Economy, Governance, Military & war

US aid and imperialism

For daring the US and others to withdraw their aid, President Rodrigo Duterte has been called a “psychopath”. For those whose way of thinking has been systematically warped by colonialism and neocolonialism/imperialism, it is plain madness. As a poor country, why would we shun the “altruism” of rich countries like the US?

On the contrary, the US would rather not stop its aid program here. Since our nominal independence from the US’s colonial rule 70 years ago, patronage through economic and military aid has been a key component of enduring US imperialist domination and plunder of the Philippines.

Beyond altruism

Data from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) show that from 2001 to 2014, total economic aid to the Philippines reached more than US$1.94 billion (in current prices). Total military aid during the same period reached almost US$566.11 million. That’s a combined US$2.51 billion in 14 years. Annually, the US disbursed US$138.95 million in economic aid and US$40.44 million in military aid or a combined $179.39 million every year from 2001 to 2014.

For 2015, preliminary USAID data show that the US disbursed $180.62 million in economic aid. There’s no 2015 data yet on military aid from the USAID online database. Reports, however, say that US military assistance for the Philippines was about US$50 million last year that will reportedly rise to US$79 million in 2016, on top of another US$42 million from the new US-Southeast Asia Maritime Initiative.

Further, note that US assistance to the Philippines has grown quite substantially under President Barack Obama and his declared US pivot to Asia. From 2010 to 2014, US economic aid increased by almost 15% in real terms annually. Military aid grew by almost 8% a year during the same period.

(US economic and military aid data since 1946 can be generated from USAID’s reports & data)

And we’re counting just the bilateral aid from the US. The US is also a major contributor to multilateral bodies like the World Bank and agencies of the United Nations (UN), which provide development aid to the Philippines as well.

That’s a lot of aid money that Duterte would be foregoing if the he will really spurn American patronage.

But as mentioned, there’s more to foreign aid than the simple altruism of donors. Aid, especially US aid, is used not for development cooperation but to advance the interests and agenda of the donor and deepen their patron-client relationship with the aid recipient. It is an effective neocolonial tool to foster continued dependence and subservience, and steer domestic policy making in directions that the donor wants. Lastly, aid is also a means for the US to directly create profit-making opportunities for their transnational corporations (TNCs).

Education, health, disaster relief

Remember how the US used the public education system as an integral part of their colonization campaign in the Philippines? It was far more successful in making Filipinos subservient to the colonizers than using purely military might. Colonial education was so effective that many Filipinos could not imagine life without the US. Just look at the reaction to Duterte’s stance on independent foreign policy.

It continues to this day through, among others, the use of foreign assistance. Classified by purpose, the largest bilateral US aid disbursed to the Philippines in 2015 was in Primary Education at US$25.33 million. Almost half of this amount, US$12.49 million, went to the Basa Pilipinas project of the USAID. Through this project, the US develops and distributes teaching and learning materials, English books and reading materials, etc. for local teachers to use for their Grades 1-3 pupils. Another US$5.35 million in US aid was also disbursed for Higher Education in 2015. (See Chart 1)

arn-07-us-aid-and-imperialism-oct-2016-chart-1

The second biggest chunk of US aid disbursement last year went to Material Relief Assistance and Services with US$20.37 million. They also disbursed US$3.84 million for Disaster Prevention and Preparedness; US$1.92 million for Emergency Food Aid; and more than US$1 million for Relief Coordination, Protection and Support Services.

The US has been using disaster relief to justify and expand their military presence in disaster-prone countries like the Philippines. The controversial Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), for instance, was justified using the pretext of humanitarian aid and disaster relief. American troops can base in military facilities here so they can preposition not just their weapons and war machines but also “humanitarian relief supplies”. (Read for instance, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent statement on EDCA made last July 2016)

Family Planning also traditionally gets a big portion of US aid with disbursement reaching US$17.08 million in 2015. Related sectors also got significant amounts such as Reproductive Health Care (US$3.94 million) and Population Policy and Administrative Management (US$0.43 million).

Population control has long been a strategy of US imperialism in the Philippines. In 1974, the USAID and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), among others, produced the “Kissinger Report”. It said that population growth threatens US access to the natural resources of poor countries. A large population of youth must also be controlled because they are most likely to challenge US imperialism. The Philippines is one of 13 countries identified in the Kissinger Report as primary targets of US-led population control efforts.

Public health is another major sector that the US has been long supporting in the country. In 2015, the US disbursed US$16.04 million in aid for Tuberculosis Control and more than US$0.90 million for STD Control including HIV/AIDS. A productive and efficient (and, of course, cheap) labor force is one of the primary resources that US imperialism exploits for super profits. Control of infectious diseases like TB and AIDS helps ensure an efficient workforce, which poor countries with weak public health systems due to imperialist plunder and underdevelopment could not afford

Plus, big US pharmaceutical companies that have monopoly over patented drugs used in these health programs are assured of markets. In the Philippines, for instance, the anti-TB campaign is a partnership between USAID and Johnson & Johnson, an American pharmaceutical and consumer goods giant.

Aid and policymaking

But the biggest impact of US aid in the Philippines is on how national economic policies and priorities are determined. Obama, for instance, introduced the Partnership for Growth (PFG) initiative. It is an aid program participated in and coordinated by the USAID, State Department, Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC) and other US agencies as well as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and various UN bodies.

Through the PFG, the US deepens its role in national policy making such as through the five-year Joint Country Action Plan (JCAP), which identified priority areas for policy reforms in the Philippines. These include trade and investment liberalization, deregulation, effective enforcement of contracts with private business (such as those engaging in public-private partnership or PPP), as well as fiscal and judicial reforms.

An example of how US steers internal policy-making is the PFG’s centerpiece program in the Philippines, which is the $433.91-million grant from the MCC. The MCC is a highly conditional aid and requires the Philippines to, among others, maintain so-called “economic freedom” to continue receiving the grant.

One of the indicators of economic freedom, as designed by the MCC, is the Trade Policy Indicator. It measures the country’s openness to international trade based on average tariff rates and non-tariff barriers (e.g. trade quotas, production subsidies, government procurement procedures, anti-dumping, local content requirements, etc.) to trade. The “Compact” or agreement between the Philippine government (as represented then by the Aquino administration) and MCC is that the latter may suspend or terminate the grant if the country fails to reverse its policies that are inconsistent with the Trade Policy Indicator and other indicators designed by the MCC.

Also part of the implementation of the PFG is The Arangkada Philippines Project (TAPP) of the USAID and the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham). Through the USAID-funded TAPP, AmCham is pushing for 471 specific recommendations that promote the interest of foreign corporations in the country through greater liberalization, deregulation, privatization and denationalization. These are contained in the comprehensive advocacy paper “Arangkada Philippines 2010: A business perspective” prepared by the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce in the Philippines (JFC), of which AmCham is a key member.

Under the TAPP, the JFC has been producing Legislation Policy Briefs that identify broad recommendations for Congress and the Executive. Among the many proposals of the JFC is the lifting of constitutional restrictions on foreign investments through Charter change (Cha-cha).

All these are in preparation for the country’s future membership in the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. The TPP is an ambitious free trade deal and the latest campaign of US imperialism to further deepen and consolidate its economic domination in Asia Pacific in the face of a rising China. Just last March 2016, the US Chamber of Commerce, with funding from USAID under the PFG’s five-year US$12.84-million Trade-Related Assistance for Development (TRADE) project, released its “readiness assessment” of Philippine membership in the TPP.

The said report examined the “consistency of the country’s existing policy framework with the agreement’s requirements, and the implied changes that may be necessary if the Philippines is to meet these requirements”. As expected, one of the “implied changes” is liberalization through Cha-cha. (The full report may be downloaded here)

Military patronage

Lastly, the US employs military aid not to modernize the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) but to maintain its influence and control over our military. US military aid mostly comes in the form of Foreign Military Financing (FMF). Under the FMF, the US provides grants and loans to help the Philippines buy US-made weapons and defense equipment as well as acquiring defense services and military training.

In 2014, US$50 million in FMF was disbursed by the US to the Philippines out of the total US$57 million in military aid that year. The Philippines is traditionally one of the largest recipients of FMF among all US allies. It ranked fifth in 2014 in terms of FMF behind Egypt, Israel, Pakistan and Jordan. The country also accounted for 64% of US FMF in East Asia and the Pacific. (Data here)

However, military items that the country gets under the FMF and other US military aid programs are either surplus or second-hand and antiquated military articles. They are also not actually given for free but are sold at a discount (with a portion of the amount shouldered or waived by the US through the FMF).

Examples include the five-decade old US Coast Guard vessels (“Hamilton-class cutters”) that the US Navy has retired and sold to the Philippines. Since 2012, the Philippines has already bought two of these decommissioned ships for about US$25 million – and a third one is expected soon – through the FMF, Foreign Military Sales (FMS) and Excess Defense Article (EDA) programs.

The weapons systems of the ships have also been removed by the US prior to their turnover to the Philippine Navy. The country had to separately purchase from the US the vessels’ weapons and guns as well as additional technology including radar system, anti-ship missile system, etc. US military aid thus also means more business for the US military industrial complex.

Aside from FMF, other US military aid programs in the Philippines include counter-narcotics, military education and training, cooperative threat reduction, and counter-terrorism fellowship program. (See Chart 2)

arn-07-us-aid-and-imperialism-oct-2016-chart-2

Along with annual military exercises under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), military aid fosters complete dependence of the AFP on US military technology, hardware and expertise. It also helps justify the continued presence of American troops in the country. But despite decades of US military patronage, the AFP remains one of the weakest and least modernized in the region. The Abu Sayyaf that the US has long been using to legitimize their military presence in the country persists and continues to terrorize the people.

Mutual respect, sovereignty

Foreign aid is not necessarily bad. It is, in fact, an important element of cooperation among countries to promote development. But as the case of US aid in the Philippines illustrates, aid could also be used to perpetuate the skewed relationship between the donor and recipient, between the colonial master and colony.

Such unequal, oppressive and exploitative relation between the US and the Philippines is the real reason why the country is underdeveloped and Filipinos are starving. If the Duterte administration rejects US aid to pursue a truly independent foreign policy and nurture development cooperation with other countries based on mutual respect and sovereignty, then we are already taking the initial steps to address the underlying causes of our poverty and hunger. ###

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2016 elections, Governance

Profit-driven, foreign interests made Aquino President; is Mar Roxas next?

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Photo from arabnews.com

Recent pre-election surveys show that administration and Liberal Party (LP) bet Mar Roxas supposedly gaining ground after consistently lagging behind in previous surveys. One dubious research firm even claims that Roxas is the new man to beat. There is apparently a campaign to condition the public mind that a Roxas victory is not far-fetched after all. Roxas himself declared that “It’s my time to top the surveys.”

LP desperately intends to stay in power and Mar Roxas wants to be the next Philippine President at all costs, and an election controlled by profit-driven, foreign interests could help ensure that they do.

Former Commission on Election (Comelec) chair Sixto Brillantes recently admitted that it was the UK-based, private company Smartmatic Inc. that practically ran the 2010 national and local elections and not the poll body.

“If we were to review what happened in the 2010 first automated elections, one will realize that the Comelec then was most dependent on Smartmatic such that it was Smartmatic that practically ran the entire elections, not Comelec,” Brillantes was quoted as saying.

The ex-poll chief’s admission affirms what critics of the automated election system (AES) being implemented by the Comelec have been saying all along. An unaccountable foreign business has monopoly control over our elections, which is supposedly an expression of our democracy and sovereignty as a people.

Smartmatic was also in command of the 2013 midterm elections and will continue to play such role for the upcoming polls on May 9. It maintained its monopoly control over Philippine elections through its automation technology, the contracts it bagged with the Comelec as well as the support and other services that it will provide.

Various factions of the ruling elite aggressively vie for state power during elections not to the serve the people and develop the nation. Traditional politicians and their backers from big business and foreign interests compete for control over the state machinery out of the need to protect and advance their own political and economic interests. It is this intense and never-ending struggle for power and wealth and contradiction within the ruling elite that explain the massive spending (including of public resources) and perennial violence and fraud characterizing Philippine elections.

Put in this context and reality, a private and foreign company like Smartmatic taking over the conduct of the elections takes the subversion of the people’s sovereignty to a whole new level and makes it much easier for contending factions with vested interests to cheat. Whoever has ties – or has the resources to bid the highest – with Smartmatic can buy electoral victory.

Among the groups of the political and economic elite competing for power in the elections next week, it is the LP clique and its candidates led by presidential bet Roxas that have not only the biggest motivation (stay in power, avoid prosecution) and deepest electoral war chest (people’s money), but also the closest links with Smartmatic (through the Aquino family’s ties with Smarmatic chairman Lord Mark Malloch-Brown). Smartmatic installed Aquino as the country’s first AES President in 2010; it certainly has the capacity to do it again for Roxas.

Smartmatic-Comelec contracts

For the upcoming polls, Smartmatic is once again supplying the Comelec with VCM as it continues its profitable partnership with the poll body that started with the PCOS deals in 2010 and 2013. The Comelec is leasing a total of 97,517 VCMs from Smartmatic for about Php8.03 billion. In 2010, Smartmatic leased to the poll body 84,000 PCOS machines for Php7.2 billion. In 2013, Comelec purchased from Smartmatic some 82,000 PCOS machines for Php1.8 billion. Thus, Smartmatic has already bagged more than Php17 billion from its PCOS/VCM transactions with the Comelec for the past three elections, including the one on May 9.

Aside from the poll machines, Smartmatic also cornered contracts with the Comelec for other services. For the upcoming polls, Smartmatic is providing as well the Php558-million election results transmission services (ERTS). Smartmatic was able to corner the same contract in 2013 then worth Php405.4 million. Other contracts Smartmatic bagged in 2013 are the P154.5-million transmission modems; the P46.5-million compact flash (CF) cards main; and the P46.5-million CF cards worm. Comelec also purchased the canvassing and consolidation system (CCS) from Smartmatic in 2013 for Php36.6 million.

The privatization of Philippine elections covers not only the hardware and software for the automated polls; technical support to troubleshoot and address glitches is also controlled by Smartmatic. For the 2016 elections, Smartmatic bagged the Php122-million contract to set up a National Technical Support Center (NTSC) as a call center and troubleshooter for the elections. It was also Smartmatic that cornered the NTSC contract for the 2013 polls worth Php111.56 million.

All in all, the Smartmatic-Comelec contracts are worth well above Php18 billion as summarized in the table below. Note that the table is just a partial, incomplete list as it merely relied on data from various news reports.

Partial list of contracts bagged by Smartmatic in PH elections (in Php million)
Item 2010 2013 2016 Total
PCOS/VCM 7,200 1,800 8,030 17,030
Election Results Transmission Services 405.4 558 963.4
Transmission modems 154.5 154.5
Compact flash cards 93 93
National Technical Support Center 111.56 122 233.56
Total 7,200 2,564.46 8,710 18,474.46
Culled from various media reports

Why Smartmatic keeps on winning Comelec contracts boggles the mind especially considering the numerous and major malfunctions by the machines and services that Smartmatic provided in the past two elections. To illustrate, while the AES law mandates a 99.995% accuracy rate, Smartmatic’s PCOS machines registered a 99.6% rate in 2010 and 99.98% in 2013. These translate to hundreds of thousands of miscounted ballots and undermine the credibility of the election results. Further, Smartmatic’s ERTS is supposed to reach 100% transmission rate within 24 hours. But in 2013, it was able to achieve a mere 76% transmission rate when Comelec started declaring winners.

There have been allegations of rigged bidding to favor Smartmatic such as designing contracts where only Smartmatic can qualify or omitting requirements that will otherwise disqualify Smartmatic, a company tainted with various controversies even before it started its lucrative business here in the Philippines. For the upcoming elections’ bidding for PCOS/VCM, for instance, Comelec required that only those that can supply both the election management system and the machines could bid (which only fits Smartmatic) and that ongoing legal cases (which Smartmatic has arising from past electoral protests) should not prohibit bidders to participate. There were also similar complaints during the 2013 elections such as in the supply of CF cards. A competitor lost because its CF cards don’t work with Smartmatic’s PCOS machines as the latter refused to declare the machines’ technical requirements, which Smartmatic claimed is proprietary information.

But why does the Comelec so heavily favor Smartmatic, allowing it to monopolize the entire automated election system? One possible explanation is the political connections of Smartmatic with groups that have an interest in securing electoral victory. Smartmatic’s chairman, British Lord Mark Malloch-Brown, was the late President Cory Aquino’s campaign strategist during the 1986 snap elections (some accounts claim that Malloch-Brown’s group then – the Sawyer-Miller consultancy firm – was assigned by the US Central Intelligence Agency or CIA to Cory’s camp). In an interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer during his visit here in June last year, Malloch-Brown claimed that his “final outstanding accomplishment during the Cory campaign was to produce an exit poll that indicated that she had won”. Malloch-Brown has supposedly developed a close relationship with the Aquino family and there were reports that he met with Cory’s son President Benigno Aquino III and other politicians during his visit in the Philippines last year. Malloch-Brown, however denied this, apparently mindful of repercussions in public perception.

Nonetheless, the presence of Malloch-Brown, a foreigner who made a career out of influencing elections in supposedly sovereign countries and strategizing for client political elites, in a private company that runs our elections is a big red flag. It further underscores the dangers of privatizing elections that have been perpetually marred by massive fraud even before automation.

The failure of the current AES technology to reach minimum standards set by the law means that election results could not be relied upon. At best, they could just be the result of glitches caused by machine/software and human errors. At worst, they point to the planned manipulation of poll results by those who have access to the election technology or have ties with the private and foreign interests that control the technology. Both in 2010 and 2013, allegations of electronic fraud were widespread ranging from supposedly altered results being transmitted by the PCOS machines to pre-programming of results such as the so-called “60-30-10” pattern (60% of votes for administration bets; 30% for opposition; and 10% for other candidates) during the midterm senatorial election.

It doesn’t help that another seemingly favored private, foreign company is also controlling the conduct of the source code review, a supposed safeguard under the AES law that scrutinizes the software to be used by the voting machines and by the canvassing and consolidation system. For the May 2016 elections, US-based SLI Global Solutions Inc. (formerly Systest Labs Inc.) is carrying out the source code review for Php35 million as it did in 2010 and 2013.

Undermining democracy and sovereignty

To be sure, the flaws of the country’s electoral system go beyond the issue of conducting it manually or electronically. Whether manual or electronic, elections will remain undemocratic as long as the people are left to choose among the same contending factions of the political and economic elite. And these groups and families vying for control of state power in order to advance the economic and political interests they represent will continue to find ways to subvert the elections through direct cheating, political patronage and/or violence and terrorism.

But these fundamental problems of the electoral system are further worsened by allowing private and foreign companies through the technology they own to control the entire electoral process – from reading and recording of ballots to the canvassing of results. Even for the technical support, troubleshooting, installation of system, training of staff, etc., the Comelec is completely dependent on a private, foreign company.

While modernizing the way the country conducts its elections with the use of appropriate technology founded on the principles of transparency and credibility is the right step to take, the AES that the Comelec has been implementing since 2010 is further undermining election as a democratic exercise and an expression of the people’s sovereignty. ###

(Portions of this article were lifted from an article I wrote for IBON Features)

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Agrarian reform, Governance, Human rights

#BigasHindiBala: Beyond bureaucratic neglect and police brutality

Image from Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP)

Image from Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP)

Long before the drought and the Kidapawan bloodshed, hunger and poverty were already debilitating countless in the countryside.

Along with fishermen (39.2%), poverty incidence is the worst among farmers (38.3%). In Region XII, site of the violence, poverty incidence among farmers is 47.9%, the fifth highest in the country. All cited data are as of 2012, the latest available from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA). For comparison, the 2012 national poverty incidence was pegged at 25.2 percent.

It is said that eight out of 10 of the poor in the Philippines are directly or indirectly dependent on farming. As compared to other countries, our rural poverty of nearly 40% is said to be the worst in ASEAN. (Data cited by Rolando T. Dy, 2015)

Farmers earn very little, even without a drought. Palay farmers, for instance, earn at most PHP 60,000 a year – way below the annual rural poverty threshold of PHP 80,000. (Data cited by Ernesto M. Ordoñez, 2014)

Underlying peasant poverty is landlessness. A recent IBON article noted that: “Even the official census could only claim at most 62% of farms under full ownership. The rest are under various forms of land tenure, including tenancy at 15 percent.” The latest Census of Agriculture is 2012.

Note that government’s poverty standards are ridiculously low and its data on land ownership questionable. Rural poverty and landlessness are thus much worse than what official data shows. Nonetheless, even distorted government data could not hide the dire situation that Filipino farmers face.

Aggravating landlessness and all the feudal exploitation it brings are government policies and programs that devastate rural livelihood perhaps in a magnitude much worse than droughts or typhoons. Neoliberal restructuring brought in a flood of cheap agricultural imports that drowned local produce while commercializing vital infrastructure such as irrigation.

So when calamities like drought strike, the already destitute farmers become even more despondent. Meanwhile, government negligence and inefficiency are further highlighted by its incapacity to respond as it has long abandoned its obligation to provide support services like irrigation and subsidies.

All these combine to stir unrest in the countryside that has been long raging. Farmers become fighters in the agrarian revolution being waged by the New People’s Army (NPA). Or they barricade highways to force the powers that be to listen. But for a government of landlords and its armed forces, it makes no difference if you hold an M16 or a placard.

Image from Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP)

Image from Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP)

The brutal dispersal in Kidapawan reminded us of the repression that farmers face when asserting their most fundamental right to live with dignity. Farmers, in fact, are not only the poorest – they are also the most repressed.

According to human rights group Karapatan, more than 300 cases of extrajudicial killings have been recorded under the Aquino administration. More than 200 of these cases involve farmers.

Before Kidapawan, there was Hacienda Luisita. And before it were Mendiola and Escalante. None have been resolved and the powerful people behind them become presidents and senators, feeding the reign of impunity and terror in the countryside. Some note that President Aquino remains silent on Kidapawan. But what do we really expect a landlord president will say?

All these killings occurred in contexts of struggles and assertion of farmers’ rightful control over land and other resources for production against moneyed investors and landed families. They illustrate that cases of atrocities against farmers like Kidapawan are not isolated incidents but a systematic repression of the people’s dissent by those few who wield power and arms.

Already, the propaganda machine of the landlord regime is at full force in its disinformation and cover up. Propaganda and deception are part of its war against the farmers and the people.

Indeed, the Kidapawan bloodshed is more than bureaucratic neglect as farmers go hungry. It is more than the police violating their own rules of engagement.

It is about the ever-deepening contradiction between the impoverished and starved – the farmers who directly produce food but have nothing to eat, and the landlords and bureaucrats who profit from the people’s poverty and hunger. ###

Image from Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP)

Image from Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP)

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Economy, Global issues, Governance

Obama and the US Cha-cha lobby

Photo from here

Photo from here

Malacañang announced that defense and security would be on top of the agenda during US President Barack Obama and President Benigno Aquino III’s meeting on April 28. This, of course, is expected. In time for the visit, negotiators have rushed a new defense accord that will facilitate greater US access to and use of Philippine military facilities amid the country’s continuing territorial row with China. Obama and Aquino may sign the controversial Agreement on Enhanced Defense Cooperation next week as one of the concrete results of the highly anticipated meeting.

But another controversial topic may be discussed when the two presidents meet – Charter change (Cha-cha). Obama may discreetly push Aquino to give his open support to ongoing efforts to amend the 1987 Constitution.

Note that the US government and American corporations are among the long-time advocates of removing the constitutional restrictions on foreign investment. In fact, the Obama administration is more direct in its lobbying for Cha-cha compared to its predecessors.

Behind the cover of development assistance and promoting good governance, the Obama administration is quietly propping up the Cha-cha campaign through its so-called Partnership for Growth (PFG). The PFG is a signature inter-agency effort of Obama’s Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development, which claims to “elevate economic growth in countries committed to good governance as a core priority for US development efforts”. It supposedly aligns with policy reform areas outlined by the Aquino administration in its Philippine Development Plan (PDP).

The PFG is defined by the active participation and coordination of more than a dozen US government agencies led by the State Department, US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), as well as multilateral donors like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), United Nations (UN) agencies and even non-government organizations (NGOs) and private corporations.

In the Philippines, among the initiatives being supported by the PFG through the USAID is the Cha-cha lobby, which is being led by US companies under the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham). In February 2013, AmCham and USAID launched The Arangkada Philippines Project (TAPP). This initiative pushes for the implementation of the policy proposals contained in the comprehensive advocacy paper “Arangkada Philippines 2010: A business perspective” prepared by the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce in the Philippines (JFC) where AmCham is a key member. Among the numerous policy proposals of the Arangkada initiative is addressing the 60-40 constitutional restrictions on foreign investments as well as other reforms for liberalization, deregulation, privatization and denationalization.

Meanwhile, even before the TAPP, the US government has been advocating Cha-cha through the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR), which regularly brings attention to policy makers the restrictive economic provisions of the Constitution and the implicit message to remove them because they are barriers to US trade and investment. In March this year, the USTR released the 2014 edition of its National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers covering 58 countries and trade partners of the US. The report is an inventory of the most important foreign barriers affecting US exports of goods and services, US foreign direct investments (FDI) and protection of intellectual property rights (IPR).

For the Philippines, the USTR identified the 30% constitutional limit on foreign ownership in advertising; 40% limit on foreign investment in the operation and management of public utilities (water and sewage treatment, electricity distribution and transmission, telecommunications and transportation); ban on foreigners to practice law, medicine, nursing, accountancy, engineering, architecture and customs brokerage; and restrictions on foreign ownership of land, aside from existing national laws, as among the barriers to trade being implemented by government.

Providing the backdrop to the US Cha-cha lobby is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a potential free trade agreement (FTA) to create more profit opportunities for American businesses. The TPP is a key component of the so-called US pivot or rebalancing to Asia, which is the overarching agenda of the Asian tour of Obama that aside from the Philippines also includes Japan, Malaysia and South Korea. Obama’s former national security adviser called the TPP the centerpiece of US economic rebalancing to Asia and platform for regional economic integration. Aside from their territorial disputes with China, another common thread among the four Asian countries that Obama will visit is the TPP where Malaysia is already a negotiating party while Japan and South Korea are expected to join soon, and the Philippines pushing for its inclusion.

While the TPP and US-PH bilateral economic ties are not as controversial as the rushed and secretive new defense agreement between Manila and Washington, these items in Obama’s agenda during his meeting with Aquino do have far-reaching implications, such as Charter change and its impact on Philippine sovereignty and economic development. Several US officials have declared – and admitted by some of Aquino’s Cabinet secretaries – that Philippine membership to the TPP will require amending the Constitution given the highly ambitious liberalization that the US-led FTA is aspiring for.

Obama’s discussion with Aquino on TPP will further heighten persistent US pressure to implement Cha-cha. Last month, a top official of the USTR was in the Philippines and met with Trade, Agriculture and Tariff Commission officials to discuss the country’s possible participation in the TPP. In January last year, a “powerhouse” trade mission composed of executives from US giants Citigroup, Chevron, Coca Cola, General Electric, Procter & Gamble and JP Morgan Chase, among others, also met with Aquino to lobby for Cha-cha and the TPP. The US trade mission was facilitated by the US-Philippine Society (USPS), a business lobby group co-chaired by Manny Pangilinan, a perceived Cha-cha supporter whose businesses are bankrolled by substantial foreign capital (beyond constitutional restriction, such as PLDT).

Do not expect Obama’s Cha-cha lobby to land in official press statements after the visit because the US is not supposed to meddle in the Philippines’ internal affairs and violate its sovereignty. We may just notice, however, a Cha-cha campaign that is more energized than ever. ###

Read more on US-Philippine relations under the Obama and Aquino presidencies

US-PH Partnership for Growth: Greater economic intervention

Obama’s victory: the fallacy of lesser evil and illusion of choice

“2+2” equals more secret US bases in PH

Obama’s dreaded drone war arrives in PH

US agenda in Asia and the risks that Aquino is courting

Tubbataha grounding: expect more abuses as US pivots to Asia

IBON infographic: US military operations in PH, 2001-2011

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Charter change, Global issues, Governance

US-PH “Partnership for Growth”: Greater economic intervention

While much of the discussion about the pivot and renewed PH-US relations centers on the military aspect, there is also the equally crucial, if not even more far-reaching, economic dimension of the pivot (Photo from bulatlat.com)

While much of the discussion about the pivot and renewed PH-US relations centers on the military aspect, there is also the equally crucial, if not even more far-reaching, economic dimension of the pivot (Photo from bulatlat.com)

Despite US President Barack Obama’s absence, State Secretary John Kerry’s visit still underlines the increased bilateral engagement between the Philippines and the US. It comes at a time when US foreign policy is increasingly focused on the region under its so-called pivot to Asia Pacific. The visit, which follows a series of high-profile exchange of visits between top Filipino and American Executive and Defense officials since 2010, is controversial amid ongoing talks between Manila and Washington to increase rotational presence of American troops in the country or basing privileges and the still ongoing territorial spat with China.

While much of the discussion about the pivot and renewed PH-US relations centers on the military aspect, there is also the equally crucial, if not even more far-reaching, economic dimension of the pivot. Under the Obama and Aquino presidencies, mechanisms to facilitate further reforms in the economy that promotes US economic interests are steadily being set up through US foreign assistance programs such as the comprehensive, multi-donor Partnership for Growth (PFG) initiative. Silently, the PFG and other US efforts are setting the stage for an even more wide-ranging and systematic US intervention in the country’s internal policy making.

PH dependence on US economy

The US has been able to perpetuate Philippine dependence on the US economy. American investors remain the biggest source of net foreign direct investments (FDI) in the Philippines. From 1999 to 2012, net FDI from the US reached $4.52 billion, accounting for 19.8% of the total during the said period. Last year, US net FDI was pegged at $784.74 billion or 38.6% of the total, and 248.9% higher than the figure in 2011, at a time when investments from Japan, the European Union (EU), Asean and others have sharply declined.

Similarly, the US continues to be the number one buyer of Philippine exports and biggest supplier of its imports. Direct Philippine-US trade for the period 1999-2012 was $218.64 billion or 17.5% of the total. During the same period, the US accounted for 19.4% of Philippine exports and 15.8% of imports. Certainly, the figures are much higher when one considers that a portion of Philippine trade with Asean and East Asia actually ends up with the US.

Finally, the US also accounts for the largest source of remittances from overseas Filipinos (OFs), including overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). From 1989 to 2012, total OF remittances reached $205.71 billion, of which $108.30 billion or an overwhelming 52.6%, come from US-based migrant workers. Preliminary data for 2013 covering the months of January to July show that remittances from the US reached $5.54 billion or 43.9% of the total during the said period. Since the 1980s, OF remittances have become the largest source of foreign earnings for the Philippines and practically keeping the backward economy somehow afloat. The figures from the US are bloated a bit by the practice of remittance centers in various cities abroad to course remittances through correspondent banks that are mostly US-based. But consider also that based on the latest (2009) stock estimate of OFs, US-based OFs account for 2.88 million of the 8.58 million Filipinos abroad, or 33.6% of the total.

Through the decades, the US has spent substantial amounts to sustain and deepen its clout. Disbursements of bilateral official development assistance (ODA) from the US for the Philippines from 1999 to 2011 reached $1.12 billion, 20.9% of total disbursements during the said period and the second largest behind Japan. However, while ODA disbursements from Japan have been considerably falling since the 2008 global financial and economic crisis, bilateral US aid during the same period has steadily increased, growing by an annual 18.5% from 2009 to 2011. Under the Obama administration and its announced pivot to Asia Pacific, disbursements of bilateral US economic aid have substantially increased. From an annual average of $108.12 million and a yearly growth of 4.6% from 2001 to 2008, US bilateral economic aid to the Philippines jumped to an annual average of $152.23 million and a yearly expansion of more than 18% from 2009 to 2011.

More US intervention, neoliberal reforms

While already expanding, US assistance to the Philippines is anticipated to further increase with the introduction by the Obama administration of new initiatives that facilitate greater US intervention in the country. Requested US aid for the Philippines for fiscal year 2014 is pegged at $188 million, 17.1% higher than the base appropriation for fiscal year 2013.

One such new initiative is the Partnership for Growth (PFG), a signature inter-agency effort of Obama’s Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development, which claims to “elevate economic growth in countries committed to good governance as a core priority for US development efforts”. The PFG supposedly aligns with policy reform areas outlined by President Aquino in the Philippine Development Plan (PDP). The PFG is defined by the active participation and coordination of more than a dozen US government agencies led by the State Department, USAID and the MCC as well as multilateral donors like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), United Nations (UN) agencies and even non-government organizations (NGOs) and private corporations.

A Statement of Principles was signed by both countries during the November 2011 Manila visit of then State Secretary Hillary Clinton. The document reflects the two governments’ supposed mutual goal to place the Philippines on a path to sustained, more inclusive economic growth, and elevate it to the ranks of high-performing emerging economies. For the US, the PFG will better position the Philippines in its objective of joining the TPP in the future.

Under the PFG, the US intends to deepen its role in national policy making such as through the five-year Joint Country Action Plan (JCAP) which identified priority areas for policy reforms in the Philippines, including trade and investment liberalization, deregulation, effective enforcement of contracts with private business (such as those engaging in PPP) as well as fiscal and judicial reforms. (See Box)

box - pfg action plan

An example of how US steers internal policy making is the PFG’s centerpiece program in the Philippines, which is the $433.91-million grant from the Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC). The MCC is a highly conditional aid and requires the Philippines to, among others, maintain so-called “economic freedom” to continue receiving the grant. For instance, one of the indicators of economic freedom, as designed by the MCC, is the Trade Policy Indicator which measures the country’s openness to international trade based on average tariff rates and non-tariff barriers (e.g. trade quotas, production subsidies, government procurement procedures, anti-dumping, local content requirements, etc.) to trade. The “Compact” or agreement between the Philippine government and MCC is that the latter may suspend or terminate the grant if the country fails to reverse its policies that are inconsistent with the Trade Policy Indicator and other indicators designed by the MCC.

Also, the MCC grant does not only facilitate further liberalization of the economy but serves as a tool as well for US intervention in counterinsurgency. Aside from the the $214.4-million Samar Road project, which targets communities in Samar that are considered strongholds of the New People’s Army (NPA), the MCC grant also includes the $120-million Kapit-Bisig Laban sa Kahirapan – Comprehensive and Integrated Delivery of Social Services (Kalahi-CIDSS). Kalahi is essentially the “social development” component of the military’s counterinsurgency campaign in Mindanao and in areas considered as stronghold of the NPA. Another project funded by the MCC grant is the $54.3-million Revenue Administration Reform Project (RARP) which aims to raise tax revenues, reduce tax evasion and revenue agent-related corruption. The rest of the grant is allocated to program administration and oversight.

“Arangkada”

Early this year, USAID and the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) launched the The Arangkada Philippines Project (TAPP) as part of the implementation of the PFG. Through the USAID-funded TAPP, AmCham will push for the implementation of the policy proposals contained in the comprehensive advocacy paper “Arangkada Philippines 2010: A business perspective” prepared by the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce in the Philippines (JFC), of which AmCham is a key member.

The JFC paper listed 471 specific recommendations that promote the interest of foreign corporations in the country through greater liberalization, deregulation, privatization and denationalization while intensifying the attack to the rights and welfare of the people.

Among others, their proposals are to: amend the Labor Code to allow subcontracting and easier termination of employees; promote IT-BPO curriculum in colleges and education reform, adopt K+12 model; lift restrictions on foreign ownership in media and advertising; promote tie-ups with foreign firms; protect PPP investors from political (i.e. regulatory) risks including TROs from courts; scrap ‘unwarranted’ taxes on foreign carriers; lift restrictions on foreign equity in power projects; privatize Agus and Pulangi dams; build more transport infrastructure through PPP; review policy disallowing “take-or-pay” and sovereign guarantees; promote PPP in the water sector; establish an export development fund to promote exports and investment; allow manufacturing industry to operate with less government interference such as price controls; liberalize importation of capital equipment; liberalize shipping industry; fully implement Mining Act; allow foreign ownership of land and retail facilities; allow relief from minimum wages; review the Foreign Investment Negative List (FINL); apply ‘creative solutions’ to the 60-40 foreign ownership restriction pending Charter change (Cha-cha); privatize or close down government-owned and controlled corporations (GOCCs) to reduce fiscal burden, among others; use advisers (amicus curiae) when Supreme Court (SC) is ruling on issues that adversely affect the investment climate; promote labor flexibilization schemes; reduce corporate income tax and raise the value-added tax (VAT) and fuel excise taxes; and expand the conditional cash transfer (CCT) and Kalahi-CIDSS programs; encourage PPP in healthcare-related services.

With assistance from the TAPP, the JCF started producing Legislation Policy Brief, which identifies broad recommendations for Congress and the Executive. Among the many proposals of the JFC is the lifting of constitutional restrictions on foreign investments, which the AmCham has long been openly advocating. Thus, while Charter change (Cha-cha) is not explicitly identified in the PFG, its implementing components such as the TAPP provides pressure on the Philippine government to liberalize the Constitution.

Meanwhile, just recently, the USAID announced a $24-million Philippine-American (Phil-Am) Fund, another component of PFG implementation in the country, intended for civil society organizations (CSOs) working on projects in the areas of entrepreneurship and promotion of new businesses, governance, fighting human trafficking, technology-driven adult literacy and biodiversity conservation.

“Powerhouse” lobby group

Complementing and reinforcing the PFG is the establishment of lobby group US-Philippine Society (USPS), a private sector initiative which claims to broaden and expand interaction and understanding between the two countries in the areas of security, trade, investments, tourism, the environment, history, education and culture. The group intends to create a new and timely mechanism to elevate the Philippines’ profile in the US by bringing its longstanding historical ties fully into the 21st century when American policy interests are increasingly focused on East Asia. It was officially launched on 7 June 2012 during President Aquino’s official visit to Washington.

Its leadership includes John D. Negroponte, a former US Ambassador to the Philippines (1993-1996), first Director of National Intelligence (2005-2007) and former Deputy State Secretary (2007-2009), as co-chairman with Filipino business tycoon Manuel V. Pangilinan. Honorary chairmen are Maurice Greenberg, former chair and CEO of insurance and financial giant American International Group (AIG), and Washington Z. Sycip, founder of the Philippines’ largest multidisciplinary professional services firm SGV & Co. Current Ambassador to the US Jose L. Cuisia, Jr. is an ex-officio Board member.

Aside from them, the Board of Directors of USPS is also comprised of the top executives from some of the largest American corporations, namely: Citigroup, General Electric, Procter and Gamble, JP Morgan, Chevron and Coca Cola, among others. Prominent Filipino businessmen like Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, Ramon del Rosario and Enrique Razon are also members of the Board. The group’s current president is John F. Maisto, a former Political Officer of the US Embassy in Manila (1978-1982) and Director of Philippine Affairs at the State Department (1982-1986). The executive director, meanwhile, is Hank Hendrickson, a retired US Navy officer and former Foreign Service Officer at the US Embassy in Manila. On 21 January 2013, Negroponte led a so-called “powerhouse” delegation of the USPS in visiting the country, bringing with him officials of the American corporations belonging to the lobby group and held discussions with Aquino and top economic and defense officials as well as SC Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno to update on key economic and judicial reforms, including those under the PFG.

Defending PH sovereignty

The US pivot and Aquino’s subservience to US interests are creating conditions for increased US intervention in the country not only militarily but also in terms of economic policy making and governance. A new era in the more than a century old colonial and neocolonial relations between the Philippines and the US is indeed being ushered in by the Aquino and Obama regimes.

The serious implications on national sovereignty, human rights, regional peace and stability and even on the environment of greater US military presence and intervention are well-documented and widely discussed. However, there is a big challenge for advocates of national sovereignty and patrimony to deepen and widen the public discourse on US intervention and the Asia Pacific pivot to equally underscore how the US, in its desperate efforts to abate its latest economic crisis, is increasingly and systematically laying the groundwork to further steer the national economy towards serving its monopoly capitalist interests.

There is a need to draw and highlight how Philippine-US colonial and neocolonial ties and decades of neoliberal restructuring and reforms have stunted national development and destroyed industries and livelihood, perpetuating chronic poverty and the permanent economic crisis in the country.

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Economy, Governance, Labor & employment, Poverty

Economy in 2012: Rising joblessness, poverty amid Aquino admin’s claims of growth

Joblessness, poverty and hunger are reaching record highs under the Aquino administration amid claims of growing economy

Joblessness, poverty and hunger are reaching record highs under the Aquino administration amid claims of growing economy (Photo from www.flickr.com)

In 2012, the dominant theme peddled by the Aquino administration was “good governance is good economics”. The main propaganda line of Malacañang is that the “daang matuwid” (straight path) has created a favorable environment for economic growth that is inclusive. From being the sick man of Asia, the country now brims with vitality, declared President Benigno Aquino III in his State of the Nation Address (Sona).

To the uncritical, such assertions would seem hard to doubt. For one, the national accounts do show rosy numbers. The Philippines is beating expectations and has been one of the supposed few bright spots amid a gloomy world economy. International banks, local and foreign investors, credit rating agencies and multilateral financial institutions are one in saying that the prospects are indeed upbeat for the country. There are even claims that we are the new tiger in the region, joining the likes of Singapore and South Korea.

Good news for big business

After growing by 7.1% in the third quarter, way above the market’s media forecast of 5.4%, the gross domestic product (GDP) has now expanded by 6.5% for the year. The strong third quarter performance prompted economic managers to revise upwards their 2012 full year GDP growth projection with the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) claiming that the GDP will likely grow by 7% this year, well beyond the earlier official forecast of 5-6 percent. Many share the same optimism like the World Bank which also raised its projection to 6% from the previous 4.2 percent.

Meanwhile, Standard and Poor’s (S&P) upgraded the credit rating of the Philippines from “stable” to “positive” following the GDP report which put the country on track to make investment grade by next year. Officials say this means lower borrowing cost for government and lower cost for doing business in the Philippines. Prior to the S&P upgrade, the country has already posted eight credit rating upgrades since 2010. These developments continued to feed optimism in the market with trading at the Philippine Stock Exchange posting 38 record highs this year, making it one of the most vibrant equities market worldwide.

Other economic data, as culled by the Christmas Day Inquirer editorial, also seem encouraging. In the first nine months of the year and amid the global crisis, exports grew by 7.2% and foreign direct investments (FDI) by 40% compared to the same period in 2011. Consequently, as of November, the country has an all-time high of $84.1 billion in gross international reserves (GIR) and a balance of payments (BOP) surplus of $2 billion, five times its value during the same month last year.

The country’s big business groups share government’s high optimism, citing the so-called good economic fundamentals in 2012 that can lead to a “super-year” in 2013. They see more opportunities to further boost profits with the anticipated investment grade rating, the implementation of public-private partnership (PPP) projects and the upcoming midterm elections.

Big business, of course, has every reason to be upbeat. High GDP growth, robust stock market and favorable credit rating all reflect not the state of the ordinary people but of how lucrative the economy is for the moneyed few. Further, past and present policies of privatization and deregulation have allowed them to monopolize and greatly profit (through generous perks, incessant hikes in rates and user fees, and exploitation of workers) from key economic activities including public utilities and infrastructure development.  This small group of the super-rich has seen their wealth balloon in recent years. In 2009, the Forbes magazine reported that the 40 richest Filipinos had a combined wealth of $22.4 billion and in 2011, the amount more than doubled to $47.43 billion. The economy is growing but that’s good news only for big business.

Hard realities

Because amid the purportedly stellar growth of the economy, series of credit rating upgrades, streak of stock market highs and favorable reviews by banks, fund managers and investors are the hard realities of rising joblessness, worsening hunger and deteriorating poverty. Social indicators which are most vital to the people have been deteriorating in the past three years amid the record-high profits and wealth of elite families, high investor confidence and positive market sentiment.

Official unemployment rate as measured by the National Statistics Office (NSO) averaged 7% in 2011 and 2012 from 7.3% in 2010. We are supposed to be the second fastest growing economy in the region just behind China but the official jobless rates of our neighbors are much lower. Thailand’s is 0.7%; Singapore, 2.1%; Malaysia, 3%; South Korea, 3.8%; China, 4%; and Taiwan, 4.2 percent. To be sure, like in the Philippines, these official unemployment figures understate the true extent of domestic joblessness in the respective countries. But we cite them for the simple comparison of official data on the labor markets in the region. (Data on Asian countries are as of first quarter 2012 as compiled by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas or BSP. During the same period, our official unemployment rate was 7.2 percent.)

And we have not even looked at the quality of available jobs. A quick peek at the NSO’s preliminary October 2012 Labor Force Survey shows that underemployed workers – those who are employed but are still looking for additional work – numbered 7.2 million; self-employed without any paid employee, 10.7 million; and unpaid family workers, 4.1 million. That’s easily 22 million out of the reported 37.7 million employed workers (more than 58%) with disputable quality of jobs.

Then for wage and salary workers, there’s the issue of extremely low pay amid a very high cost of living (made even worse by Aquino’s enforcement of the two-tier wage system which imposes a floor wage that is even lower than the minimum wage) as well as job insecurity amid widespread labor contractualization. The last time the National Wages and Productivity Commission (NWPC) issued its estimate of family living wage (which could approximate the amount needed by a regular family to live decently) it pegged it at ₱917 per day as of September 2008 in Metro Manila. More than four years later, Metro Manila’s daily minimum wage is still a measly ₱419-456.

To have an idea of how massive job scarcity in the Philippines could be, we may refer to the regular surveys of the Social Weather Stations (SWS). In 2010, 22.5% of Filipino workers said they were jobless which increased to 23.6% in 2011. This year, it ballooned to 30.1 percent. In absolute terms, there were about 9.5 million unemployed workers in 2010 and 2011; this year, it climbed to 12.1 million workers. In Aquino’s first three years in power, the number of workers who said that they were jobless increased by 2.6 million based on SWS surveys.  (Results of SWS surveys cited in this article all refer to annual averages.)

With the economy not producing enough jobs and livelihood opportunities even as wages become even more depressed, poverty and consequently hunger have been at their worst. Again using the SWS surveys, 47.5% of Filipino families considered themselves poor in 2010. Since then, the percentage has steadily climbed to 49.3% in 2011 and 51% this year. There are now around 10.3 million families who consider themselves poor, up from 9.9 million in 2011 and 8.9 million two years ago. Thus, in the first half of Aquino’s term, the number of poor families ballooned by 1.4 million. This means that some 7 million Filipinos have been added to the number of poor in the past three years. Note that between 2009 and 2012, the budget for the controversial conditional cash transfer (CCT) program swelled from just ₱5 billion to ₱39.4 billion (a whopping 688% increase) but apparently failing to make a dent on poverty.

Hunger incidence, still as surveyed by the SWS, follows the same path. In 2010, the percentage of families who reported to have experienced hunger was at 19.1 percent. It climbed to 19.9% the next year and to 21.1% this year. In absolute figures, there were 3.6 million hungry families in 2010; 4 million in 2011; and 4.3 million in 2012. Under Aquino, the number of Filipino families who experience hunger has so far grown by 700,000 or about 3.5 million people as measured by the SWS.

ph economy in 2012 - table

Continue reading here

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2013 elections, Governance, Human rights

Bellofied!

Being “Bellofied” is fatal.

Red-baiting on national TV last week was Akbayan Rep. Walden Bello. Lacking a solid argument to explain why his group should not be disallowed from participating in the 2013 party-list elections, Bello claimed that those seeking their disqualification want him dead. “Actually, yung disqualification, secondary option lang nila ‘yan. Yung primary option, physical elimination namin,” Bello declared. Host Anthony Taberna asked Bello if he is accusing youth group Anakbayan, which asked the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to disqualify Akbayan, of plotting to kill him. “Alam naman natin na front group sila ng extreme Left. And the extreme Left in 2005 targeted me as a counter-revolutionary to be eliminated,” Bello retorted. He then went on to name Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) as another front organization. “So let’s face it, let’s put it on the table… like KMU, front groups sila ng extreme Left,” claimed Bello. (Watch the full video below)

Well, Anakbayan and KMU just got “Bellofied”. Don’t mistake it with being Belofied, the Belo Medical Group’s digital makeover that gives a preview of how you will look like after undergoing a cosmetic procedure. But being Bellofied also transforms you – from a legal organization to a communist front. Being Belofied is fun, being Bellofied is fatal. Hundreds of activists from Anakbayan, KMU and other organizations who have been Bellofied were either shot dead or abducted under government’s counterinsurgency campaign Oplan Bantay Laya and Oplan Bayanihan. Being Bellofied will land you an appointment not with a cosmetic surgeon but with a heartless butcher.

Anakbayan, KMU and other national democratic organizations and their allies (the “extreme Left”, said Bello) have been constantly Bellofied by Walden and his cohorts at Akbayan. In January 2005, the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South of which Bello was then an executive director, asked KMU, the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), Migrante, the International Peoples Struggles (ILPS) and others to “apply moral suasion” on the leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA). The statement was issued after Bello and former Akbayan Rep. and now Noynoy Aquino-appointee Etta Rosales claimed that they have been targeted for assassination by the NPA. Their basis? A diagram of Filipino counter-revolutionary groups and their international links that appeared on the December 7, 2004 issue of Ang Bayan, the CPP’s official publication and downloadable from its website. Bello and Akbayan’s line echoed the propaganda of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), which has been carrying out assassinations and abductions of legitimate political activists.

The supposed threat to Bello’s life courtesy of the CPP-NPA has never materialized. But leaders and members of organizations Walden Bellofied, those he accused of being CPP-NPA fronts, have been killed or abducted, never to be seen again. Think of Jonas Burgos. Think of Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño. Think of the many activists that fell in the hands of Jovito Palparan. During the 2010 polls, Akbayan again resorted to Bellofying as part of its black propaganda campaign against then senatorial bets Satur Ocampo and Liza Maza. Refresh your memory how Risa Hontiveros Bellofied the candidates of Makabayan.

Aside from Bellofying, Walden also accused Anakbayan and its allies of simply being inggit because Akbayan made them irrelevant. “Ang problema nito – hindi nila inilalabas sa complaint na galing ito sa inggit kasi napaka-effective ng Akbayan in representing the marginalized masses whereas sila at yung mga parties where they are allied, the ultra-Left, ay talagang they have been drifting into irrelevance,” Bello said. He then went on to recite a litany of supposed legislative achievements. Well, if Bello’s measure of relevance is Congress, the last time I looked, the “ultra-Left” party-list groups have seven representatives in the Lower House, Akbayan has two. But Congress is the measure of relevance only in Bello’s warped mind. The last time I looked, the national democratic movement is still the single most potent political force in the country that can mobilize the biggest number of people on Sona or May 1. The last time I looked, it was Bayan Muna, Kabataan, Anakbayan, KMU, Bayan and others that were at the forefront (together with concerned netizens) in the fight against the Cybercrime Law, both inside the Supreme Court (SC), along Padre Faura and on Facebook and on Twitter, while Akbayan was… never mind. Bello wrote a column against the Cybercrime Law? Yes, but by that time, the protests have already snowballed and Bello and Akbayan are just simply jumping on the bandwagon, lest they become irrelevant.

I don’t know why Walden could not squarely answer the question being raised by Anakbayan. It’s a fair question that even an ordinary voter without any ideological leaning could ask. Why is Akbayan – whose current and former officials and nominees are occupying high ranking presidential appointments – should still be considered marginalized and under-represented, which are the basic requirements of Republic Act (RA) 7941 or the Party-List System Act?

Akbayan used to be a pseudo-progressive party-list group. Now, they’re simply a pseudo-party-list group.

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Economy, Fiscal issues, Governance

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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Economy, Fiscal issues, Governance

Martial Law legacy: debt servicing, top priority from Macoy to Noynoy

Image from gmanetwork.com

Last September 21, the country marked the 40th anniversary of the imposition of Martial Law by the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos. Those dark years were notorious for the numerous cases of human rights atrocities committed by the military; for the unprecedented cronyism; and for the massive and flagrant ransacking of state coffers by Marcos, his relatives and friends.

Seldom pointed out is how the Marcos dictatorship also instituted national policies that further tied our pre-industrial economy to perpetual backwardness and bound a great majority of our people to acute poverty. Seldom pointed out is how the anti-Marcos faction of the ruling elite led by Cory Aquino who supposedly restored democracy, and her successors – including son, incumbent President Benigno Aquino – have upheld and continued these policies to the serious detriment of the country and the people.

One such policy was automatic debt servicing. Guaranteed payments of the national debt, even if they were incurred under questionable circumstances; went to the pockets of corrupt government officials; and/or used to fund programs and projects that harmed the economy and the people is a testament to the still dismal state of governance and democracy in the country 40 years after Martial Law was imposed.

That the Marcosian policy of automatic debt servicing continues to deprive the people of much needed social services contradicts assertions by the Aquino government of a pro-people national budget. It has hyped, for instance, its proposed 2013 ₱2.006-trillion national budget as “Empowerment Budget”, building on its previous packaging of “Reform Budget” (2011) and “Results-Focused Budget” (2012). Underlying all these budget proposals is the theme of “daang matuwid” (straight path) and “kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap” (without corruption, there’s no poverty).

But behind the pro-people packaging is the reality that the priorities and programs of government, as reflected in its national budget, remain unresponsive to the urgent social needs of the poor and development requirements of the country. From the late strongman Macoy to the son of supposed democracy icons Noynoy, keeping the creditors assured has always been the top priority in crafting the national budget.

Current debt data

Marcos’s borrowing spree – from less than $1 billion when he first became President in 1966, the foreign debt ballooned to $28 billion by the time he was kicked out of Malacañang twenty-years later – set off the crippling debt burden that the country has had to endure. To keep the foreign loans coming, which had become the dictatorship’s largest source of corruption (one estimate claimed that Marcos pocketed at least ⅓ of foreign loans), Marcos issued Presidential Decree (PD) 1177 or the Budget Reform Decree of 1977 that automatically appropriates for debt servicing regardless of how much is left of the country’s resources to fund basic social services. The late President Corazon Aquino affirmed this policy through Executive Order (EO) 292 or the Administrative Code of 1987.

As of July 2012, the outstanding debt of the national government, according to the Bureau of the Treasury (BTr) stood at ₱5.16 trillion, of which ₱3.12 trillion (61%) come from domestic creditors and the rest, ₱2.04 trillion (39%) from foreign lenders.  When President Aquino assumed office in June 2010, that debt was pegged at ₱4.58 trillion (₱2.59 trillion, domestic; ₱1.99 trillion, foreign). Since taking over, the Aquino administration has added more than ₱580 billion to the debt burden, or an average of more than ₱23 billion a month (July 2010 to July 2012). During the Arroyo administration, the outstanding debt of the national government was growing by a monthly average of ₱21 billion (January 2001 to June 2010).

Meanwhile, looking at the foreign debt data (which include public and private debt, with the former accounting for 77% of the $62.9-billion total as of March 2012) as monitored by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), it appears that the country’s external loans have been accumulating most rapidly under the current Aquino administration with an average of $268.81 million per month. It is the largest monthly growth in foreign debt among all post-Marcos administrations. (See Chart)

A news report on the latest debt data noted that each Filipino now owes the national government’s creditors some ₱53,715 (based on the latest estimated population of 96 million by the National Statistical Coordination Board of NSCB). A minimum wage earner in the National Capital Region (NCR) will need to give his salary for 120 to 131 workdays if he will be forced to pay for his share of this debt; or 232 days if he is from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

Meager allocation for social services

But the real impact of such heavy debt burden is felt by the poor in the meager allocation that important social services get from government because limited resources are being siphoned off by automatic debt servicing. And Aquino is proving to be worse than Arroyo in this respect. Under the Aquino administration, government has already shelled out ₱1.45 trillion for debt servicing from July 2010 to July 2012. It’s equivalent to ₱58.05 billion a month, almost ₱10 billion bigger than Arroyo’s ₱48.18 billion a month during her prolonged 9 ½-year term. (See Table 1)

Further, debt servicing relative to total expenditures (including principal repayments) is pegged at almost 59% under Aquino, compared to 42% under Arroyo; and relative to total revenues collected, it’s 76% under Aquino and 66% under Arroyo. These figures mean that that the absolute increase in debt servicing in the past two years is exerting more pressure on public resources which could not cope with the country’s growing expenses, including the need to pay for government’s mounting debts. To finance its expenses, including payments for past debts, the Aquino administration is borrowing more.

Debt servicing continues to eat up a huge portion of the national budget despite claims by the Aquino administration that social services are now being prioritized by government. The expenditure program from 2011 to the proposed 2013 national budget, for instance, shows that the budget for debt servicing (including principal amortization) is equivalent to an average of 2.5 times that of the budget for education; 6.4 times, health; and 11.2 times, housing. (See Table 2)

To be concluded

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Governance

Aquino overstating gains from Corona conviction to hide own agenda

Aquino’s claim that the conviction of Corona proved that genuine change can be achieved is exaggerating the gains of the people from the impeachment trial. The road towards real reforms that will truly benefit our people remains obstructed by the narrow and self-serving economic and political agenda of those who wield power. (Photo from http://www.reynaelena.com)

President Benigno Aquino III, in his official statement, described the gains from the conviction of Renato Corona this way: “Ang pinakamalaking handog ng paglilitis na ito: Muli po nating napatunayan na posible palang makamit ang pagbabago. Posible palang magkaroon ng justice, at hindi puro “just-tiis” ang litanya sa ating bansa. Napatunayan nating mangingibabaw ang katotohanan, laban sa pagkukubli; mananaig ang tapat, laban sa tiwali; at magtatagumpay ang tama, laban sa mali.”

Aquino is overstating the people’s gains from the conviction of Corona. Obviously, he is doing so to conceal his own agenda in pushing for the ouster of the former Chief Justice from the Supreme Court (SC).

Contrary to Aquino’s declaration, the guilty verdict could not be simply translated as the triumph of justice over injustice or the victory of the righteous over the corrupt. For all their “daang matuwid” rhetoric, Aquino and his Liberal Party (LP) have their own selfish political and economic agenda in the conviction of Corona.

LP reign

One is control over the Judiciary. For every faction of the ruling elite that comes to Malacañang, the first important task is to consolidate its political power. From the onset, Aquino and the ruling LP have displayed control over the House of Representatives (HoR), proof of which were the swift impeachment of former Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez in September 2010 and Corona in December 2011. (Gutierrez resigned in April 2011 even before the impeachment trial at the Senate could begin.) Another Arroyo appointee, SC Justice Mariano del Castillo, is also facing impeachment at the HoR. After an overwhelming 20-3 conviction of Corona, it appears that even the Senate is also heavily influenced by the Executive.

With Corona now out of the SC, Aquino can appoint his own choice of Chief Justice. The chilling effect of the ouster of Corona and the pending impeachment of del Castillo on other members of the High Court, particularly the appointees of Arroyo, ensures effective control by the President over the Judiciary. Right now, Aquino has three appointees in the SC – Ma. Lourdes Sereno, Bienvenido Reyes and Estela Perlas-Bernabe.

It is important for Aquino and the LP to make certain that the Supreme Court will toe Malacañang’s line for a variety of reasons. Politically, the biggest reason is the continuity of the LP reign when Aquino’s term expires in 2016. As noted by columnist Rigoberto Tiglao, key to this is the presidential ambition of LP chief Mar Roxas, who ran but lost as Aquino’s running mate in the last polls.

Roxas has filed an electoral protest against Vice President Jejomar Binay before the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET), which is also the SC. To boost his chances of clinching the presidency in 2016, Roxas needs a much high profile role, so don’t be surprised if we soon find him sitting as the second highest official of the land.

The PET is now being chaired by acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio, who founded the notorious “The Firm”, which serves as Roxas’ counsel in his poll protest. Corona had identified Carpio, who had also wanted to become Chief Justice but was ignored by Arroyo in favor of Corona, and The Firm as one of the forces behind his impeachment.

Hacienda Luisita

Meanwhile, for Aquino, the ouster of Corona is sweet revenge for the latter’s role in the SC decision to dismantle the Hacienda Luisita. With the clear message sent to SC members by the removal of Corona, there is a very real risk that the High Court might soon undermine the favorable ruling obtained by the Luisita farmers and farmworkers.

Of particular concern is the possibility of reversing the decision of the SC to peg the payment at 1989 valuation and not the 2006 level being sought by the family of the President. Aquino himself has expressed publicly that his family deserves “just compensation” for Hacienda Luisita.

Note that when the SC decided the issue on just compensation, the result was a very close 8-6 in favor of the 1989 valuation. Note that among the six Justices that sided with Aquino’s family were Aquino’s appointees (Sereno, Reyes and Bernabe) plus del Castillo, who as mentioned is facing impeachment at the HoR.

Incidentally, since the impeachment complaint was filed against him in February, del Castillo has already voted twice in favor of Aquino. One is on just compensation in relation to Hacienda Luisita. The other is on the issue of Corona’s dollar accounts, where the SC issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) to prevent the Senate from examining the said accounts. Del Castillo along with Aquino’s appointees (except Reyes) and Carpio voted against the TRO.

Bungling cases vs. Gloria

In his speech, Aquino recalled the context of the impeachment complaint against Corona: “Alam na po natin ang malalim na pinagsamahan nila ni Ginang Arroyo. Simula pa lang kinuwestyon na natin ang kanyang midnight appointment dahil sa pananaw na labag ito sa Saligang Batas… Sa paglaon po, naging malinaw sa atin na imbis na siya mismong dapat nagbibigay-linaw sa batas, ang siyang nagpapalabo nito.”

Aquino claimed that had the ousted Chief Magistrate succeeded in allowing Arroyo to flee last year, the former President and now Pampanga congresswoman will just wait out the prescriptive period on the filing of charges against her to expire. It will be remembered that Arroyo tried to go abroad supposedly to seek medical treatment but was prevented by Department of Justice (DOJ), which also ignored the SC TRO on its travel ban.

But Aquino should be reminded that that it was his administration’s failure to promptly file the necessary cases against Arroyo that opened up opportunities for Arroyo’s scheme to leave the country. For more than 500 days, not a single case was filed by the Aquino administration. And when it was forced by the aborted escape of Arroyo, it lodged the weakest case – electoral sabotage in relation to the 2007 polls.

Now, there is even a danger that the court hearing this case will grant Arroyo’s petition to file bail after government prosecutors admitted that two key witnesses were supposedly missing. One of the missing is said to be the “star witness” who can pin down the former President. This is yet another indication how the Aquino administration is bungling the cases against Arroyo.

Questionable sincerity

Aquino’s sincerity to really go after Arroyo, her family and allies for plunder, electoral sabotage and human rights abuses has been questioned repeatedly. And despite the conviction of Corona, such doubt remains considering how the Aquino administration has been handling the issue of Arroyo’s accountability.

During the impeachment trial, for instance, the LP-led prosecution team diluted the issue of Corona’s collusion with Arroyo and focused on pounding the questionable Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALNs) of Corona, which in the process also underscored the two-facedness of Senator Franklin Drilon, Congressman Niel Tupas and the rest of the noisy LP stalwarts who spearheaded the impeachment campaign.

Meanwhile, Aquino has remained mum on the issue of the anomalous 2004 elections (the “Hello Garci” scandal), where Arroyo’s role was more prominent. It has not filed any case on the atrocious human rights violations committed in the name of Oplan Bantay Laya (OBL), the notorious military campaign of the Arroyo regime. It has not filed any case on the various corruption cases involving the Arroyo camp such as the botched $329-million NBN-ZTE deal.

Towards genuine change?

Aquino’s claim that the conviction of Corona proved that genuine change can be achieved is exaggerating the gains of the people from the impeachment trial. The road towards real reforms that will truly benefit our people remains obstructed by the narrow and self-serving economic and political agenda of those who wield power.

The guilty verdict does not in any way automatically assure that Arroyo and her cabal will be punished for their numerous crimes against the Filipino people in the nine and a half years that they held power. It does not in any way mean that systemic graft and corruption in the bureaucracy that have been draining the country of much needed resources for economic development and provision of social services will finally end.

It does not mean that the judiciary has been totally cleansed of crooks in robes that would merit the return of public trust in our courts. The poor still remain disadvantaged under the flawed justice system, which will continue to favor the rich and powerful even after Corona’s conviction. Sa presinto pa rin magpapaliwanag ang mahihirap at magpapalusot pa rin ang mayayaman.

Genuine and deep-seated reforms, to be sure, are not done overnight. Certainly, the ouster of Corona does not immediately translate to the political and economic changes that the people have long been aspiring and fighting for. But it is important to put the conviction of Corona in the proper perspective and reject the illusion and lies being peddled by Aquino and his spin doctors.

Thus, we need to be vigilant more than ever to ensure that whatever little victory the people earned from the conviction of Corona will surely translate to more meaningful gains for the people, including the conviction of Arroyo herself. With equal watchfulness, we must also keep an eye on and resist every step of the Aquino clique to consolidate its control over the bureaucracy for self-serving political and economic ends. #

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