Junking the Marcosian debt policy for people’s needs

Despite its trappings of reformist language, the Aquino administration’s budget proposals are still reflective of the same anti-people and anti-development policy thinking of the past regimes; and still emasculated by the Marcosian automatic debt servicing

Continued from Part 1

Until today, under post-Martial Law so-called democratic regimes, the Marcosian policy of automatic debt servicing and the heavy debt burden continue to cripple the capacity of government to provide sufficient social services and attend to the basic needs of the people. In an earlier research, think tank Ibon Foundation noted that Filipino taxpayers will continue to shoulder the Marcos debts until 2025, more than half a century since the late strongman imposed Martial Law.

The most controversial and biggest white elephant funded by Marcos debts and paid for by taxpayers was the $2.3-billion Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP). While we have already completed the payment for the BNPP that has never produced a single kilowatt of electricity, government continues to look for funding sources for the maintenance of the mothballed nuke plant.

These issues take more significance every time Congress prepares the national budget. Since taking over, the Aquino administration has been peddling the deception that unlike in the past, government’s priority now is the provision of social services and empowerment of the people through well-funded programs that directly benefit the poor. But as already noted, automatic payments for principal and interest continue to eat up the largest portion of public resources, including in the so-called 2013 “Empowerment Budget” of the Aquino administration.

Still way short

The Department of Budget and Management (DBM) describes its proposed 2013 national budget as an “Empowerment Budget” because it supposedly heeds the people’s demand to ensure that government resources are used for their benefit. One indicator, said the DBM, is the increase in the budget allocation for social services, which will get the lion’s share of the proposed ₱2.006-trillion budget at 34.8%, up from last year’s 33.8 percent.

Of the proposed budget for social services (₱698.4 billion), the combined allocation for basic education, health and housing is pegged at ₱365.6 billion, which represent the proposed budget for the Education and Health departments, and government’s housing programs excluding those for the soldiers and police. But this amount is just about ¼ of the needed budget to reasonably meet the demands of the people for such services. Based on urgent needs as well as international standards, it is estimated that the budget for basic education, health and housing alone should be about ₱1.4 trillion. Of the said amount, basic education accounts for ₱885 billion (as estimated by the ACT Teachers); health, ₱440 billion (Coalition for Health Budget Increase or CBHI); and housing ₱ 97billion (Ibon).

Resources for social services

There are possible sources of funding for such huge needs of basic social services but it requires a substantial reorientation in government policies and shift in priorities. Based on the 2013 budget, for instance, there are some ₱860 billion that can be tapped, partially or wholly, to fund basic education, health and housing.

Of the said amount, the largest portion is comprised of the national government’s debt service burden, which is pegged at ₱782.2 billion for principal amortization and interest payments. The rest comes from programs and projects whose concept and/or expected benefits are disputed such as the conditional cash transfer (CCT) program, public-private partnership (PPP), counterinsurgency-related initiatives, privatization obligations from past projects, and tourism promotion and development. (See Table 3)

Debt servicing still represents the biggest drain in the country’s already limited resources. Adding principal amortization to interest payments, debt servicing comprises almost 32% of what the Aquino administration is planning to spend in 2013. At ₱782.2 billion, debt servicing is bigger than the budget for all social services in the current budget proposal, pegged at ₱698.4 billion or 28% of the budget including principal amortization.

As pointed out, the culprit is the Martial Law-era automatic debt servicing policy of government. This policy has greatly undermined the constitutional duty of Congress to allocate funds that will meet the pressing needs of the people. Under EO 292, government computes all public debt obligations that have to be settled and automatically sets aside the needed amount to ensure timely payments.

Meanwhile, Congress has to make do with whatever is left of government’s meager resources to budget for the social and development needs of the people. What makes this whole situation more unjust and oppressive is that most of the country’s public debt has been used for projects and/or programs that were tainted with corruption, did not benefit the people or worse, had caused more hardship to the poor. Examples include the power privatization loans from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) which have already reached around $1.3 billion since 2002.

There are many other odious loans that should be reviewed, renegotiated and/or altogether cancelled to reduce the debt burden. But EO 292 deprives Congress and the Filipino people of this policy option.

Debt-funded dole

Even the much ballyhooed CCT program is being partly funded by foreign debt worth $805 million from the ADB and the World Bank, adding to the country’s debilitating debt burden. And while adding to the debt burden, the CCT’s positive impact on alleviating poverty is also suspect. Between 2009 and 2012, the number of CCT beneficiaries ballooned from 594,356 households to more than 3 million (or an enormous 407% increase); the national budget for CCT during the same period also swelled from ₱5 billion to ₱39.4 billion (or a whopping 688% hike). But self-rated poverty, as measured by the Social Weather Stations (SWS) worsened from an average of 48% in 2010 to 51% this year.

Privatization and debt

Funding PPP initiatives, on the other hand, is problematic given the country’s experience with privatization in the past two decades. PPP schemes in the water and power sectors, for instance, have resulted in soaring and exorbitant user fees. Aquino’s plan to tap PPP to construct school buildings and health facilities is fe

ared to further marginalize the poor as fees skyrocket to ensure the profits of participating private contractors while aggravating the indebtedness of government.

In fact, the national budget has long been being undermined by the impact of such onerous PPP contracts. Case in point is the controversial build-lease-transfer (BLT) contract to run the metro rail transit (MRT) where the Aquino administration is pushing to implement a fare hike of as much as 100% to pass on to commuters the government’s debt obligations and guaranteed profits of the private investor. Another is the National Power Corp. (Napocor) which after a decade of privatization and doubling of electricity rates is still mired in deep debts reaching almost P1 trillion, portion of which will be directly shouldered by consumers through the universal charge.

Other reforms

Budget items related to government’s counterinsurgency campaign can also be diverted to basic social services. Poverty alleviation initiatives like the Payapa at Masaganang Pamayanan (Pamana) and CCT being used as part of the Oplan Bayanihan actually undermines the peace and development process by marginalizing efforts to address the root causes of insurgency (i.e. peasant landlessness) based on the fundamental principle of social justice while perpetuating the conflict and rampant human rights violations.

Aside from these items in the proposed 2013 budget, revenue generation can also be significantly increased by improving collection efficiency, reforming the tax system to maximize collections from the rich and reversing the neoliberal policies that deprived government of revenues such as trade liberalization as well as the numerous fiscal incentives to attract investors. Around ₱867 billion in new revenues can be raised from these reforms, based on Ibon estimates.

Fiscal policy for development

A national budget is important because it sets how government will use its resources. For backward countries, the issue of budget takes a more crucial role considering the scant public resources available amid the massive needs of the people and economy. In fact, for the Philippines, government needs to take a bigger responsibility to ensure that the people’s most basic needs such as education, health and housing, among others are met adequately given the chronic poverty and job scarcity.

At the same time, government must sensibly use the budget to invest in programs and policies which create the most favorable conditions for sustainable development and industrialization that will, in turn, create long-term jobs and address poverty. To achieve this, government needs a fiscal policy – tools on raising revenues and ways to spend them – that redistributes wealth and best serves the interests of the people, in particular the poor and marginalized.

Alas, despite its trappings of reformist language and deceptive increases in allocation for social services, the Aquino administration’s budget proposals, including the 2013 budget, are still reflective of the same anti-people and anti-development policy thinking of the past regimes; and still emasculated by the Marcosian automatic debt servicing. (end)

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