The Dutiful President: Si Pangulong Noynoy Aquino at ang konsepto ng tungkulin

To be quite candid, the government’s 2022 National Expenditure Plan got its priorities wrong once again.

The country has slid to the very bottom of Bloomberg’s COVID Resilience ranking. IOf the 53 countries surveyed, it is the worst place to be in the time of COVID. It scored low on all metrics, including virus containment and the quality of life of its citizens.

But the country does not seem to be bothered by red flags raised in its lockdown-heavy pandemic response—this, as far as the proposed Budget for next year is concerned. At most, the Philippines’ COVID response will only be worth more or less 3% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), while countries such as Singapore are spending as much as 18% of its GDP on fighting it. Where and how did the country get its priorities wrong? We cite at least five alarming points:

1. Build Build Build gets the biggest chunk of the budget—in this pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage, and hence calls for greater resources for health and social protection to get people back on their feet and get the economy moving.

But it looks like this is not the logic the government follows in its recovery approach. Much of the funds are still funneled to infrastructure.

The Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) received the biggest share of the proposed budget, at P685.2 billion, despite going down by 1 percent from last year. The Department of Transportation (DOTr) is getting P150.8 billion—increasing by as much as 72 percent from the previous year’s budget. Such huge amounts, despite the glaring inability of the departments chiefly responsible for infrastructure projects to improve their disbursements. For 2020, DPWH disbursed only 31.2% of its obligations for 2020, and DOTr, an equally appalling 36.9%.

Disbursement rates determine an agency’s capability not only to spend its budget, but also to roll out its projects on time, if at all. If fast-tracking economic recovery by spending on high-ticket infrastructure projects is the government’s justification for channeling a huge amount of its budget for Build Build Build, then the dismal spending performance of DPWH and DOTr debunks it.

2. Health budget is disproportionate to the scale of the pandemic. Despite COVID making a steep climb as among the leading causes of death in the country (now 5th, based on Philippine Statistic Authority figures), the Health budget still does not measure up to the magnitude of the problem.

Despite increasing by 17% year-on-year budget for DOH ranked only 6th in terms of budget allocation—lower than the budgets for infrastructure, police, and military.

A 17-percent budget increase is also not enough. It does not cover much-needed funding for proven interventions that curb the spread of the virus, as well as benefits and safety nets for medical frontliners who are tirelessly fighting COVID despite being among the most at-risk of contracting it. Zero funding has been set aside under DOH for health workers’ special risk allowance; hazard pay; and meal, accommodation, and transportation allowances. No funding was also spelled out for expanding the country’s testing capacity, as well as for contract tracing—not even in the Department of the Interior and Local Government where it was previously lodged.

Also, funds to buy booster shots for COVID-19 were parked in the unprogrammed fund—meaning they will only be funded in case of revenues exceeding targets or arising from new sources, or through borrowing. This was the same approach they did with funds to purchase vaccines for this year, a telling observation on where vaccination falls in the government’s scheme of priorities in its pandemic response.

The already measly budget for the National Nutrition Council, an attached agency of the DOH responsible for fighting malnutrition, was also slashed by P10 million—despite malnutrition climbing five places in the causes of death for 2020.

3. Funds for ayuda: too scant to be of help. The pandemic has pushed the country toward an economic misery that has never been felt for decades. The average income for 2021 slid back 2018 levels, and self-rated poverty remained at 13.6%in June this year after hitting more than 30% in 2020. These figures underscore the need to help those who slid back to poverty due to COVID-19 related job displacements and business closures.

Despite this, P22 billion-peso increase in the budgets of the Departments of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), and Labor and Employment (DOLE) pale in comparison with the total proposed assistance to poor families and displaced workers under the proposed and still languishing Bayanihan to Arise as One (Bayanihan 3) bill, at P291 billion.

The P4.95-billion assistance to micro, small, and medium enterprises is nearly 20-fold less than the P100 billion proposed under Bayanihan 3.

On the policy side, the government has kept on resorting to lockdowns and its countless iterations and modifications. Its preference for “granular” lockdowns, amid calls for hard lockdowns to mitigate the sharp rise in cases owing to the more contagious Delta variant, shows an aversion to allocate a bigger portion of its budget for much-needed aid.

4. Little budget to prepare for blended modes of learning. The reopening of schools this September is not a cause for celebration as the Department of Education claims. Only 24.6 million schoolchildren are returning for school this year—11.2 % less than those who enrolled the school year before the pandemic.

The education budget also showed some red flags. The Philippines is among the only five countries not to conduct face-to-face classes, and while it has announced the piloting of face-to-face classes, the DepEd budget does not seem to be prepared for a reopening. Budget for Basic Education Facilities, which may be used to retrofit school buildings to allow for better ventilation, safe distances, among others, would be slashed by P12 billion.

The proposed 2022 budget for flexible learning options, which would have helped children and their parents who will have to stick with the online learning setup, would be slashed by P1.4 billion.

And despite malnutrition placing higher among the causes of death for 2021, the School Based Feeding Program would be slashed by P2.7 billion.

5. An avalanche of funds for NTF-ELCAC. While funds for health, jobs, schooling, and other social protection interventions are found wanting, there is an avalanche of funds for the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC)—controversial for red tagging individuals and groups that initiated community pantries for families who grapple with what little income, savings, or government aid they had. The task force enjoys a 57-percent increase, to be exact.

Particularly, the Barangay Development Program, under the dispensation of the said task force, increased to P30 billion from P19 billion. While dressed as incentives for villages (barangays) that have supposedly gotten rid of the presence of armed groups, the increase in this program’s funds is not only discomfiting in terms of the mechanism but also dubious in terms of timing, especially as local and national elections are underway.

Follow the money. Despite these red flags, the 2022 Budget is still subject to scrutiny by the Legislature, through the ongoing budget deliberations simultaneously held in Congress and Senate. The deliberations provide a window to point legislators to these red flags, and citizen groups should take advantage of this window.

In the context of a crisis as huge in scale and scope as COVID-19, the National Budget is the government’s action plan in numbers. While traditionally, the power of the purse is known to rest on the legislators, more vigorous citizen participation will give Filipinos greater power over the Budget and how it should be spent towards improving their health and welfare.