Spending for change? What his SONA Says, What the Budget Tells
By ZY-ZA NADINE SUZARA, HARVEY PARAFINA, & RUPERT MANGILIT
Two years ago—recalled President Rodrigo Duterte in his State of the Nation Address on July 23—he took oath with a zeal “to institute real changes for the greater good of the Filipino people.” If the former Davao mayor and everyone may recall, he succeeded a presidency which, lingering challenges aside, has left a few gains to sustain. Poverty went down to 21.6%. Agencies were propped up by reforms that sought to improve the generation and prioritization of resources. And he had a Php 3-trillion Budget to draw and fulfill his blueprint for change—something he promised and propelled him to a decisive win in 2016.
On many occasions Pres. Duterte has tried, at least in words, to build on these pre-2016 gains. Almost immediately, he came up with a 10-point agenda that sought to reduce poverty through inclusive growth that cascades to rural areas—a commitment he reiterated in this latest SONA: “Human rights to me,” he said, “means giving Filipinos, especially those at the society’s fringes, a decent and dignified future.” This same speech had him stressing that “corruption must stop; it is a leech that bleeds the government of funds programmed for infrastructure and other social development projects.” On the surface, such words indicated an assurance of prudent spending to bring progress that is felt down to the grassroots.
But how well does he keep up with these promises? On the anti-corruption front, he seemed quite serious: he candidly spoke of lost friendships due to corruption during the SONA, and sacked officials—in rapid fire succession at one point—who traveled in unnecessary frequency. Yet some of them only wound up reassigned to different offices. Worse, the official tally of his own travels—21 trips in 18 countries for Php 386 million—suggests he might not be walking the talk at all. He spent thrice as much as the previous two presidents, based on Malacañang’s own record.
Pres. Duterte preaches austerity, but his budget for travel and most other funds at his disposal are far from spartan. A look at the fine print would reveal that some of OP’s operational costs grew twice or thrice its 2016 levels.
The OP’s communications expenses also grew by 101 percent from 2016; this is on top of the 19-percent increase in the Presidential Communications Operations Office, whose primary mandate is to craft messages for the Executive. More alarmingly, Confidential and Intelligence Funds—budget items that are difficult to audit and are highly insulated from public scrutiny—rose to P1.25 billion each.
On top of all these, Pres. Duterte has up to Php 13 billion at his disposal under the Contingent Fund—the biggest allocation any president has ever asked for. Just as his Php 885-million travel funds are not enough, a Special Provision under the Contingent Fund gives him additional leeway to cover for “deficiencies in the appropriations for local and external travels.” Likewise, the Contingent Fund provides a buffer for “requirements of newly-created offices,” including a Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission that seems to duplicate the functions of the constitutionally-mandated Office of the Ombudsman.
While the Office of the President (OP) enjoys an avalanche of funds for 2018, budgets for some key agencies grew at a slackened pace and in mere increments. Particularly, investments in social protection—those that are tasked to deliver services that directly impact the poor—grew in increments, but are on the decline in terms of their share in an otherwise rapidly growing Budget. The percentage share of the Department of Health in the Budget has in fact seen a year-on-year decline, while the Department of Education’s share plateaued after seven years of exponential growth. Such a trend casts doubts on Pres. Duterte’s commitment to his promise to fight poverty.
In contrast, the Department of the Interior and Local Government, with P170.76 billion, is among the agencies receiving an avalanche of funds for 2018. DILG grew 15% year-on-year, owing to significant increases in the salaries and operation costs of the Philippine National Police. Meanwhile, under the DILG proper, P280 million is allocated for drug-related programs despite the abolition of Mamamayang Ayaw Sa Anomalya-Mamamayang Ayaw sa Ilegal na Droga (MASA-MASID) a controversial barangay-embedded anti-drug campaign; and a P100-million line item for “Transition to Federalism.” This, despite unpopular public opinion and fears expressed by experts, and even Pres. Duterte’s Budget and Socioeconomic Planning Secretaries that several more layers of governance would only eat up into the fiscal space, undermining human and economic infrastructure that otherwise offers straightforward benefits to the poor and marginalized.
And speaking of the poor: amid criticisms of a disproportionate focus on pursuing and murdering small fry, the PNP will otherwise carry on with the anti-drug operations. “The war against illegal drugs is far from over,” the president himself declared anyway, and this time he sounded grimmer and more determined to pull all stops to ensure his “war will not be sidelined.” The 2018 Budget guarantees the police can carry it out “as relentless and chilling” as he wants. During the Bicameral deliberations, PNP secured an additional Php 923 million for operations—which include, among others, the pursuit and arrest of drug personalities. In effect, it managed to get back the Php 900 million Senate had taken when it struck Oplan Tokhang off the PNP budget.
With a fresh stream of funds and the President’s imprimatur, the Police goes on unabated with its supposed anti-drug crackdown at the expense of lives of those who lie at society’s margins—the same lives whom Pres. Duterte expressed concern with in his SONA. Figures and profiles collected by The Drug Archive, a data-driven analysis of the President’s war on drugs, are quite telling: 27% of the victims are shot in alleys and streets around mostly densely populated communities. Only a small portion—15% of the victims—have jobs. Those who have were employed in low-skilled work: jeepney barkers, construction workers, tricycle drivers, street vendors. All but 0.6% are drug lords. “Based on their place of residence or their occupation,” according to the The Drug Archive, “it is clear that most of the victims were poor.”
It was also clear in the database that about 6 in 10 drug-related killings took place during police operations. Hence, against this backdrop of mounting collateral damage, the government’s move to hike the base pay of the police force by 59% on average has been viewed as a move to reward and lock in their patronage for as long as Pres. Duterte deems the anti-drug war necessary.
If Pres. Duterte’s Budget is indeed the blueprint of his priorities in numbers, then this year’s is one that defaults on at least a couple of his promises. As it appears from the avalanches, the OP budget betrays his commitment to transparency and discretion. Likewise, he falls short on his commitment to improve the lives of the poor, attacking them in two ways: On the one hand, resources for agencies that would improve human development—social protection, health, and education—get a shrinking share of the pie. On the other, the budget continues to bankroll the so-called war on drugs and reward its fervent allies, despite casting fears in poor communities, where families have been perturbed by the sound of gunshots and the sight of dead bodies sprawled in their alleys.
One could find hope in the uptick of infrastructure funding and argue that its “Build, Build, Build” initiative—a string of 75 projects—would be one of the Duterte administration’s last chances to fulfill his promise of change. But with only six of these big-ticket projects currently under construction, and with infrastructure agencies grappling with underspending due to a persistent technical deficit to design and carry out projects, economists are not convinced that the government can keep up with the growing amount and scale of ambition.
And what about the quality of other infrastructure? A close look into the 2018 Public Works budget begs questions on the quality of investments, especially within the Local Infrastructure Program, where billions are being poured into projects with questionable developmental value like multipurpose halls. Worse, scattered within the local infrastructure funds are pockets of patronage. More of this on the final part of the blog.
This blog is the second of a three-part series that seeks to contextualize and expound on the findings of Increments and Avalanches: Unpacking the 2018 Budget of the Duterte Administration, a working paper produced by the Institute of Leadership, Empowerment and Governance to dissect the policy priorities of the government under President Rodrigo Duterte’s watch, as revealed by figures in the National Budget. Click here and read the paper in full.