Does Duterte’s nation need American money?

Philippine President Rodrigo DutertePhoto: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte

Senior American lawmakers are calling for the withdrawal of large aid packages to the Philipines in the wake of Duterte’s increasingly provocative and bloodthirsty statements on the drugs war. But as the days of the Obama administration tick away, the Filipino president is happy to bluff and wait for fairer winds. 

By Oliver Ward

Senior US politicians are calling for a review of aid to the Philippines in light of President Duterte’s “ongoing deadly campaign of mass atrocities.” Meanwhile, a vote on a major aid package for the country has been deferred.

Duterte, unfazed by the decision, told reporters in Singapore that his country would be “glad to lose it” and suggested the US Poverty Reduction Agency currently operating in the country should “start packing.” He says, “We can survive without American money.” But is he right? 

Millions of dollars of US money has gone into aid for the Philippines

The Obama administration considered the Philippines one of their pillars in southeast Asia, and in 2015 alone the country received US$175 million in development assistance and a further US$50 million in military financing. Support for the armed forces then more than doubled in 2016, and Duterte’s forces benefitted from USD$120 million of American backing. The US also sold Duterte fighter jets and Coast Guard cutters.

Of this $175 million in development assistance, US$42.3 million alone was for health projects. This went towards improving sanitation, upgrading access to clean water, establishing family planning clinics and providing treatment to tuberculosis and HIV sufferers. If Duterte is actually ready to turn his back on this help, he must be counting on his recently improved relationship with China to fill the resulting aid vacuum.  But accepting Chinese assistance will undoubtedly come at the price of aligning with Chinese foreign policy objectives, in particular, staying sensitive to their claim to the disputed islands in the South China Sea.

And it is not just American aid that Duterte’s controversial approach to diplomacy puts at risk. The United Nations (UN) could pull the plug on ongoing aid packages unless the President cooperates with the investigation into his extrajudicial drug war currently being undertaken by their Special Rapporteur, Agnes Callamard.

Unless he cooperates, that withdrawal could have a significant impact, both now and in the future. In the wake of Typhoon Yolanda, UN agencies allocated more than US$10.5 million to relief efforts. This is in addition to a further US$3 million needed for sanitation projects in the disaster’s aftermath and the US$28.6 million that made up the Philippines Humanitarian Action Plan. This type of assistance is crucial for disaster-prone areas of the country. 

American law insists that assistance cannot be offered when human rights are being abused

But looking back to American money alone, the principle at play is the Leahy Law, introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy and made permanent under the Foreign Assistance Act. This cites that the US should not give aid to countries where credible information of human rights abuses exists. Reports coming from the streets, and comments from high-profile figures such as the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor expressing “deep concern” over the manner in which Duterte’s war on drugs is being conducted, would seem to fulfil this definition.

Senator Leahy himself said that “if President Duterte’s government is unwilling to work with us, including by refusing to investigate allegations of abuses, then we are faced with a broader issue that cannot be remedied simply by withholding assistance from specific units or individuals.”

However, while Duterte’s police force may resemble a death squad operating with impunity, there is an argument that it is rash to cut all support for the administration. For example, American assistance helped raise the standard of education for huge numbers of young people this year; providing learning materials, engaging with communities to support youth education, training teachers and improving partnerships. To end all of these programmes would harm the innocent population already paying the highest prices for Duterte’s explosive approach.

Aid money is about more than just development, it is a tool for influence

The other side of this argument is that to continue to provide financial support without the introduction of conditions that push for accountability and reform will only result in President Duterte’s continued disregard for national and international laws. As such, strict conditions need to be implemented to ensure that US money goes to worthwhile projects.

Under the Leahy Law, there is no place for the continued use of US tax dollars on Philippine police drug control programmes (where US$9 million was approved for anti-drug law enforcement programmes this year alone). But simultaneously, pulling all aid could harm beneficial projects and leave a void which Chinese influence could fill, drawing the Philippines further towards Beijing and doing nothing to improve Duterte’s abysmal human rights record.

President-Elect Trump is likely to be much more sympathetic to Duterte’s approach

Part of Duterte’s relaxed approach to the American threat is that he knows the imminent ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency brings him favourable winds. After Trump’s phone call to the Filipino President in early December, Duterte claims Trump told him he is conducting his war on drugs in “the right way” and said there was “nothing wrong in protecting a country.” If this is truly his message then human rights are unlikely to play a prominent role in a Trump administration.

As a result, Duterte can afford to be confident and brazen in the face of US officials. He knows that come 20 January a very different beast will be sitting in the Oval Office. This will be an American leader with a much warmer embrace for Duterte’s cut-throat methods, and the lake of aid dollars will not dry up anytime soon. 

And so, as Obama’s last days in office tick by Duterte can continue to out-bluff the current administration by suggesting US aid is not needed or wanted. But the cold hard fact is that the longer Duterte receives unconditional support from the US, the longer he can bend laws to suit his ends, and that is utterly unacceptable. His support for cold justice, whatever that means, is increasingly proving him to be a barbarous thug and it cannot go unnoticed.