Renewing efforts to bring national gov’t debt under public scrutiny and shift payments away from questionable loans to support people’s needs and survival
The call to examine the public debt – a legacy of debt dependence by the Marcos Sr. administration and carried through by successive Philippine administrations – echoed from leaders and respected individuals coming together as a commission for the Philippine Citizens Debt Audit.
The national government debt now stands at P13.5 trillion, as last reported by the Bureau of Treasury. Through the Citizens Debt Audit, the commissioners aim to empower Filipinos to dig into our public debt, disentangling the web of unsustainable debt levels and the burden they impose on ordinary citizens.
Launched in Quezon City to examine the increasingly ballooning public debt of the country, they also pressed for the repeal of a Marcos Sr. law that allows automatic appropriation of funds for debt service, without benefit of public consultations and regardless of more urgent survival needs today of the Filipino people.
Dr. Rene Ofreneo, current president of the Freedom from Debt Coalition (FDC) and Professor Emeritus of the UP School of Labor and Industrial Relations scored the Automatic Appropriations policy for curtailing citizens’ rights to information and participation in debt governance and management. “These public debts were and continue to be incurred in the name of the Filipino people. We are also the ones shouldering debt service payments, whether through taxes or cuts in public expenditures for health, education, job creation and other needs. Yet, we only get to know what debts were contracted after the deed is done, and then bear the consequences for debt-funded projects that may have violated human rights or destroyed environments.”
“Debt audits are critical towards shaping and transforming policies on outstanding debts and debt payments, as well as borrowing policies. They can also serve as bases to call for changes in the policies of lenders, ” said Lidy Nacpil, coordinator of the Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development (APMDD). “Filipinos are struggling to survive in the face of multiple crises. Examining the public debt through a debt audit can identify loans that should not be paid, and open opportunities for shifting public money from debt service to people’s needs especially in these extremely difficult times.”
UP Professor Emeritus of Asian Studies Dr. Eduardo Tadem, former FDC president, shared the challenges and gains of the coalition in undertaking a Citizens Debt Audit and pushing for an Official Debt Audit. He noted milestones following years of debt audit campaigning, such as the inclusion of a special provision in the 2017 General Appropriations Act (GAA) signed by former President Duterte in December 2016 “to conduct a debt audit to determine the legitimacy” of 20 government-contracted foreign loans from the Asian Development Bank, World Bank and other lenders. These were among 481 outstanding foreign loans that were supposed to be probed under the Hontiveros-Pimentel initiative.
However, these efforts did not progress further for various reasons, notably the lack of political will, according to Tadem. He cited the veto powers of the President, which then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo exercised over a GAA special provision that would have suspended debt service for 13 foreign loans that the FDC called “illegitimate” or “fraudulent, wasteful, and/or useless.” Tadem said that “this is exactly why a Citizens Debt Audit is vital, for Filipinos to have the space to assert their democratic rights to information, to ask questions and be informed to take active part in policy-making on an issue that impacts their daily lives and their future. We need sustained public pressure to push for an official debt audit.”
As an example of a questionable loan, SANLAKAS Secretary General Atty. Aaron Pedrosa, presented the case of the New Centennial Water Source-Kaliwa Dam Project (NCWS-KDP), funded by a loan agreement with onerous conditions. These include costly repayment terms and a waiver of immunity by the Philippine government in case lenders file for arbitration. “This practically holds our sovereignty hostage,” said Pedrosa who further cited irregularities in the issuance of the Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC) by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Certificate Precondition issued by the National Commission on Indigenous People.
The controversial NCWS-KDP was initiated as a PPP project during the term of Pres. Benigno Aquino III but was later converted to an official development assistance (ODA) project by the Duterte administration with the Export-Import Bank of China providing funding for 85 percent of the project cost through a bilateral loan. Atty. Pedrosa is co-counsel of the petition for environmental protection filed by indigenous peoples to stop the construction of the Kaliwa Dam Access Road Project. The access road was found in violation of legal requirements and laws protecting the Dumagat-Remontado ancestral domain.
The commissioners plan to hold public consultations and publish reports in the coming months. In addition to Nacpil, Ofreneo, Tadem and Pedrosa, commission members include Bishop Gerardo Alminaza (Co-convenor, Withdraw from Coal Coalition); Maria Rosario Ballescas (Coordinator, Regional Center of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development); Leody de Guzman (Chairman Emeritus, Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino); Manuel Montes (Senior Advisor, Society for International Development); Maria Dulce Natividad (UP Asian Center Associate Professor); Eribert Padilla (Certified Public Accountant); Loretta Ann Rosales (Chairperson Emeritus, AKBAYAN Citizens Action Party); Flora Santos (President, Oriang national women’s movement) and Zyza Nadine Suzara (Executive Director, Institute for Leadership, Empowerment, and Democracy or I-Lead).
Mae Buenaventura – APMDD
Rovik Obanil – FDC