The Philippines proposed 2020 budget is a disservice to poor and middle-class Filipinos

President Rodrigo Duterte shows a copy of the Philippine Identification System (PhilSys) Act after signing it during a ceremony at Malacañang Palace on August 6, 2018. Photo:Presidential Communications Operations Office/Richard Madelo

Duterte’s budget wish list prioritises security and intelligence at the expense of education and health. It is a testament to the administration’s misguided policies. 

By Zachary Frye

The Philippines’ 2020 budget is winding its way through the approval process. It is yet to receive confirmation, but it has passed the lower house. The Senate received the proposal on October 1, 2019. It still needs to pass the Senate and a bicameral conference to become law.

Although President Duterte paints himself as a populist, his proposed budget slashes health and education funding – two fundamental services that middle class and poor Filipinos rely on.

Instead, the administration is pushing a budget that emphasises the president’s intelligence efforts, despite criticism from human rights groups for overreach and lack of due process.

Social services would be gutted under the proposed budget  

Over the course of Duterte’s first term, there were positive developments regarding the expansion of health and education services. In 2017, a free tuition program was enacted for state-run universities. Earlier this year, he institutionalised the country’s conditional cash transfer program for the poorest Filipinos.

The proposed budget, however, suggests the administration isn’t serious about following through in its prioritisation of education. The university tuition policy was enacted without a guarantee of sustained funding, and the proposed budget only makes matters worse.

Although not in charge of higher education institution, the Department of Education is receiving just a fraction of its desired funding. The department asked for P10.45 billion (US$200 million) to train 43,000 new teachers but was only allotted P1.4 billion (US$27 million) to train 10,000. The current student to teacher ratio is 30 to 1.

The budget would also severely impact the Government Assistance and Subsidies Program, which gives financial assistance to students and teachers.

Photo: Rody Duterte/Facebook

Sherwin Gatchalian, the chair of the Senate Basic Education Committee, fears that some 500,000 students could be affected should the Department of Education roll back its funding for the program.

Meanwhile, the Department of Health is on track to receive P160.15 billion (US$3.1 billion), a decrease of around P9 billion (US$170 million) on 2019’s budget.

According to Senator Ralph Recto, over 10,000 healthcare personnel could lose their jobs because of the cuts. As a part of the Human Resource for Health Deployment Program, a government program meant to shore up the country’s health systems, thousands of nurses, dentists and medical technologists could be dismissed.

Increased funding for intelligence exemplifies the administration’s misguided priorities  

Despite the failure to prioritise health and education, the Office of the President is set to receive 8.2 billion pesos (US$ 159 million), an increase of 21% on the previous year’s allocation. A significant portion of these costs will be funnelled into confidential and intelligence funding, which will enjoy a financial windfall some 80% larger than the previous year.

But it’s unclear how these funds will be used. Confidential funding is inherently opaque. The Presidential Palace is justifying the appropriation under national security interests; however, it has provided little information on what those interests might be.

It’s more likely that the money will be used, at least in part, to discredit Duterte’s political rivals and crack down on perceived threats. Throughout his term, Duterte has demonstrated a brazen willingness to threaten and slander his opponents, including citizens outside the political sphere.

Earlier this year, the Palace released a matrix of individuals who were supposedly engaged in an attempt at Duterte’s ouster. Critics argued the matrix was conspiratorial and dangerous. Since Duterte’s first budget in 2017, the administration has allocated 400% more funding to confidential intelligence programs than the previous administration.

Health and education make up the backbone of a growing Filipino economy

On February 20, 2019, the president signed a universal health care bill into law. A landmark achievement for all Filipinos, it guarantees health coverage and reduces out-of-pocket costs for a variety of services.

Despite the president’s poor human rights record and embrace of authoritarianism, he has enacted policies that buttress the poor and middle classes. While that doesn’t let him off the hook from serious abuses of power, it does suggest Duterte intends to follow through on some of his populist rhetoric.

There is little doubt that the country will benefit from universal health care, social safety nets and education grants. But his willingness to champion these policies while failing to adequately fund their basic functions is perplexing.

Underlying these mismatched priorities, however, is the spectre of ego and power. Duterte’s large increase in confidential and intelligence funding speaks to a sustained drive to control the domestic narrative. Increasing the president’s budget in such a way is irresponsible, but it’s not surprising.

Moving forward, the main driver of Filipino growth and prosperity will be its people, and education and health are two of the most important policy avenues to help strengthen their capacities. Instead of caving to the administration’s worst instincts, elected officials have a duty to make sure the country’s real funding priorities stay on track.