Drowned by Ondoy, drowned by debt

A community in Pasig City remains flooded days after tropical storm Ondoy hit Metro Manila and nearby provinces (photo from Bayan - NCR)
A community in Pasig City remains flooded days after tropical storm Ondoy hit Metro Manila and nearby provinces (photo from Bayan - NCR)

Malacañang admitted Thursday (Oct 1) that government’s calamity fund of P1 billion is in danger of being depleted. Thus, members of the Senate and the House of Representatives held an emergency meeting with some Cabinet officials and agreed to pass a P10-billion supplemental budget in the wake of Ondoy’s onslaught in Metro Manila and adjacent provinces last weekend (Sep 26-27).

The problem is where to source the money. Not surprisingly, Department of Finance (DOF) Secretary Margarito Teves announced that they will tap the global bond market again in order to raise funds for relief and rehabilitation of “Ondoy” victims. This would be the third round of global bond issuance for the Philippine government this year, after the $1.5-billion bond sale in January and the $750-million sold in July, and would come ahead of the scheduled Samurai bond issuance later in the year.

But instead of borrowing more which will only aggravate the country’s debt problems, the more sensible step would be for government to cancel debt payments to free up billions of pesos in public funds that can be used for disaster relief and rehabilitation in the immediate, and provide much needed social services in the medium and long-term.

Debt servicing, since the time of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, has been siphoning valuable public resources from the country, with the current Arroyo administration paying out the biggest amount of public funds for debt servicing. Debt servicing (interest payments and principal amortization) under Mrs. Arroyo has been, on the average, more than 10% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) – higher than Aquino’s 8.1%, Ramos’s 6.8% and Estrada’s 6.6 percent.

Under its proposed national budget for 2010, the Arroyo administration will shell out a huge P746.18 billion for debt servicing covering interest payments and principal amortization. In 2009 and 2008, government spent P702.6 billion and P612.68 billion for debt servicing, respectively. These are huge amounts of money, with interest payments in 2010, for instance, eating up 22.1% of the national budget compared with housing’s 0.4%, health’s 2.5%, and education’s 15.3% – all of which will surely require more funds now because of Ondoy and other stronger typhoons expected to hit the country.

Is debt cancellation possible? Ecuador just did it earlier this year, with its President calling the country’s foreign debt “immoral”.

Considering the still unfolding humanitarian crisis that Ondoy has caused and threats of more super typhoons, the

Youth groups under the Serve the People Brigade join relief efforts for Ondoy victims in Laguna (photo from Kabataan party-list - Southern Tagalog)
Youth groups under the Serve the People Brigade join relief efforts for Ondoy victims in Laguna (photo from Kabataan party-list - Southern Tagalog)

Philippines can justify its move to cancel debt servicing and attend to the more immediate needs of its people. On top of this is the long-standing issue that many of the country’s debts are considered odious and thus the people should not be burdened to pay for them.

Current debt-funded projects such as the multi-million dollar road projects being bankrolled by Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), $100-million text book project of the World Bank, China’s $885.4-million South Luzon railways project, ADB’s $750-million power sector reform programs and projects, among others are tainted with irregularities and corruption and should be considered for debt cancellation.

While emergency grant assistance for disaster relief from foreign donors are welcome, debt cancellation should be a top option for the Philippines in terms of raising sufficient resources in a sustainable manner to deal with disasters and other immediate and basic needs of its people.

As an initial move, Congress must repeal the Marcosian automatic debt servicing rule as provided under the revised Administrative Code of 1987 and rechannel funds allocated to debt servicing in the 2010 national budget to social services and disaster relief and rehabilitation.

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