guzman

In the face of the Filipino people’s growing anxieties about COVID-19 and life after the lockdown, president Duterte keeps heaping praises on China.

The Duterte government was reluctant at first to restrict travel and tourism from China and the operations of Chinese Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs) because such moves to contain the virus would allegedly hurt China’s feelings. In the next presidential speeches, the government seemed to have flip-flopped from its cavalier attitude towards the pandemic, but it has not stopped uttering assurances to China.

That the Philippines remains to be by China’s side as China battles COVID-19. Or that China will help the Philippines overcome the health crisis and that president Duterte can directly send a personal note to Chinese president Xi Jin Ping. A you-and-me-against-the-world expression of devotion that is repeated ad nauseum.

In the most recent display, returning presidential spokesperson Harry Roque even got a little chummy – referring to the Philippines-China relationship as “BFF” (“best friends forever”), and that naturally China will prioritize the Philippines in giving COVID aid and funds.

It leaves a nasty taste in the mouth as the country continues to grapple with economic uncertainties and government’s lack of direction six weeks into the lockdown.

But is it even valid to cling on to China, or to any other country for that matter, for our survival as a nation post-COVID? Even without COVID-19, it is already insane as it is for the Philippine government to obsessively hold on to failed neoliberal policies and to rely on foreign capital for development. It would take some sobriety to tackle the question, but looking at the global economy and the seismic changes that have been happening is the sensible way to begin.

The world is coming down

China indeed remains the world’s leading merchandise trader and second to the United States (US) in trade of goods and services in the overall. But the slowdown in global trade that has been quite evident since 2016 on the back of a protracted global economic recession is weighing down on the world’s economies and leading traders. This has only been aggravated by the US-China trade war escalating at the end of 2018, which is hurting aggregate import demand, as well as the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic emanating from Wuhan, China at the end of 2019 whose impact on world trade is still unfolding.

World merchandise trade volume had a significantly lower growth of 2.9% in 2018 than the 4.6% growth registered in 2017 that raised false hopes of a return to better days. The slowdown in trade was accompanied by weaker output growth – the world gross domestic product (GDP) grew at exactly the same rate as trade (2.9%) compared to a minimally higher growth of 3.0% the year before.

The numbers turned uglier in 2019 – with the combined effects of the trade tensions in the first half clearly felt and the jitters in the second half over the possible lethal spread of COVID-19 across geographic and economic regions. The slowing world merchandise trade finally declined by 0.1% in volume in 2019. Likewise, in dollar values it fell by 3% to US$18.89 trillion, whereas it registered a 10% increase due to higher energy prices just the year before. The global GDP got even weaker with a preliminary growth figure of only 2.6% for 2019.

Projecting the full impact of COVID-19 on trade, the World Trade Organization (WTO) is looking at a further decline in 2020 by 12.9% in an optimistic scenario or by 31.9% in a pessimistic scenario. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects the global GDP growth in 2020 to fall to -3%, which is a major revision over a very short period. This crisis is going to be far worse than the global financial crisis, the IMF has said, and the worst since the Great Depression.

Palace photo.

China is symptomatic

The world is watching China with apprehension. The country has high demand for raw materials and intermediate goods and serves as a final-stage export platform for global production chains. But even before the number of COVID cases started climbing at the start of 2020, China’s GDP growth of 6.1% in 2019 was already slower than the 6.7% rate in 2018. It was in fact the country’s slowest growth in 29 years.

The National Bureau of Statistics of China reported a 6.8% year-on-year decline in the first quarter of 2020. It is the first contraction at least since 1992.

China experienced a deceleration in merchandise trade volume, from 8.0% in 2017 to its moderate growth of 5.2% in 2018. The value of exports slowed sharply at 0.5% growth in 2019 from a 10% rise in 2018, while the value of imports fell by 2.7%, the first decline in three years. In the first two months of 2020, exports plunged by 17.2% year-on-year, while imports shrank by 4%, amid factory shutdowns and travel restrictions to contain the virus.

China’s trade surplus and capital formation are its sources of economic strength to rise as an outward investor. In 2018, China ranked 2nd globally, next to Japan, in terms of foreign direct investment (FDI) outflows, and 3rd, next to the US and Netherlands in terms of FDI outward stock. But like global trade and the global economy, global FDI flows were in three consecutive years of decline, falling by another 13% in 2018. China’s FDI outflows slid further by 18%, the second year for China, based on UNCTAD data.

China’s Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) reported a lower figure of 9.6% decline in 2018, pointing out that China’s FDI fall was still significantly lower than the world figure of 29% according to MOFCOM. It does not change the general picture, however, no matter how Beijing paints stability. Outward FDI is falling anywhere else in the world, and it is 40% smaller today than its post-global financial crisis peak in 2015.

The China Global Investment Tracker of the American Enterprise Institute, an alternative to MOFCOM data, which tracks Chinese investment and construction around the world with a threshold of US$100 million, is seeing a dramatic fall in China’s outbound FDI of about 40% for 2019 that will be similar to 2011, with Chinese investment returning to a domestic rather than global phenomenon.

The problem is China cannot simply work from home. It has been infected with the unbounded, reckless desire of expansionism – it has to continue going global.

Palace photo.

BFF?

The Philippines is not even among the top 15 trading partners of China. It is also not a significant destination of Chinese investment.

Hong Kong (PRC) receives about 60% (US$86.9 billion) of China’s net FDI, followed by the US (US$7.5 billion), Virgin Islands (US$7.1 billion), Singapore (US$6.4 billion), and Cayman Islands (US$5.5 billion). It is obvious how China uses Hong Kong as an intermediary to take advantage of Hong Kong’s liberalized agreements and competitive currency before investing somewhere else, or of “double dipping” wherein Chinese investors return to the mainland as “foreign investors” and take advantage of additional fiscal incentives.

It also appears that Chinese investors, like many global investors, have sought safe havens such as the Virgin Islands and Cayman Islands as times get rough. Removing these and Hong Kong for the meantime would show that the top 10 recipients of China FDI in 2018 were the US, Singapore, Australia, Indonesia, Canada, Germany, Vietnam, South Korea, United Kingdom, and Thailand. The Philippines does not figure anywhere in the line-up.

On the other hand, some 56 countries along the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), of which the Philippines is part, captured 12.5% of China’s total outward FDI in 2018. BRI investment has been particularly pronounced in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Meanwhile in Southeast Asia where China’s state-owned enterprises have particular interest, Cambodia is the favorite.

Narrowing our map now to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Philippines captured 11% of China’s investment in the ASEAN in 2019, which is practically a fair share if China’s investment would be divided equally among the 10 member-countries.

In short, we may be among China’s friends, but we are not the best, and forever has not even started.

On the other hand, among the Philippines’ trading partners, China ranks 4th in terms of contribution to exports value, next only to US, Japan and Hong Kong (which is a trading port of many other countries apart from the mainland). Indeed, China is the country’s biggest supplier of imported goods, accounting for about one-fourth of Philippine import value, which shows a one-sided trading relationship. Exports to China in the first month of 2020 had a tepid 7% increase, while imports from China continued to increase at double-digit rate (16.4%), a trend that started in 2016.

Singapore, US, Japan and South Korea have remained the country’s top investors, with their combined net FDI of US$963.49 million in 2019. Inflow from China was US$106.16 million. Even if we add US$28.69 million (assuming 60% of what is coming from Hong Kong, since not all Hong Kong FDI is from the mainland), China would still come fifth. Surely there has been a dramatic rise in Chinese investments of 1,751%, from only about US$10.77 million in 2016 to its peak of US$199.38 billion in 2018, but net FDI from China has started to taper off and declined by 47% in 2019.

There has also been a phenomenal increase in Chinese official development assistance (ODA) loans from US$1.5 million in 2016 to US$364.9 million as of 2018. But Chinese ODA still pales in comparison with Japan ODA of US$6.2 billion or even USAID of US886.4 million.

In other words, even in un-reciprocated relationships that our liberalized and subservient economy has become so dependent on, China is not even the best master.

What then is the fixation on China all about?

There can only be one reason for China – it is unstoppable. Since building its internal strength and setting its sights on the endless possibilities in the global economy, China itself has been fixated on itself.

Its expansionist momentum has surged in the last two decades, perfecting its “go global” strategy and embarking on its biggest and most ambitious ever BRI as well as Made in China 2025, moving away from being the world’s factory to producing high-technology products and services. Beijing has been aggressive and at the same time cautious in its policy approach, which gives it confidence that it won’t crash as hard as its economic rivals.

It may be recalled that China held up well during the 2008 global financial crisis, compared to the slow recovery of the European Union and the US. Although today is different – China being the epicenter of the pandemic – China does its best to sustain the image of stability.

International observers have also pointed out that Westerners are finding it much more difficult than Asians to overcome the hardships arising from the health crisis. The observation could just be China’s own messaging echoed through its own propaganda machinery. In any case, China is sustaining the narrative.

This narrative has been copy-pasted in the language of lauding China’s ability to deal with the crisis, official restraint on China bashing and discrimination especially on social media (even setting up laws to penalize “fake news and rumors” about China and COVID-19), and loyalty to China to the point of endangering lives, as The Diplomat has observed across Southeast Asian governments. The Duterte administration has submitted to this propaganda line and has been most explicit about the fear of retaliation from China as expressed by none other than the health secretary.

For the Duterte government, there are two apparent reasons. One could simply be self-serving – that the Duterte administration, the most traveled to China, be able to maintain the business deals and transactions with Chinese firms. No matter how loose and small, these are big enough gains for its entourage of businessmen and cronies.

But the second reason is more on economic survival. The Duterte administration has yet to really jump-start its Build, Build, Build (BBB) infrastructure program and to capture the promise of China’s overflowing construction capital. Of the 100 flagship projects worth Php4.3 trillion, China accounts for only 17% of the number of projects and 16.3% of the cost, while only one of these projects is in the implementation stage. The economic managers are torn between revamping BBB and reallocating its budget for COVID-19 and leaving BBB unscathed. The fact remains, BBB is untenable now more than ever.

On endlessly praising China, the Duterte administration may not have really internalized China’s rhetoric, but it is clearly desperate. The Philippine economy is on its fourth year of slowdown, and the economic managers are still relying on foreign capital for pump-priming instead of building our industrial and agricultural core. The Philippine economy is down with the lingering illness of backwardness that has only been aggravated by neoliberal policies, yet government cannot think of a cure other than to be on its knees. #

Duterte govt can end lockdown sooner and help every Filipino in need

by IBON Media

The Duterte administration can end the lockdown sooner and help every Filipino in need. It can raise the resources needed for this if it lets go of its infrastructure fantasies, prioritizes life over debt, and is bolder in tapping the accumulated wealth of elites and large corporations. Not doing any of these means making the people bear the disproportionate burden of dealing with the pandemic.

Funds are available

In their most recent taped address last Thursday, April 24, the president and other members of the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) on Emerging Infectious Diseases took turns lamenting how little funds there are for responding to the COVID-19 crisis. No one doubts that huge resources are needed. However, using this an as excuse for failing to implement the necessary public health measures against the pandemic and for failing to help millions of poor Filipino families not just during the lockdown but amid the country’s worst economic crisis in decades is completely unacceptable.

Pres. Rodrigo Duterte declared: “Our country comes first.” For this to mean anything, the Duterte administration needs to take bolder measures to raise funds for dealing with the pandemic including letting go of its sacred cows.

Realigning the national government budget away from items that have fallen in priority is a start. However, the finance secretary’s latest declaration that the administration is preserving funds for its Build, Build, Build (BBB) program is particularly out-of-date. These BBB projects were conceptualized and justified at a time of giddy optimism about the economy. The pandemic, global recession, and domestic economic collapse mean that many projects in the Php989 billion public infrastructure program for 2020 are no longer viable and of much less priority than urgent health measures, emergency relief, and social protection.

The finance department’s earlier position that debt servicing will continue unhindered is also out-of-date. The national government is paying Php1.03 trillion to service debt in 2020 – Php451 billion for interest payments and Php582.1 billion for principal amortization. The current crisis however means that millions of Filipino families are at risk not just from the coronavirus but from disrupted livelihoods and loss of incomes. COVID-19 response spending should be prioritized over debt payments, starting with at least moratoriums on US$5.2 billion in debt service to so-called development agencies and supposedly friendly governments. The government’s human rights obligations to its people far outweigh debt service obligations.

The president said that the government will do everything necessary to raise money to fight COVID-19. This should include tapping the huge concentration of wealth and income in the country’s richest families and largest corporations. The 50 richest Filipinos had a combined wealth of Php4,061 billion in 2019, according to Forbes. The 50 largest conglomerates meanwhile had combined profits of Php856.4 billion in 2018 alone.

Much of this wealth and income is more socially useful today spent on COVID-19 response rather than accumulated as personal wealth or used for self-interested business purposes. The Duterte administration can take the bold step of issuing COVID-19 emergency bonds on solidarity terms targeted at these elites. There is also the daring step of reforming the tax system to become progressive with higher personal income and wealth taxes on the richest Filipinos and higher corporate income taxes on the largest corporations. The Duterte administration cannot say it has no money if it is not doing anything to mobilize concentrated income and wealth for socially urgent purposes.

Photo by Joseph Cuevas/Kodao

Lockdown can be ended

Millions of Filipinos are looking forward to the end of the lockdown, especially the vulnerable majority who have gone hungry and desperate over weeks of sparse or non-existent emergency relief from the Duterte administration. However, despite Malacanang’s posturing and government agencies’ reports, the fact remains that the national government is still being slow in putting the necessary health measures in place for the lockdown to be lifted safely.

The government needs to accelerate the pace of health measures for battling the coronavirus. At the same time, it needs to immediately arrest the enormous backlog in socioeconomic relief and assistance for millions of poor and vulnerable households affected by the lockdown.

The coronavirus continues to take its toll. As of April 23, the total number of reported cases has reached 6,981, with 462 fatalities. These include 1,062 infected health care workers with 26 fatalities.

Health experts such as from the UP COVID-19 Pandemic Response Team point out that the epicenter of the virus is the National Capital Region (NCR) and surrounding regions but also that it continues to spread elsewhere and still needs to be contained. The Department of Health (DOH) concedes that it is too early to say if the curve of COVID-19 transmission has begun to flatten.

While experts attest to the contribution of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) in controlling the spread of the coronavirus, it has heavily impacted on the poorest sections of the population, especially in Luzon, and the economy as a whole. The ECQ is disrupting 73% of the economy, corresponding to Luzon’s share in the gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019. IBON estimates that 14.5 million workers and informal earners have been dislocated. The 7.5 million lowest-income families in Luzon are most in danger of deeper poverty and hunger since they have little savings or means to absorb the shock of disrupted livelihoods.

The lockdown need not have been expanded or dragged on for so long had the government been more efficient and immediately started putting the necessary health measures in place. Yet three months since the first case of COVID-19 and almost six weeks into the lockdown, the government is still ill-equipped to contain the pandemic.

Despite the arrival of donations and test kits, only 55,465 individuals have been tested as of April 22. This is too few, according to health advocates, compared to the potential community and hospital transmission of the virus. There are still only 17 COVID-19 testing centers out of 78 that the DOH plans to install nationwide. Only 7,000 have been contact-traced, which is low compared to the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Quarantine, isolation, and treatment facilities remain insufficient: the health system is not yet ready for when infections and hospitalizations peak in the coming months. Frontline health workers still lack protective equipment. This has already resulted in the Philippines having among the worst infection rate and highest number of COVID-19-infected health workers in the world.

Photo by Joseph Cuevas/Kodao

Unnecessary suffering

At the same time, the government is failing to ensure that all poor and vulnerable families affected by the lockdown get adequate emergency relief. Their rights to food, health, water and sanitation, and social protection are grossly unmet and even violated.

Over 13 million of government’s targeted 18 million low income families have not received emergency subsidies and are going hungry.  Only 264,154 formal workers out of the IBON-estimated 10.7 million workers in the country have reportedly received assistance, and just 235,949 informal earners out of 5.2 million nationwide. Only 353,037 of 9.7 million farmers, farmworkers, and fisherfolk are reported to have received emergency subsidies.

The government claims to have released Php205 billion for emergency assistance. However, it is unconscionable for the government to have created so many bureaucratic barriers before this much-needed aid reaches the poor. These should be immediately removed.

The ECQ will be extended until May 15 in selected high-risk areas including the NCR, Calabarzon, Central Luzon, Benguet, Pangasinan, Albay, Catanduanes, Mindoro Island, Antique, Ilo-ilo Cebu, Davao Del Norte, and Davao City. Other parts of the country considered “low-risk” or “moderate-risk”, meanwhile, have been put under a “general community quarantine”, where aside from ECQ measures, “non-leisure stores” can partially open, higher education can finish the academic year, some construction projects may resume, and public transportation may operate on reduced capacity.

Affected families need expedient emergency relief in the period to come on top of what is due them for the past six weeks.

Making the most-affected families wait a day longer for aid that should have started coming many weeks ago nullifies government’s facade of being resource-capable with supposedly Php1.49 trillion towards its 4-pillar socioeconomic strategy against COVID-19. This amount gives the impression of huge spending but is really bloated by items that should not be counted as a ‘budget’ for the response.

In truth, the government plans to spend just Php366.9 billion with another Php133.7 billion for loan programs and credit guarantees. There is just Php50.7 billion for health response – it remains to be seen if this is enough to address the worst public health crisis in the country’s history.

The balance of Php316.2 billion is for social assistance. Yet this barely covers the Php297.1 billion in emergency socioeconomic relief that IBON estimates is needed for every month of the lockdown, which should include: emergency relief packages for the poorest 5 million families (Php15 billion); unconditional cash transfers for the poorest 10 million families (Php100 billion); wage subsidies for 10.7 million workers in formal establishments (Php53.5 billion); financial assistance for 5.2 million informal workers (Php26 billion) and 9.7 million farmers and fisherfolk (Php97 billion); and emergency support for 5.6 million indigent seniors and pensioners (Php5.6 billion).

Protecting people’s lives is the paramount concern, and the government should do everything necessary for this. This includes ensuring that the millions of families do not go hungry or suffer. It also includes giving special attention to high risk groups aside from the poor, such as the sick, elderly and those in congested jails. It however does not mean setting aside human rights as the Duterte government’s militarized approach is doing.

The lockdown may help contain the spread of the virus but this is at great social and economic cost and will be more and more untenable the longer it drags on. The necessary health measures have to be secured for the lockdown not be put to waste. At the same time, the government must ensure that it is giving enough attention to mitigating the lockdown’s effect especially on the poorest Filipinos. The country must deal with the pandemic, and the Duterte administration has the responsibility and obligation to ensure that this is done humanely and compassionately. The government also cannot claim that it does not have the money to respond well if it is just being blind to what really needs to be done. #

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

Gov’t Php1.5T COVID-19 response strategy bloated, misleading

by IBON Media

The Duterte administration continues to be misleading about its COVID-19 response strategy, research group IBON said.

A closer look shows that the government is not actually spending as much as it claims, the group said. This casts doubts on its real efforts to battle the pandemic, especially when it comes to the most vulnerable Filipinos.

The Department of Finance (DOF) recently announced that Php1.49 trillion would be allotted towards the administration’s 4-pillar socioeconomic strategy against COVID-19. 

The 4-pillar program is supposed to ensure emergency aid to the poorest and vulnerable Filipinos, medical resources to fight the pandemic, fiscal and monetary actions to keep the economy afloat, and an economic stimulus plan.

“The Duterte government is still being intentionally misleading about its COVID-19 response measures – which makes one doubt what else about the COVID-19 crisis they’re being untruthful about,” IBON executive director Sonny Africa said.

Africa noted the DOF claiming on its website that the “total budget” of the 4-pillar strategy is now at Php1.49 trillion.

He said this gives the impression that the government is spending Php1.49 trillion to respond to the pandemic.

In truth, it aims to spend just Php366.9 billion, and allocate Php133.7 billion for loan programs (Php13.7 billion) and credit guarantees (Php120 billion), he said.

The Php366.9 billion includes only Php316.2 billion in social assistance which barely covers what IBON estimates is at least Php297 billion needed for every month of the lockdown, said Africa.

The balance of Php50.7 billion is for the health response and is hopefully enough to deal with the worst public health crisis in the country’s history.

Africa also pointed out that the Php1.49 trillion budget – which gives the impression of huge spending for COVID-19 response – is bloated by items that should not even be counted as part of this supposed budget.

Among these is the Php142.8 billion in tax cuts, deductions and forgone revenues. These are not actually spent even if they are income losses for the government, he said.

The reported Php233 billion in estimated additional liquidity in the financial system from cuts in interest rate and reserve requirement cuts should not be considered spending, said Africa.

It is also not even sure how much of this will actually go to any kind of COVID-related response, he added.

The Php610 billion in additional financing from foreign lenders (Php310 billion) and the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas purchase of government bonds (Php300 billion) are also not spending as such.

Africa said that it would even be double-counting if any of this goes to the targeted Php366.9 billion in spending or the Php133.7 billion in loan programs/credit guarantees.

Africa said that the Duterte administration’s inability to properly cost its COVID-19 response measures is a direct result of its still not being clear what exactly its plan is. This despite being nearly six weeks into the lockdown already.

“The government can be honest about this and the efforts it is taking, instead of, almost maliciously, trying to cover this up by dazzling the public with huge figures in the trillions of pesos,” Africa said. #

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Kodao republishes IBON reports as part of a content-sharing agreement.

In the time of COVID: Hello, Earth

By Rosario Guzman/IBON

Today (Wednesday, April 22) marks the 50th year of the commemoration of Earth Day. Environmental activists vow that it will not just be a day but a movement. But in as much as we would want to manifest this human solidarity in a rally and mass gathering, we cannot – we are on our sixth week of a rather militaristic lockdown due to a pandemic.    

Fifty years – a lot has changed in those years, the most significant of which is how people have come to pay tribute to Mother Earth.

I myself remember my own environmental awakening – it was bittersweet. At first there was this desire to commune with nature, which I soon realized to be in a critically degraded state. I shed off that romanticism and embraced the harsh reality that we have to do something about our planet.

The other week while on lockdown, our batch at Ayala Mountaineers (named after the avenue, the concrete jungle) created an FB group to reconnect. In a matter of days, we’ve been photo-dumping old memories of our climbs, of breathtaking ridges, rock walls, rampaging falls, crisscrossing rivers, and crowded summits.

Yes, crowded summits and campsites! You see, we are Batch ’92 – right on the year of the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro when there was an upsurge in environmentalism.

Mountaineering club memberships have dwindled since then, not because the mountains and the great outdoors have stopped beckoning lovers, but because even our mountaineering has been put in a proper perspective.

I have learned a lot from activists. They raised the level of the discussion to sustainable development in Rio, forwarded the critique on the manner things were being governed, and vowed to reclaim our common future. Today, the general public have a far more profound appreciation of our planet, which has been expressed in vibrant struggles and social movements.

Profits over planet

Yet, undeniably, we are confronted with the worst ecological crisis. It took Rio another 20 years for governments and stakeholders to talk about more focused political reforms for sustainable development, and another three years to formulate such goals. Yet again, it has been five years since the sustainable development goals or SDGs, we are faced with what can be the worst pandemic, which undeniably has ecological roots.

Are we really this ignorant, ill-informed and lacking in science and technology to reach this precipice? No, it is the profit-motivated economic activities of few corporations and individuals that have vested interest in resisting the reforms that we want to be introduced.

And in the last 40 years, profit-seeking has been facilitated by neoliberalism. We have seen the unbridled utilization of ecosystems in the name of the market, in the name of profits. The systematic onslaught of neoliberal policies that liberalize foreign trade and investment has unfortunately occurred simultaneously with our so-called sustainable development discourse.

Neoliberalism has devastated our environment and impoverished our people, leading to our vulnerabilities to natural hazards and pandemics.

Unrepentant neoliberalism

Scientists point to several environmental changes that have categorically caused the outbreaks of pandemics. For instance, forest clearing for other economic uses has disturbed the habitat of various species and unleashed various pathogens. The loss of ecological integrity reduces our chances for healthy living and capacities to cope with diseases, aside from having itself created new diseases and mutations.

The Philippines is a hotspot of all of these. Deforestation, land-use changes and coastal reclamation are being done to give way to real estate and infrastructure development, industrial plantations and corporate agriculture. Economic activities that undermine ecological integrity such as foreign large-scale mining and the use of coal for energy are being promoted and liberalized. The kind of urbanization the country has is more associated with poverty rather than human development, as displaced and poor rural folk flock to the cities for survival. The Philippines is also among the top five countries that are most vulnerable to climate risks and disasters.

The Philippine environment is critical, because government policies remain to be hopelessly neoliberal. The Duterte administration for instance is centered on the promotion of real estate, construction, infrastructure development, natural resource extraction, and privatization of the commons, to name a few of its unrepentant neoliberal policies.

Fight on

COVID-19 is a health crisis as well as an environmental crisis – both only showing a crisis of the system that we have not yet resolved. This is why when we commemorate this day, we vow that indeed it is a movement. No matter how we put emphasis on the climb, the summit remains the most rewarding part. But as they say in mountaineering, there can always be several approaches to the summit – a gradual meandering ascent or a direct assault. Whichever we choose, as we commemorate this day, we definitely commit that it is going to be a view of a better future. #

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

On the sixth week of lockdown: Millions of Filipinos going hungry, suffer amid worst mass unemployment in history

By IBON Media

Research group IBON said that millions of Filipinos are going hungry and suffering the worst mass unemployment in the country’s history as the sixth week of lockdown begins.

The group said that government relief efforts, especially to the poorest Filipinos, is sluggish and minimal.

The Duterte administration is not giving emergency relief enough attention and appears more focused on using “martial law-like” measures to contain mounting social unrest, said the group.

Pres. Duterte’s latest report to Congress shows how government’s socioeconomic response is still dragging and meager, even in achieving its already low targets. Even with emergency powers granted to the President, bureaucratic hurdles and inefficiencies continue to stall urgent relief efforts. 

IBON said that there has been little improvement in the distribution of promised emergency subsidies.

The group noted that just about 4.3 million or less than one in four (24%) of the government’s targeted 18 million low income families have received cash assistance.

Contrary to the promise of supposedly up to Php5,000-8,000 in aid each, recipients instead received just an average of Php4,392 each.

No additional Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) beneficiaries have been given assistance other than the 3.7 million families reported three weeks ago.

Also, just 617,141 more non-4Ps beneficiaries have been served since then.

Non-4Ps beneficiaries apparently include the previously reported 40,418 drivers of public utility vehicles and transport network vehicle service; this is only 9% of the 435,000 drivers nationwide targeted for cash aid.

This means that as many as 13.6 million or 76% of the 18 million poorest families have not received emergency subsidies and are going hungry, said the group.

IBON said that millions of households are at risk of hunger because of the poor reach of emergency subsidies and even of government’s other financial assistance programs.

The Department of Labor Employment (DOLE) stopped accepting applications due to the depletion of the Php1.6 billion fund for its COVID-19 Adjustment Measure Program (CAMP).

Only 264,154 formal workers have received Php5,000 each in financial assistance as of April 19.

This is just 2.5% of the IBON-estimated 10.7 million workers in the country, a large majority of whom are affected by the lockdown.

The group said that it is unclear if affected workers unable to avail from CAMP will now be shouldered by the Department of Finance’s Small Business Wage Subsidy Program.

Not all formal workers in need meet the criteria of being employed in small businesses and registered with the Bureau of Internal Revenue and Social Security System.

Meanwhile, just 235,949 informal workers were assisted by DOLE, which is still only 3.4% of 5.2 million non-agricultural informal earners estimated by IBON. They received just an average of Php2,300 each.

IBON said that financial assistance for farmers and fisherfolk is also slow and negligible.

The Department of Agriculture has so far reported giving assistance to 300,994 farmers under the Rice Farmers Financial Assistance Program and 52,043 farmers under the Financial Subsidy for Rice Farmers Program.

This means only a total of 353,037 farmers have been given subsidies or just 3.6% of the country’s 9.7 million farmers, farm workers and fisherfolk as per IBON estimates.

IBON expressed concern that the government is more focused on using a militarist approach instead of swiftly resolving inefficiencies and ensuring that emergency subsidies are given to all vulnerable households. Government’s neglect could lead to more and more Filipinos violating quarantine as they seek ways to feed their families.

If the government gives more emphasis on “martial-law like” measures instead of being more humane and sensitive to the plight of poor and low-income families under lockdown, millions of families will go hungry amid more human rights violations and mounting social unrest, said the group. #

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