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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.

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.

Fighting for our rights to food, a healthy environment and development

by Xandra Liza C. Bisenio

In a forum on the role of consumers in agroecology, Commission on Human Rights (CHR) Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR) Center Assistant Chief Klarise Espinosa stressed that the right to food is recognized in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

Article 11 states that “everyone has a right to an adequate standard of living… including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.” As duty bearers, governments are expected to make sure that the right to food and the factors enabling it are realized, clarified Espinosa. The ESCR Center is currently reviewing to what extent the Philippine government facilitates and provides sustainable, available, and accessible food.

The ICESCR underscores that the right to food is linked to having decent living standards and the availability of essential needs, services and utilities for an individual and families. For campaigners of People Economics, asserting the right to food is inextricably connected to the people’s struggle to realize their rights to produce food and other basic needs, to industrialization, to a nurtured environment, to the comprehensive range of working people’s rights, to progressive fiscal systems, and to economic sovereignty.

Right to food challenged

In the Philippines, the government gives only token attention to the right to food, as well to the rights to an adequate standard of living, services such as health and education, and even to utilities such as water and electricity. Neoliberal policies have also kept the economy backward and underdeveloped, thus leaving the environment in bad shape, and affecting the availability of safe and sufficient food.

The Philippine government’s food threshold is very low and set at a measly Php50 per person per day. But the Philippines should not have to be counted among the top countries with moderate to severe food insecurity and high levels of malnutrition as per the food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) had the government not abandoned and liberalized agriculture, IBON Research Head Rosario Guzman said.

The critical state of our natural food sources, namely Philippine agriculture and the environment, is due to government neglect and mispriorities. This helps to explain why Filipinos’ access to safe and sufficient food is problematic.

The agriculture sector, which produces our food, lost 1.4 million jobs from 2017 to 2019, or even before the pandemic. The sector’s annual growth was only at 2.1% on average in the same period and its share in the economy has reached its smallest in Philippine history at 7.8% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019. Combined agriculture and agrarian reform budgets were at their lowest in 21 years being only 3.6% on the average also from 2017-2019.

In the middle of the pandemic, government even defunded agriculture further with a meager 1.5% allocation in the 2021 budget. This pales in comparison with the agriculture budgets of rice-exporters Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia, which are at 6.3%, 3.6%, and 3.3% of their national budgets, respectively.

Land degradation and land use conversion have also disrupted the ecological balance and affected food systems.

The country’s forest cover is now down to only 23.3% of the country’s land area which, according to environment scientists, is ecologically unhealthy. They say that the country’s geography and terrain should sustain a 54% forest cover.

The use of inorganic chemicals and input-dependent crop varieties meanwhile has caused severe erosion in 70.5% of the country’s land area. Moreover, land conversion for corporate agriculture, cash crops, real estate and infrastructure has also added to ecological disruption. The current administration is for instance pushing for almost one million hectares of oil palm plantations in Mindanao. Its Build, Build, Build infrastructure projects, including the Kaliwa, Kanan, and Laiban Dams, threaten to destroy communities, livelihoods, farms, forests, and water sources.

IBON infographic

Hunger and government’s unsustainable ways

Philippine agriculture is in contradiction as a food system, affirms Dr. Charito Medina of the Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura (MASIPAG). Farmers and fisherfolk producing food, he says, struggle to eat, and are the poorest sectors with 36% and 34% poverty incidence, respectively, according to official 2018 poverty statistics. Land planted to food kills instead of extending life because it is heavily infused with chemicals. Agricultural lands produce not for people but for big business in the case of feeds and biofuels production. Food wastage is high. Ultimately, corporations, not farmers, control and profit from agriculture. Government policies even prioritize importation and cash crops for export instead of strengthening local food production.

Rural, urban, and indigenous folk affirm how government policies have made food more difficult to both produce and avail. Zen Soriano of the Amihan National Federation of Peasant Women (Amihan) said that during COVID, farming communities are practically being hamletted during the lockdown. This makes it difficult for farmers to transport their produce and for farmworkers to transfer from one planting area to another. There are even cases when peasant missions to deliver food aid were terrorist-tagged. She also said that the rice liberalization law has caused palay prices to fall and millers to close down.

Mimi Doringo of the urban poor group Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap (Kadamay) meanwhile said that for families whose breadwinners lost their jobs or are in precarious work amid the coronavirus crisis, more expensive food and services make it more difficult to cope. Kakay Tolentino of the BAI Indigenous Women’s Network agreed that many government policies have interfered with indigenous people’s food systems in ancestral lands, from the commercialization of palay seeds to destructive mining, export crop plantations, ecotourism projects, and militarization.

These are happening while the pandemic crisis batters especially millions of the poorest and informal workers. The widespread distress is driving calls for heightened aid, food security programs benefiting all marginalized sectors, junking rice liberalization, and a halt to corporate landgrabbing and the commercialization of land and crops. Strategically, the calls are for land reform so that tillers can make their land productive and benefit from this, and for a healthy and robust environment that is not being maimed in pursuit of so-called development that only benefits a few.

Call to consumers

As rights holders, consumers can establish solidarity with producers and themselves begin sustainable practices in producing and consuming food. They can demand the production of and access to safe and sufficient food. Consumers need to also thwart the corporate onslaught on agriculture. Consumers can assert not only the right to food but the right to produce it, and other economic, social and cultural rights.

Solidarity with producers can range from forming relationships to directly procure local farmers’ produce and help raise farmers’ incomes, to standing with farmers in their campaigns for land and life. While maintaining this connection with local producers, consumers can also engage in urban farming to grow what they eat and eat what they grow.

In demanding the production of and access to safe and sufficient food, consumers can call out government neglect of the country’s own production sectors. They can push for ample budget allocation to agriculture and industry, free land distribution and stopping land use conversion, and boosting local production by giving farmers financial and infrastructure support. They can push government to procure local produce and to ensure local stocks for adequate supply.

Consumers can demand that the price of food be reasonable. They can demand subsidies in times of crises and emergencies such as during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are so many households, displaced workers, farms and small businesses in need.

The corporate onslaught on agriculture and on Filipino producers and consumers also has to be thwarted for local production systems to break free from big business and foreign profit-driven objectives. This means saying no not only to the highly chemical and artificial farm inputs detrimental to the soil and the people’s health, but also to all policies that prevent Philippine agriculture from flourishing into the nation’s giver of food and material for development. This means saying yes to Filipinos’ indigenous, traditional ways of farming, while improving food and agricultural programs towards being ecologically sound, scientific and sustainable conduits of progress. #

* “The Role of Consumers in Agroecology” was co-organized by the Samahan at Ugnayan ng mga Konsyumer para sa Ikauunlad ng Bayan (SUKI), Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura (MASIPAG), IBON, and the AgroecologyX Network

PH ‘stimulus’ smallest in region

Philippine spending in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is among the smallest in the region, said research group IBON.

The narrow-minded obsession with ‘creditworthiness’ stops the government from taking the urgent steps needed to restore livelihoods and save the economy. The group said that having economic managers dominated by finance people rather than development experts is the biggest obstacle to real recovery.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Policy Responses to COVID-19 tracker, the fiscal policy response of the Philippines is equivalent to just 3.1% of its gross domestic product (GDP).

IBON noted that this is the smallest among the major economies of Southeast Asia. This is less than in Singapore (19.7%), Vietnam (13.3%), Thailand (9.6%), Indonesia (4.4%) and Malaysia (4.3%). It is also less than half of the global average of around 6.2% of GDP.

The Philippines’ ranking does not change even if the Bayanihan 2 bill recently approved by the Senate is passed into law, said the group.

The proposed Php140 billion stimulus program is worth just 0.7% of the GDP and will bring the country’s fiscal response only to 3.8% of GDP.

The IMF notes that country data are not always strictly comparable but the figures are nonetheless indicative.

IBON said that upcoming national government (NG) budgets meanwhile see the smallest post-crisis ‘stimulus’ increases in decades, further undermining economic recovery.

Department of Budget and Management National Budget Memorandum No. 136 only foresees a 5.7% budget increase in 2021 falling to an even smaller 1.8% increase in 2022, despite the country facing the worst economic decline in its history in 2020 because of the pandemic.

The budget increase in 2021 would be the smallest in a decade and in 2022 the smallest in over 30 years.

These increases also compare unfavorably with budget increases after the 1997 Asian financial crisis and 2008 global financial and economic crisis.

After the Thai Baht collapsed in 1997, the NG budget rose by 9.3% in 1998 and then by 8.0% in 1999. After the Lehman Brothers firm collapsed in 2008, the NG budget rose by 9.1% in 2009 and by 2.7% in 2010.

The economic managers have been blocking larger stimulus packages proposed by Congress since at least May, the group said.

The House of Representatives and Senate took up more meaningful stimulus measures worth at least Php1.3 trillion or more but stopped when the finance department told them to because these were ‘unfundable’ and ‘unsustainable’.

These measures would have been closer to the global average.

Among others, this also affirms that the so-called power of the purse of Congress is illusory and how the president and executive branch are actually in complete control of the country’s finances. The president can implement a bigger stimulus package if he wants to, said the group.

The obsession of the economic managers with ‘creditworthiness’ is misplaced, said IBON.

Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia have lower credit ratings than the Philippines but are spending more to respond to and recover from the pandemic. Financing can be raised by reallocating from less productive infrastructure and debt service, and by a more progressive tax system with higher taxes on large firms and the wealth of the country’s super-rich.

The magnitude of the country’s response has to be commensurate to the crisis at hand. This should span health measures, continued cash subsidies to improve household welfare and boost aggregate demand, and support especially to Filipino and domestic market-oriented micro, small and medium enterprises, said the group. #

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

The unbelievable indifference of the Duterte administration

By Sonny Africa

The Duterte government insists that it is successfully responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. The reality is a little bit different – it hasn’t done enough, and is planning to do even less.

The coronavirus is spreading faster than ever. It took over three months to reach the first 10,000 confirmed cases but less than a week to add the last 10,000, at over 57,000 to date. University of the Philippines (UP) researchers forecast between 100,000 to 131,000 cases by the end of August.

Characteristically, the government’s containment measure of choice was a military lockdown – among the fiercest and longest in the world. It justified this as harsh but necessary, repeating a favored talking point used to justify all sorts of sins.

The effect on the economy and the people was certainly brutal.

The country was plunged into the worst crisis of mass unemployment in its history with 14 million unemployed and a 22% unemployment rate in April 2020, by IBON’s reckoning. The combined 20.4 million unemployed and underemployed are over two-fifths (40.2%) of the presumed labor force. These correct for serious underestimation in officially released figures.

The joblessness and collapse in livelihoods are expected to ease as restrictions are relaxed. But whatever improvement will still not be enough to return to a pre-pandemic state.

The country’s gross domestic product (GDP) is projected to contract by 2.0-3.4% for the whole of 2020, according to the government’s Development Budget Coordination Committee (DBCC). The World Bank has a slightly more optimistic projection of -1.9% while the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Asian Development Bank (ADB) see it worse at -3.6% and -3.8%, respectively.

This will be the worst growth performance in 35 years since the -7.3% (negative) GDP growth in 1983 and 1984. But if the low estimates materialize, it will also be the biggest decline from positive growth ever recorded.

As it is, the economy is well on the way to its fourth straight year of slowing growth. It already contracted at -0.2% growth in the first quarter of 2020 with just two weeks’ worth of lockdowns. The second quarter figures that will come out in August will be much worse.

Unhealthy response

No one is likely to have thought that the worst public health crisis and economic decline in the country’s history would be enough to spur the Duterte administration to reform its anti-democratic and anti-development ways. It didn’t.

The government’s military-dominated COVID-19 response team has proven unfit for purpose and the steeply rising cases today point to the protracted lockdown being squandered. Yet the rise in reported cases do not even give the complete picture.

To date, there’s a validation backlog of over 15,000. The positivity rate of 12.4% meanwhile indicates that testing is still, months into the pandemic, far below the levels needed. Local transmission is still gaining momentum even as other Southeast Asian countries have already stopped theirs.

The hazy picture is a poor starting point for the contact tracing, isolation and selective quarantines needed. But the rise in COVID-19 cases is sufficient to show how social distancing and other precautionary measures can’t go far enough.

Assuming all pandemic-related deaths are accounted for, the 1,534 reported deaths are still relatively few and the number of daily fatalities fortunately fewer than the peak in March. This may however soon change as the virus spreads in the coming weeks and as the health system becomes overstretched even just by those who can afford it.

Hospital capacity hasn’t been beefed up so much as portions of it carved out at the expense of non-COVID-19 cases. The National Capital Region (NCR) and Cebu are the pandemic’s epicenters in the country. As much as 19 NCR hospitals are at or nearing their capacity of ICU beds for COVID-19 patients – 14 of which were acknowledged by the Department of Health (DOH) last week – while Cebu’s hospitals are already overwhelmed.

Hyped assistance

The inadequacy of the health response is more disturbing in how the time for this was bought with lost incomes, small business closures, joblessness and hunger. Tens of millions of Filipinos even suffered more than they should have because of similarly inadequate emergency relief.

At the start of the lockdowns, 18 million beneficiary households were promised Php5,000-8,000 in monthly cash subsidies for just two months. That right there is an immediate problem – the lockdowns are running on four months now, since mid-March, with only partial easing in June.

Emergency subsidies reportedly reaching 19.4 million beneficiaries under various programs of the departments of social welfare, labor and agriculture sounds impressive.

However, the aid was very slow in coming. Most beneficiaries had to wait 6-10 weeks before getting their first monthly tranche.

The aid is also very stingy. Taken altogether, the first tranche of the cash subsidy programs only amounts to an average of Php5,611 per beneficiary family. Over the last four months this comes out to just Php11 per person per day.

The government has even recanted and said that only 12 million beneficiaries will get the second tranche. But the number of those who will actually get this second tranche may be even less than that. The government is invoking bureaucratic difficulties to explain why only 1.4 million of the 12 million have received this tranche to date.

These emergency cash subsidies are also much lower than the latest official poverty threshold of Php10,727 monthly for a family of five. Yet this miserly relief will even seem generous in the period to come because little more is forthcoming. The official government policy was succinctly put by the presidential spokesperson recently: “We cannot afford to give ayuda (aid) to keep everyone alive.”

Business as usual

The Duterte administration’s lockdowns precipitated what may be the greatest economic collapse in Philippine history. The lockdowns per se are of course temporary – indeed, as too the pandemic, even if this will linger for at least another year or more.

Though temporary, the simultaneous demand and supply shock to the Philippine economy, other countries, and the global economy as a whole is unprecedented in the modern era. The world economy is said to be undergoing its worst recession since the Great Depression.

Yet apart from a momentary surge in emergency relief and despite lip service to the economic crisis, it bizarrely still seems to be business as usual for the economic managers. There are a couple of reasons for this.

The most basic is how the economic managers – and most of our political leaders – are blinded by the free market dogma imbibed over four decades of neoliberal globalization. There is a rigid faith that market forces will be enough to meet the pandemic-driven economic challenge. This is matched by an inability to grasp that responsible state intervention is needed not just to deal with the crisis but for long-term national development.

But there is also an extreme narrow-mindedness common among many afflicted by that dogma – that ‘creditworthiness’, ‘competitiveness’ and ‘investor-friendliness’ are not just a means to but actually ends of development. The people who make up the majority of the economy are peripheral and ever in the margins.

These go far in explaining the lack of urgency and, apparently, seeing the current crisis as an inconvenient but minor speed bump on the highway to free market-driven progress.

Fragments of a response

Genuine attention would start with immediately coming up with a plan fitting the vastly changed pandemic-driven crisis conditions. Nearly six months into the pandemic, all that the people have are fragments – including fragments which are self-evidently exaggerated to give the impression of substantial action.

The economic team came up with a “4-pillar strategy” in April that was eventually rebranded as the Philippine Program for Recovery with Equity and Solidarity (PH-PROGRESO). Supposedly worth Php1.7 trillion or an impressive 9.1% of GDP, this figure was grossly bloated by double-counting of interventions and their sources of financing, by conflating actual spending with merely foregone tax and tariff revenues, and by including additional liquidity from monetary measures.

The Inter-Agency Task Force Technical Working Group for Anticipatory and Forward Planning (IATF-TWG for AFP) released its We Recover As One report in May. This seemed more detailed, comprehensive and forward-looking. There are some relevant health and education measures.

But some very important measures are missing – expanding the public health system, social protection to help everyone in need, and protecting jobs, wages and workers’ rights. Trade, industrial and agricultural measures also seem oblivious to unsound fundamentals, the global crisis, and accelerating protectionism. On the other hand, unfunded feel-good platitudes are aplenty.

The economic managers started working with Congress on a Bayanihan 2 bill in June. This replaces the Php1.3 trillion package that Congress originally proposed but which the finance department summarily shot down ostensibly for lack of funds. The Bayanihan 2 proposal is now just one-tenth in size at Php140 billion.

At present, the stinginess of the economic managers is the biggest binding constraint to addressing the pandemic, alleviating economic distress of poor households, and economic recovery. The Php140 billion is much too small compared to the magnitude of the crisis at hand. At the same time, the sweeping insistence on infrastructure as a magic bullet and on sacrosanct debt servicing means continued unproductive spending rather than on what would have the greatest development impact.

A Philippine Economic Recovery Plan was supposed to be made public at the pre-SONA forum of the economic and infrastructure cluster on July 8. But this was not presented and is still strangely kept secret. Neither the Department of Finance (DOF) nor the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) websites share this with the public, and a direct request was declined.

It’s five-and-a-half months since the first confirmed COVID-19 case in the Philippines, and about four months since declaring a public health emergency, a state of national emergency, and the start of lockdowns. The Duterte administration has throughout portrayed itself as doing everything it needs to.

In reality, it seems to be doing as little as it can. A new anti-terrorism law was apparently even seen as more urgent than clinching a stimulus program. This languid COVID-19 response is bringing us to the edge of the precipice on both the health and economic fronts. #

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

Gov’t should check SAP’s gross failure as COVID cases rise – IBON

by IBON Media & Communications

Research group IBON said that the Duterte government should correct the huge shortfall of the Social Amelioration Program (SAP) especially amid a continuously increasing number of COVID-19 cases.

Aside from getting the stingy first tranche of emergency subsidies, 9 million of the 18 million target recipients and 1.5 million more “wait-listed” beneficiaries will no longer get the second tranche.

This is as the government limits distribution to residents in enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) and modified ECQ (MECQ) areas. Yet, the country reaches a record of 36,438 cases as of June 29.

According to the recently expired Bayanihan law, the Philippine government was supposed to provide emergency subsidies to low-income families and vulnerable sectors whose jobs and incomes were disrupted by the lockdown.

Support amounting to Php5,000-8,000, depending on regional minimum wage rates, was to be given to some 18 million poor households for two months.

The first month-tranche came in the duration of three months, making the already stingy aid even much delayed.

The second month-tranche, on the other hand, according to an inter-agency joint memorandum, will be distributed now only to beneficiaries in the ECQ and MECQ areas.

This reduces the original 17.7 million target beneficiaries to just 8.6 million households in the following areas: Central Luzon except Aurora, the National Capital Region (NCR), Calabarzon, Benguet, Pangasinan, Iloilo, Cebu province, Bacolod City, Davao City, Albay province, and Zamboanga City.

This leaves 9.1 million of the original target SAP beneficiaries affected by the three-month lockdown to make do with the meager first tranche, said IBON. This is even if economic activity cannot fully resume in now general community quarantine (GCQ) and modified GCQ areas.

Considering that Php98.3 billion has been distributed to 17.5 million households as of June 27, IBON computes that the first tranche averages out to Php5,617 per family.

Without the second tranche supposedly for the second month of lockdown, the subsidy amounts to just Php53 per family or Php12 per person per day for the past 106 days since the COVID-19 lockdown started.

Even those who will receive the second tranche will still end up stretching a small amount over three months of lockdown, IBON said.

Some Php6.79 billion in second tranche aid has already been distributed to 1.3 million recipients, or an average of Php5,047 per family.

Combining both tranches, these 1.3 million families each got only a total of Php10,664.

This amounts to Php101 per family or Php23 per family member for each of the 106 lockdown days.

IBON also noted that 5.28 million low-income households even continue to wait for the first tranche of SAP.

This figure includes the remaining 278,206 beneficiaries out of the target 17.7 million according to Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) data as of June 27.

The rest are the families declared by the DSWD in mid-May as also eligible to receive aid but have not received any.

Yet, the government retracted and said that only 3.5 million of the wait-listed beneficiaries in MECQ and ECQ areas as of end-May are to get two tranches of emergency subsidy.

This means that the remaining 1.5 million in GCQ and modified GCQ areas are getting only one tranche.

The country does not seem to be winning the war against COVID-19, but the government has remained indifferent to the impact of the pandemic on the millions of poor families, said IBON.

The Duterte administration has continued penny-pinching even as people’s livelihoods and incomes are already irrecoverable and public health is at risk.

People’s socioeconomic welfare along with an efficient health response are the urgent matters that the Duterte government should be focusing on instead of staying apathetic to the mounting health and economic crisis, IBON said. #

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

Higher inflation for poorest Filipinos underscores urgent need for continued cash subsidies

by IBON Media & Communications

Research group IBON said that the higher inflation is problematic but particularly burdens the poorest Filipinos. Inflation rates for the 30% poorest households are higher than the national average.

Especially amid historic joblessness, this affirms how the government should continue giving cash subsidies as income support, the group said.

According to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), headline inflation rose to 2.5% in June 2020 from 2.1% in May 2020.

Behind this uptick are price increases in: transportation, particularly tricycle fares; alcoholic beverages and tobacco; housing, water, electricity, gas, and other fuels; and communication.

However, the 3.0% inflation rate in June for the poorest 30% of households was higher than the headline inflation rate of 2.5 percent.

This means that the cost of living is rising fastest for the country’s poorest households.

IBON said that this is troublesome for millions of poor families suffering interrupted incomes and stingy emergency relief. 

IBON said that the rise in inflation despite repressed consumption during the lockdown is worrying and points to problems in supply and production.

The government is primarily responsible for ensuring these especially during a public emergency.

For instance, the group said, the notable increase in the transport index shows the government’s weakness in ensuring this vital public service.

Rising prices especially for the poorest affirms the urgency of continued income support, IBON said.

The number of beneficiaries getting the second tranche of emergency subsidies should not be limited. The 18 million poorest Filipinos, including the 5 million wait-listed beneficiaries of the Social Amelioration Program, should receive both the first and second tranches of the Php5,000-Php8,000 per-month emergency aid, said the group.

The government said that only those residing in enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) and modified ECQ areas will be getting a second tranche.

This is only 8.6 million families of the original 18 million target beneficiaries, and 3.5 million households of the five million wait-listed.

This also means that 10.6 million beneficiaries now in general community quarantine (GCQ) and modified (MGCQ) areas will have to make do with just their first tranche.

With the cost of living fast rising amid an even worsening pandemic, limiting the number of beneficiaries getting the second tranche of emergency aid is unconscionable, IBON said.

The government should even consider additional tranches for vulnerable households that continue to reel from lost livelihoods and income, said the group. #

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

The anomaly of transport modernization (Part II)

by Rosario Guzman

Read the first part here:

Government’s misplaced scheme

In many instances, the solution to the complex transport problems of Metro Manila lies in the physics of the problem, in the same way that dealing with COVID-19 requires medical science. But the Duterte administration has simply picked up its pre-COVID proposal of “jeepney modernization” and used the pandemic to justify finally pushing for it, amid protestations by jeepney drivers and the adverse impact on millions of commuters.

The government is a signatory to the Bangkok Declaration on Sustainable Transport Goals (Bangkok 2020) on “environmentally-sustainable” transport policy. This is also in relation to the ADB’s Sustainable Transport Initiative that is ultimately premised on the continuation of “free market” and “inclusive” economic growth. The Duterte government’s accomplishment in fulfilling Bangkok 2020 rests on the jeepney modernization program. Ultimately, this is important for the Duterte administration to attract transport infrastructure investments as well as to push for the sale of brand new, imported, so-called environment-friendly, and modern jeepneys.

Through the Omnibus Franchising Guidelines (OFG) that the DOTr issued on 19 June 2017, the government is requiring the make of the body and engine of the traditional jeepney to be compliant with the requirements set by the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB). These requirements definitely prioritize electric jeepneys (e-jeep), while pushing away the traditional jeepneys which need to go through numerous hurdles to get licensed to operate. These hurdles include: upgrading combustion engines to comply with Euro IV and similar emissions standards; complying with the LTFRB-set age-limit of oldest vehicle part; refurbishing and rebuilding that should pass the type approval system test; and still finally going through the Land Transportation Office (LTO) for a roadworthiness test to get registration renewal.

Concerned automotive engineers, scientists and mechanics contest the need to phase out traditional jeepneys and argue that the government should support locally manufactured environmental solutions. They also question the availability of the parts of the imported modern jeepneys in case of repairs, unlike with the traditional jeepneys that can be replaced easily. They also claim that the body engineering of the modern jeepneys is not suited to Metro Manila’s narrow roads and more prone to accidents. Environmentalists have also criticized the government’s going electric or Euro IV as hypocritical when its own energy program is reliant on coal and other fossil fuels.

But the OFG just keeps on narrowing the chances for traditional jeepneys to survive. The OFG also requires a fleet size of 15 units for any type of PUV for six months for new routes, which prevents small operators from applying for new franchises. Actually, even medium-scale operators – if they exist – are constrained and marginalized under the modernization program. The modern jeepney costs about Php1.6 million to as high as Php2.5 million, which means that an operator needs at least Php24 million to get a franchise.

The DOTr has stated that the government is not phasing out jeepneys but simply modernizing. However, the government plays with words. The jeepney modernization program will ultimately kill the livelihoods of thousands of jeepney drivers and complete the corporate capture of the ‘last-mile’ resort of millions of Filipino commuters.

Still pushing for Build, Build, Build and foreign ownership

The Duterte administration is also not compromising its Build, Build, Build (BBB) infrastructure projects, despite their questionable viability even before COVID-19 struck and their diminishing relevance now. Of the 100 infrastructure flagship projects (IFPs) worth Php4.3 trillion, 73 are for transport and mobility. The government does not have plans to strengthen economic production so the projects will just end up reinforcing a service economy dependent on import-export trade, foreign investments and tourism. Much of the construction materials used are even imported rather than produced locally.

The transport sector is reflective of how the government has lost its capacity to govern and manage public services because of privatization. This raises questions therefore on government’s absorptive capacity for such a grand infrastructure program. Four years into the ambitious BBB, there are only two (2) completed and nine (9) ongoing projects to date. The Duterte administration has even increased the IFPs from 75 to 100 to make BBB “more feasible”. But it appears that only 38 projects will be finished by the end of its term.

The future of BBB in the time of COVID-19 is precarious. But like a beaten beast, the Duterte administration refuses to yield. The pandemic is posing serious challenges to the continuation of BBB, apart from the program’s innate weakness of simply being aimed at attracting foreign investments and momentarily stimulating a slowing economy.

The most obvious challenge for the construction industry is physical distancing because  masses of workers need to gather to finish a project. The IATF suspended construction at the start of the lockdown but later allowed it, while passing on to the construction companies the responsibility of ensuring that workers comply with health protocols.

The next challenge is how travel restrictions and physical distancing will certainly dampen transport, travel and tourism businesses, and foreign trade and investment for a long time. These are the sectors that BBB wishes to be relevant for – but they are less and less important for the economy’s survival in the time of COVID-19.

Another challenge is the commercial viability of the projects on which they are all premised. Instead of catering to genuine public service, the completed projects are designed to be run by private transport corporations who will collect user-fees for their profitability and sustainability. The most expensive BBB projects are mass commuter railways whose viability depends on expensive fares that will be beyond the reach of the majority of the poor and working people.

But the greatest challenge is how BBB’s socially inappropriate orientation can be shifted to support the proper health response to COVID-19. The pandemic has revealed how weak our health system is – lacking facilities and equipment, lacking health personnel, and even lacking the means to transport health personnel. Not a few health frontliners have had fatal road accidents biking to work due to lack of transport support from the government. There is not even a single health infrastructure facility in the IFP lineup. The administration has made pronouncements that it would reorient BBB to respond to the health crisis but has yet to release a new IFP list.

Meanwhile, one priority legislation of the administration is the amendment of the Public Services Act (PSA). On March 10, just before the lockdown, the House of Representatives passed on final reading House Bill (HB) 78 to amend the PSA. It is now at the Senate for deliberation and approval. These amendments include narrowly defining public utilities to bypass Constitutional restrictions on foreign ownership. Sectors considered public services, transportation included, can be opened up to complete foreign ownership. This further undermines public interest and national development. The PSA amendments will pave the way for the full foreign ownership of the mass transport system and government’s eventual surrender to private transport and transport infrastructure corporations.

The right direction

The Duterte government can address the transport crisis in the time of COVID-19 and in fact can look at the pandemic as an opportunity to overhaul the system. The health protocols may be followed indeed if only the government recognizes and addresses the transport crisis in a scientific manner.

There should be a first-step long-term modal shift from road to rail. The government can start by upgrading and adding rolling stock and rails to the train system. The corporations and officials of government agencies who forged lopsided privatization contracts should be held liable for poor service including breakdowns and accidents. The Philippines is among the first countries in Asia to have an urban rail system and has a long history of government running rail transport systems. These assets can be nationalized again and returned to public control. Rail transport can then be central to urban planning as well as to the dispersal of economic activities to the rural areas.

An efficient rail transport system, not to mention fully linked and accessible, will be the basis of an equally efficient route rationalization plan for PUBs and PUVs. The government should seriously conduct its own study to identify where the mass of commuters can have the most optimal travel time, including number of stops, from their workplaces to their homes. This should also include designation of walkways and bike lanes. It should not rely on self-interested privatization stakeholders to make such studies.

For a route rationalization plan to be truly systematic, PUBs and PUVs along with rail should be publicly run. Government can start by organizing PUBs and PUVs into cooperatives rather than allowing only single or corporate proprietorship of large fleets. It can also incentivize cooperatives to improve their service and compliance. Then, government can move on to careful consolidation of fleets through joint ventures and eventual nationalization. Such crucial steps will finally make PUB and PUV modes more economical and fares more affordable.

The DOTr is proposing to introduce service contract arrangements with private transport operators for the “new normal”. It also aims to shift from the “boundary system” to daily fixed wage for drivers and conductors so they can have steady incomes regardless of reduced ridership. This sounds acceptable, especially if we consider that transport groups have long been clamoring for government to abolish the “boundary system” to avoid competition-driven stresses, road hazards, and transport unpredictability.

However, the DOTr proposal remains outside the vision of living wages for transport workers, promoting their welfare and strengthening their unions, subsidizing commuters and controlling fares, and diminishing competition among the private contractors with stronger public control. In short, the current proposal should be within the framework of nationalization, lest it end up being another privatization contract.

The proposal is welcome if it is not being done in the context of the government’s jeepney modernization program. The Duterte administration cannot even give sufficient social amelioration to displaced drivers and conductors during a pandemic.

Moreover, government should once and for all restrain the explosive private car sales that defies all public mass transport logic. These just give the automotive corporations maximum returns on their businesses.

Finally, the pandemic gives us the vast opportunity to rethink sustainable development perspectives. The need for agrarian development and national industrialization cannot be overemphasized. But the government can start with arresting the anarchic building of offices especially for business process outsourcing and online gambling, shopping malls, hotels and leisure structures, residential and private subdivisions, and condominiums. Metro Manila’s urban development Is geared to increasing real estate profits and the wealth of the country’s economic oligarchs at the expense of public mobility and welfare.

Government can start by planning an economy that genuinely addresses severe inequalities existing pre-COVID-19 that, without corrective steps, will persist even far beyond. #

Ang sinapit ng mga drayber

“Dati, kami ang kinakawayan. Ngayon, kami ang kumakaway [para mamalimos].”–Joel Caligayan, tsuper ng jeep biyaheng Rosario-Cubao

Govt jeepney ban has already cost drivers Php78,000

by IBON Media & Communications

Thousands of small public utility jeepney (PUJ) drivers have lost as much as Php78,000 each from three months of mass transport suspensions since the lockdown.

The government has been insensitive and stingy assistance has pushed jeepney drivers and their families into poverty, said IBON.

Their troubles risk becoming permanent with the government exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to keep small drivers and operators off the road to fast-track its jeepney phaseout program, it added.

The Duterte administration suspended mass transport, including jeepneys, when it declared enhanced community quarantines (ECQ) in Luzon then in other parts of the country in mid-March.

Quarantine measures have since eased to general community quarantine (GCQ) in many areas and public transport has resumed in phases.

The first phase started in June 1 and the second is due to begin on June 22.

Jeepneys, however, will still remain prohibited.

PUJ drivers have suffered lost incomes for over three months already, IBON said. Among them are the estimated 55,000-70,000 jeepney drivers in Metro Manila.

For instance, before the ECQ, drivers plying the MCU-Rotonda via Taft route earned an average of Php1,000 per day after a 12-hour shift, net of boundary and fuel expenses.

Jeepney drivers on this route usually worked six days a week.

This means that, to date, they have lost some 78 working days over the past 3 months or 13 weeks of suspended mass transport.

This translates to a total net income loss of Php78,000 or Php26,000 per month of lockdown, said IBON.

Out of work jeepney drivers lose Income with each passing day of transport suspension.

The group stressed that government assistance has been far from enough to make up for these lost incomes.

The social welfare department reports only 36,200 jeepney drivers getting cash aid in the past three months.

Even then, some jeepney drivers only received one tranche of the Php5,000-8,000 of social amelioration and it remains unclear if they will even get the second tranche.

Many small jeepney drivers and operators could become permanently out of work, particularly in Metro Manila, IBON said. 

Transport officials are using the mass transport suspension to force the phaseout of traditional jeepneys by only allowing modernized jeepneys to run.

Under the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB)’s Memo Circular 2020-017 on public transport guidelines in GCQ areas, only modernized jeepneys and traditional jeepneys under a corporation or cooperative are allowed to operate.

This leaves out small jeepney operators and drivers who, unlike big or corporate fleet operators, can ill-afford the costly Php1.6–2.2 million modernized units, or steep fees and requirements to form a cooperative.

They are even less able after three months of lost incomes and depleted savings, if any.

IBON said that the livelihoods of thousands of small jeepney drivers and operators are at stake. Instead of putting corporate interests first and pushing its phaseout program, the government should give immediate cash assistance to drivers and their families who have suffered three months of lost incomes.

It should also support drivers and operators in upgrading or replacing their units to meet safety, health and environmental standards. #