There are more than enough funds for urgent cash aid if the Duterte administration really wants to give more relief. Research group IBON said that the government can easily realign large portions of infrastructure spending and debt servicing as well as non-productive budgets to emergency assistance and subsidies if it wanted to. However, said the group, the government clearly does not prioritize helping millions of poor and hungry Filipinos.
Tens of millions of poor and vulnerable households are in urgent need of more cash aid but economic managers keep insisting that there are no funds for this. This is however belied by how the government still had Php178.5 billion in unspent Bayanihan 1 and Bayanihan 2 funds as of February 2021 – which IBON said clearly shows that the government is not keen on spending on emergency relief even if funds are already available.
As it is, barely half (52%) of the promised Php1,000 per person in aid has been distributed in the NCR nearly one month since the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) was declared in the Greater Manila area. It is still unclear how much was given in the adjoining provinces. The economic managers are still refusing to give more cash aid and only using a supposed lack of funds as an excuse.
IBON pointed out that the government can finance the very urgent and long overdue cash assistance if only it chose to. It has to make emergency relief and support a priority and not something provided only if there is somehow extra cash lying around. The 2021 national budget can be made more genuinely responsive to the ongoing pandemic, said IBON.
Funds can be realigned from the Php1.1 trillion infrastructure budget, starting with any big-ticket projects whose economic and financial feasibility has changed with the onset of the pandemic and its economic aftershocks. Some Php103.4 billion will be spent for just the three biggest transport infrastructure projects in 2021 – the North-South Commuter Railway, Mega-Manila Subway, and Davao By-pass. IBON pointed out that the government should at least consider whether the official development assistance (ODA) and counterpart funds for these import-intensive projects remains, upon the pandemic, the best use of scarce financing for development.
IBON also said that the same question should be asked of every project in the government’s inexplicably unchanged Build, Build, Build infrastructure program. The group asked, for instance, if the Php5.2 billion to be spent in 2021 for new buildings for the Senate and the House of Representatives is really necessary with so many poor and hungry Filipinos. It is also likely that many of the Php414.6 billion worth of road projects are of much less priority now given critical pandemic needs. These may even be sources of corruption especially considering the approaching May 2022 elections.
The group said that portions of the Php1.8 trillion in debt service to be paid in 2021 can also be realigned. The government can for instance start with the Php92.6 billion in scheduled payments to multilateral development agencies and supposedly friendly governments. The Duterte administration can tell creditors that there are more socially urgent uses for scarce funding for development. The administration needs to have the political resolve to overcome its long-time deference to creditors and remove its policy of automatic appropriations for debt servicing.
Funds can also be rechanneled from unwarranted budget items like the Php19.5 billion National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) which is at the forefront of constricting civic space and human rights violations. The group also flagged the Php9.5-billion in secretive confidential and intelligence funds that are prone to abuse.
Progressive groups are calling for Php10,000 in immediate cash aid to poor or low-income households, and a Php100 daily wage subsidy. IBON said that enough resources for this relief can be raised by judicious realignment of funds in the 2021 budget.
IBON stressed that the administration needs to urgently prioritize and enact a substantial recovery and economic stimulus package that genuinely addresses the country’s health and socioeconomic crisis. IBON has proposed a Php1.5-trillion expansionary fiscal policy as well as various sources of funding that the Duterte administration can consider if it has the political will and commitment to do so.
Economic managers should stop citing the lack of funds that is obstructing much-needed pandemic response, IBON stressed. If the Duterte administration was bolder and more decisive and put Filipinos’ welfare first over pleasing elite and foreign interests, there could be several sources of funding that it can seriously consider to urgently finance genuine COVID response and recovery, said the group.