"We must demand transparency and accountability."
Before the weekend, news broke out that the country’s government debt has reached P10.03 trillion and based on data from the Department of Budget Management is anticipated to hit a mind-blowing P10.16 trillion before the new year.
The Department of Finance assures us that these huge government loans will boost the needed cash supply to facilitate the implementation of response measures to fight COVID-19 and will be kept below 50 percent of the country’s economy.
According to World Bank senior economist Rong Qian, a 50-percent debt-to-GDP ratio may still be healthy, if the money is spent properly because eventually, the burden of paying for all these loans will be shouldered by the taxpayers. That is a big “If.”
To ordinary Filipino consumers, that’s all of us who directly pay taxes and indirectly with the 12-percent expanded value added tax on everything we purchase, these giant anti-pandemic loans makes you ask some very valid questions:
Why can’t the country’s biggest testing facility under the Philippine Red Cross be paid on time so that its services can go uninterrupted?
Why is our testing not aggressive enough so that we really have a grasp on who, where, and how many really have the COVID-19 virus? Most of the daily test reports are coming from the National Capital Region where the testing facilities are concentrated while very few tests are being made in other regions. Why?
Why are 16,764 medical frontliners protesting because they are not being compensated?
The biggest job of government is to manage the disbursement of government funds for the maximum benefit of the people. That’s for the benefit of all our citizens, and not for a few, which brings us to the theme of corruption and how in these times of crisis is a serious risk.
Well, for the corrupt, it is an opportunity to steal big time.
The dimensions of this sad reality was expertly presented by Chairperson of International Anti-Corruption Conference Council and Former Chairperson of Transparency International Huguette Labelle during the fourth session of the Pilipinas Conference on “Opportunities Within the COVID-Crisis: Towards Transparent and Accountable Governance” by the Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute.
Labelle said, “We know too well how in crisis situations, the need to act promptly on several fronts is vital but can become multiple opportunities for corruption and loss of needed resources through all kinds of things, especially money laundering.”
She cited an interesting case in Mexico where an independent group had oversight powers over major government projects, auditing everything from the specifications until the final turn-over of the projects.
Tens of millions of dollars were saved by this program and as a result, the government gained more trust from the citizens.
Senior Global Advisor, Legal International Foundation for Electoral Systems Katherine Ellena presented the political dimensions and anti-corruption recommendations based on the findings of their paper on “Preventing Government Corruption in Crises.”
She said, “The pandemic has required a large amount of government spending and very rapid response to around $9 trillion globally. At the same time, there was a loss of transparency and accountability whether that was from emergency procurement procedures, interruption to access to information processes, various social distancing requirements and lockdowns.”
The paper explored four areas of corruption, covering the exploitation of procurement processes, the use of public relief funds for particularly political gain, the heightened risk of abuse of state resources as emergency periods end, and the opportunities for corruption within the judiciary when prosecuting corrupt officials.
Four very familiar scenarios.
On public procurement she illustrated a case in Slovenia where the government signed a deal worth around 80 million euro for masks and other equipment, but the majority of funds actually went to a casino gaming company that had no experience of supplying medical equipment.
And then on the contract officer side, obviously, the potential for kickbacks and conflicts of interest in the selection process.
Quite relevant is her point on the abuse of state resources for electoral advantage as governments handle large sums of relief and economic funds. For countries that have upcoming elections, like the Philippines, she rightly pointed out that voters will find it difficult to tell the difference between necessary spending or if it’s meant to influence their vote. Most of the time it’s the latter.
The anti-corruption advocates of the Pilipinas Conference were unanimous in calling on government to work with independent civil service organizations in a participative all of society strategy to effect deterrent measures to protect what is to date over P10 trillion in government loans that all of us will be burdened for many administrations.
We must demand transparency and accountability to assure our people that these borrowed resources, enough to fund more than two years of government spending, are not lost to the corrupt few.