By JANNELA PALADIN and KENT GALIDO
MANILA – Various groups have called on the public to remain vigilant over public spending and the politicizing of government programs amid the still poor pandemic response and the looming national elections next year.
“Nothing has changed in the failed COVID response, and our health workers were the first to witness it,” said former Social Welfare Secretary and women’s rights advocate Judy Taguiwalo.
Calls on the public to be eagle-eyed on public spending came on the heels of the initial findings of state auditors, where billions of unaccounted public funds, especially those that could have been used to improve the government’s pandemic response, have been flagged. This is amid increasing COVID-19 cases, with the country’s health department documenting all-time highs in the daily number of new infections.
In an all-women panel of speakers, progressive group Gabriela organized a public forum on Aug. 27, where they centered their discussions on the questionable proposed budget for the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, which stands at P28.1 billion ($561.6 million) for 2022. This is a 47-percent increase from its current budget of P19 billion ($379.5 million).
War budget or election budget?
Human rights lawyer and women’s rights advocate Alnie Foja said she found it questionable that the government is allocating millions of public funds for counterinsurgency when the country is still deep in crisis as COVID-19 cases continue to increase.
“It is a question of prioritization. Why are we allocating big public funds on a task force that will purportedly end the armed conflict when we are at the height of a pandemic?” said Foja.
Foja was also skeptical over the budget allocated for the government’s counterinsurgency program when the government itself said in its 2017 National Security Policy that they are only dealing with 4,000 fighters of the New People’s Army (NPA).
Apart from the NTF-ELCAC budget, Kabataan Partylist earlier criticized the proposed P4.5 billion ($90 million) of confidential and intelligence funds under the Office of the President, which, they said, may be used as an “election war chest for corruption and violence against those who will pit against them, and to deceive the people.”
Bulatlat earlier reported that the budget for confidential and intelligence funds has increased by 800 percent (from only P500 million or $10 million in 2016). By its nature, COA has found it difficult to audit. Last year, President Duterte vetoed a provision in the budget that would require his office to submit quarterly reports on how these funds are being used.
Instead of allocating funds for the pandemic response, Foja said the government instead resorted to seeking the disqualification of Gabriela Women’s Party, a partylist under the umbrella of Makabayan bloc that has been very critical of state policies.
The government’s counterinsurgency arm is seeking to cancel the registration of GWP, claiming that the women’s party is “attacking the Philippine government through its highly provocative and libelous pronouncements such as ‘berdugo” (executioner), tyrant, and rapist,’ and that it is funding the armed revolutionary movement.
Foja said the government should focus on resolving the pandemic, and not on criminalizing and red tagging its critics.
Even projects for farmers are politicized
In a separate statement, Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) criticized Agrarian Reform Secretary John Castriciones for putting his name on publicity materials on the distribution of Certificate of Land Ownership Awards (CLOA).
Castriciones is among the eight-member initial senatorial slate of the Cusi-led faction of the PDP Laban, which recognizes President Duterte as its chairman. He has, in a news release posted on the website of the Department of Agrarian Reform, denied that personally distributing help to farms is not a political gimmick, saying it is his way to “show our genuine and sincere support to our farmers.”
Farmers, however, are not convinced.
Danilo Ramos, chairperson of Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas found the “almost weekly” provincial tours of Castriciones and the rest of his team unnecessary in the deliverance of CLOAs.
“We were not born yesterday to not know that this is early campaigning. How can he deny it when all we saw were his face plastered on tarpaulins, pictures, and videos? How revolting,” said Ramos.
To truly serve farmers, Ramos said the government must instead focus on dismantling vast estates that are still controlled by landed families and big corporations such as the Aranetas in Bulacan, the Yulos in Cavite, the Haciendas in Negros, and the vast agricorporation plantations across the Mindanao.
In 2019, Castricones faced P5 million ($100,479) bribe allegations for land-use conversion. He was also accused of corruption in 2017 while he was the Department of the Interior and Local Government undersecretary.
To efficiently utilize funds, Ramos said DAR should instead let their provincial offices perform their tasks. KMP also earlier challenged Castriciones to remove his photos in the agency’s publicity materials which were publicly funded.
Meanwhile, the former head of the Commission on Audit Heidi Mendoza said most of the initial financial findings of state auditors were “recurring” problems.
For one, the COA 2020 initial findings revealed that a recurring problem on the health department is how drugs, medicines, and other types of inventories amounting to P95.68 million ($1.92 million) were found to be nearly expired or have already expired due to deficient procurement planning, poor distribution, monitoring system, and weaknesses in internal control.
In 2019 and 2018, drugs and medicines, medical and dental supplies amounting to P2.2 billion ($44.16 million) and P30.353 million ($608,256) were found to be either expired or nearly expired. COA, in its 2019 report, said such recurring problem has “hindered the maximum delivery of the highest quality of medical / health care services to the general public and entailed wastage of government funds.”
“You have to look at the cause? Why are these recurring issues,” said Mendoza.
Mendoza also urged the public to be more watchful of “fund transfers” and “cash advances” of the government agencies, adding that it is our right as Filipinos to be informed.
Following the COA report, President Duterte told government agencies to not follow state auditors because “son of a b****. Nothing will happen there.”
Reacting to the president, Mendoza said that the COA be allowed to carry out their Constitutional duty, adding that “each one has its own powers and functions.”