Huge anti-insurgency fund amid Covid-19, poverty rise

The 2021 national budget says a lot about what the Duterte administration is really concerned with.”

And right now, amid the worst health and economic crisis in the country’s history, the government wants to pour billions of taxpayer funds into its prime counterinsurgency drive, awarding NTF-ELCAC with an astounding 2,969 percent budget increase.

The alarm was raised by the advocacy research group, Ibon Foundation, through its executive director Sonny Africa. His Facebook post on Aug. 25 was the first to call public attention to the huge funding boost for the government’s much-flaunted counterinsurgency scheme: the National Task Force to End the Local Communist Armed Conflict. It went up from P622.3 million in 2020 to P19.13 billion in 2021, Ibon noted.

Of the P19.13-billion proposed budget, the biggest share, P16.4 billion from the President’s Local Government Support Fund, is to be allotted to a Barangay Development Program (BDP) administered by NTF-ELCAC. For the rest, NTF-ELCAC will also administer P1.19 billion through the Department of the Interior and Local Government; P48 million through the Department of Agriculture; P40 million through the Department of Agrarian Reform and P34 million to the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

These are all lump-sum funds, not itemized. Unless the proposed expenditures are itemized, they would be deemed unconstitutional, per a Supreme Court decision in 2015.

When I first wrote about this budget proposal on Feb. 8 in this space, it was presidential peace adviser Carlito Galvez Jr. who talked about a P21-billion budget, which national security adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. (NTF-ELCAC vice chair) said President Duterte had approved “in principle.” The fund, he added, would be split in this way: P16.84 billion would go to 842 “insurgency-cleared” barangays across the country, while P4.189 billion would be allotted to 2,793 “insurgency-threatened” barangays.

Esperon said then that each one of the 842 “cleared” barangays would receive P20 million for farm-to-market roads, school buildings, water and sanitation systems, national greening program (reforestation), health stations, electrification, agricultural projects, TESDA training and DICT connectivity projects. Projects for the 2,793 “threatened” barangays – without specific amount for each – would be water systems, barangay centers, schoolhouse repairs, support for household projects, road opening and agricultural support.

A recent Rappler article on this subject (Sept. 5) mentioned Esperon as having added another category to the “cleared” and “threatened” barangays: 2,379 others that “continue to be infiltrated” by the New People’s Army, which he called the country’s “primary political threat.” He didn’t say whether these barangays would be given funding allocations.

The Rappler article also quoted Bayan Muna Rep. and House deputy minority leader Carlos Isagani Zarate as pointing out that, in his budget message to Congress, Duterte said the priority funding is for health. “You wonder why the NTF-ELCAC would get P16 billion, which is three times the budget for COVID-19 programs on PPE (personal protection equipment) and other COVID-19 interventions. It speaks volumes about what is really your priority in this time of crisis,” Zarate remarked.

Moreover, he likened the P16.4-billion BDP budget allocation to a pork barrel for retired generals, because it would allow them so much discretion in spending the money.

Zarate’s point was indirectly supported by The STAR editorial yesterday, titled “Budget priorities,” which cited “health and scientific research (budgets for COVID-19 interventions by the Department of Health and for virology research and development by the Department of Science and Technology) getting less than certain items related to national security (read: counterinsurgency).”

During an online Senate hearing last Wednesday, Sen. Franklin Drilon, minority leader, questioned the huge hike in the NTF-ELCAC budget. He wondered how a task force, created by Duterte’s Executive Order 70 in 2018, would get a bigger budget of such magnitude than some line agencies mandated by law.

If approved as proposed, Drilon said, the NTF-ELCAC budget would be larger than that, among others, of the Departments of Labor and Employment (P15.9 billion), of Trade and Industry (P5.5 billion), of Tourism (P3.5 billion) and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (P7.5 billion) All these agencies, he added, are in the frontlines of the push for economic recovery from the pandemic.

“Are we saying that the communist insurgency will be a bigger threat than the high unemployment, the loss of jobs of our migrant workers, the shutdown of our entire tourism industry and the closure of tens of thousands of small businesses?” Drilon asked budget secretary Wendel Avisado.

Avisado explained that the P16.4 billion would not be released to NTF-ELCAC itself – although being the “national secretariat” it would be the repository of the funds for the projects to be identified by the barangays. The funds, he explained, would be released to the barangays for them to implement the projects. He didn’t elaborate on the procedures.

Apparently unconvinced by the reply, Drilon asked if indeed barangays would benefit from the NTF-ELCAC budget, why add more red tape? “You know, our problem is we keep creating bureaucracies. We keep on creating layers,” he reminded Avisado. “Here is a secretariat (that) would be playing god to the requests of barangays,” he went on. “You have an agency, not a regular line agency, just somebody who will be approving or disapproving barangay requests for funding. So you can imagine the political favors that can be done out of this system.”

Coincidentally, on that point raised by Drilon, Bayan Muna Rep. Zarate, who also leads the opposition Makabayan bloc in the House, anchors his view that the NTF-ELCAC budget would be a source of pork barrel for the retired military officials. (Esperon, Galvez and DILG secretary Eduardo Año, all retired AFP chiefs, are key implementors of NTF-ELCAC.)

Zarate pointed out that the retired generals would certify the barangay projects based on criteria they would set, and would also provide the funding. “Mas matindi ito sa pork barrel ng Kongreso. Magdi-dispense sila ng P20 billion per barangay. Can you imagine that? Talagang pork ito in aid of whatever!”

Furthermore, Zarate raised the concern that the barangay officials would be pressured to participate in the harassment and vilification of legitimate community organizations and their members, led by the NTF-ELCAC’s spokespersons, military ground commanders and PNP stations. Note that the NTF has set up counterparts on the regional, provincial, municipal and barangay levels.

For instance, he said, the barangay chairperson, “just to be able to access the P20-million bounty,” may prohibit leaders and members of progressive organizations from organizing in the barangay or even just maintaining their existence. The program, he added, threatens to suppress activism in the communities as it induces among the activists the fear of reprisal from the authorities. It could adversely affect, among others, the campaigns for land reform, respect for human rights and the abolition of mining concessions.

Last point: The 3,635 barangays targeted for such funding constitute a very tiny portion of the 42,046 barangays in the country (as of March 2020). What does the Duterte government plan for the “development” of the vast majority of barangays in the countryside?

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Published in Philippine Star
September 12, 2020

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