Fiscal issues

2011 national budget: reducing the debt burden

A COA report released in 2008 noted a number of serious issues in bridge projects funded by foreign debt (Photo from

The House of Representatives today (September 1) started its review of the P1.645-trillion national budget submitted by Malacañang.  Rep. Emilio Abaya of Cavite, chair of the committee on appropriations, has earlier promised a thorough deliberation of the Aquino administration’s proposed budget.

Sec. Butch Abad of the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) called the proposed 2011 budget a “reform budget”. The first budget of the new government is supposedly anchored on the basic governance principles of, among others, fiscal responsibility to reduce debt and bias in allocating resources for the poor.

Increased debt burden

But the spending plan submitted by Pres. Noynoy Aquino to Congress even increased the debt burden and like his predecessors, effectively marginalized resources for the poor. In fact, almost 77.5 percent of the P104.4-billion increase in the 2011 budget came from the huge P80.88-billion rise in interest payments for government’s debt. While personal services grew by P47.24 billion, maintenance and other operating expenses (MOOE) fell by P10.92 billion and capital outlays and net lending, by P12.8 billion. The said declines reflect the avowed policy of the Aquino administration of turning over to the private sector vital functions of government, including the provision of services and undertaking infrastructure development. Public infrastructure, for instance, fell by P21.13 billion in the 2011 budget. This policy will ultimately take its toll on the poor and marginalized in the form of, among others, exorbitant user fees. (See Table)

The Aquino administration is proposing interest payments of P357.09 billion in the 2011 budget, or 21.7 percent of its planned spending program. But the total debt burden for 2011 could actually reach P823.27 billion if the principal amortization of P466.18 billion is added to interest payments. Thus, debt burden (interest payments plus principal amortization) represents 38.9 percent of what the Aquino administration is willing to spend in its 2011 budget. (See Table)

Such a heavy debt burden means that fewer resources are available to spend for social and economic services badly needed by the people. What makes it doubly unjust is that many of the projects and programs funded by these debts did not benefit the people, or worse, even made life more difficult for them while private contractors, corrupt government officials, and the creditors rake in billions of pesos in taxpayers’ money.

Anomalous projects

Many of these anomalous and questionable loans can be easily identified. Take the case of the notorious bridge projects undertaken by the previous administration. In June 2008, the Commission on Audit (COA) released its findings on selected bridge projects undertaken by the Arroyo administration from 2002 to 2006, which were funded by various loan agreements with foreign creditors.

The COA noted a number of “lapses in the process of implementation” of these bridge projects such as uninstalled and unaccounted construction materials, use of expensive materials despite the availability of a cheap alternative, project delays that resulted in commitment penalties, construction of bridges in inappropriate places, overlapping of bridge projects, poor quality of constructed bridges, projects overshooting the approved budget, etc.

Based on the COA findings, I tabulated below some of these foreign debt-funded bridge projects to give an idea how much in taxpayers’ money are being wasted on debt servicing. Five questionable projects alone already cost $62.93 million in principal amortization and interest payments for 2011. That’s around P2.83 billion (at an exchange rate of P45 per US dollar) in funds that could be used for more meaningful and beneficial purposes. If the policy of automatic appropriation for debt servicing is not repealed soon, these onerous and questionable loans will continue to drain our budget and resources for many more years to come. (See Table, click to enlarge)

To be sure, these foreign debt-funded bridge projects exposed by the COA are just a small sample of the many anomalous loans incurred by government and unjustly being passed on the people. Not included in the table above, for instance, is the First National Roads Improvement Project (NRIP) in which the Philippines borrowed $150 million from the World Bank. The loan closed in March 2007 and we have already been servicing our debt to the World Bank when the country learned that five Filipino and Chinese contractors that participated in the project were involved in bid-rigging. For 2011, we will pay the World Bank $14.74 million (about P663 million) in principal amortization and interest payments for the anomaly-ridden NRIP and the country will continue to service the loan until 2020.

Debt for neoliberal reforms

Aside from infrastructure projects, there are also programs bankrolled by foreign debt that introduced neoliberal structural reforms in the Philippines. One example is the ongoing power sector restructuring program that will supposedly address high electricity cost and power supply insecurity through privatization and deregulation. But after many years of restructuring, what we have are frequent brownouts and monthly increases in our electricity bills while the auction of state-owned power assets has been repeatedly marred by irregularities (the latest case is Angat Dam privatization) and industry participants again and again manipulate electricity rates. Worse, taxpayers have been paying for the debts used to implement these anti-people power reforms.

The power sector restructuring program, which included the bribery-ridden railroading of the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (EPIRA) in 2001, has been mainly funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC). For 2011, the Aquino administration wants us to shell out $121.34 million to service the principal amortization and interest payments of four loan accounts with the ADB and JBIC for the implementation of power sector reforms. (See Table) The amount is on top of the debt servicing, worth $151.07 million in 2011, for the loans incurred by the National Power Corporation (NAPOCOR).

A more meticulous review of Philippine debts will certainly yield more anomalous transactions ranging from loans associated with the privatization of water utilities, loans for the mandatory importation of agricultural goods including rice from the US, loans used in infrastructure projects fraught with corruption, etc.

Challenge Congress, Noynoy

Our resources are indeed limited, constantly undermined by a fundamentally weak and backward economy and systemic corruption. Thus, lawmakers, as they review the 2011 budget proposal of the Aquino administration, must be pressured to take a serious look into these questionable and anomalous debts. We must compel them to at least suspend payments for these debts (and later work towards their complete repudiation). Congress can pass a 2011 budget stipulating that certain debts must not be serviced due to unresolved issues of corruption, program failure, etc. This move will also challenge President Aquino – will he veto such a budget and choose to honor his predecessors’, including Gloria Arroyo’s, illegitimate debts?

Servicing debts that did not benefit the people and the country amid chronic poverty and hunger and severe lack of social services is not only immoral and unjust. It is also inconsistent with genuine and sustainable development since it deprives government the capacity and the resources to invest in its people and spur the economy.