Madam Speaker, I rise on a matter of utmost importance to the Filipino women and to the members of this Chamber.
In celebration of the International Working Women’s Day, let me first salute the struggles of the toiling women worldwide. Let me also pay tribute to our foremothers who gave their lives to the struggles for national freedom, independence, justice and equality so that we may enjoy some meaningful reforms for women.
Madam speaker, while Gabriela Women’s Party celebrates the achievements of women worldwide, we lament and find it ironic that the situation of the Filipino women is already reaching an all-time low amid government’s proclamation that the Philippine economy is growing.
More than 70 million Filipinos are struggling to survive on P110 a day. I do not have to overemphasize that such extreme poverty is doubly difficult for the woman who is compelled to muster all coping mechanisms for her family to survive.
Joblessness and poverty among women are severe and unprecedented. More than four million Filipinos are out of work, which is the worst annual average in a seven-year period. If ever women find work, most of the jobs created are low-quality, low-paying, temporary, insecure, menial, and indeed reserved for women.
Increasingly, workers are seeking jobs abroad and women comprise more than half of deployed overseas Filipino workers with the overwhelming majority in domestic work, care-giving and entertainment.
What is more frustrating and enraging is that as the poor Filipina turns to her government for help in the face of abject poverty and widening income inequality, social services are diminished in favor of debt payments given to foreign creditors. The Arroyo government does not even intervene to control prices but rather continues to slap taxes on the poor. Privatization of services and tax incentives given to foreign investors and big local corporations take its heavy toll on poor women. Worse, as poor Filipino women and men face misery and helplessness, the Arroyo government is currently embroiled in corruption scandals that go all the way up to the Office of the President.
Madam Speaker, more than a simple play of fate, poverty and corruption in the Philippines are rather systemic – a systemic flaw that is exploited and protected by the ruling regime of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
Let me illustrate through the ODA procurement process how corruption, born out of a backward economic and unstable political system, both exacerbated by globalization, is very much ingrained in the system.
But first, we must recognize that ODA loans are provided by donors, not out of their altruism, but with attached conditionalities representing their own political and economic interests. In short, donors do not really mind if part of the ODA lines the pockets of local officials as long as donors and their chosen contractors make money from the project, earn interest from the loan, and penetrate the local economy.
In the Philippines, it was the privatization of social and infrastructure projects and the increased preference for ODA availment, both enabled by law upon the insistence of the administration and the ruling elite, which intensified and further systematized large-scale corruption. As a result, there has been a sharp increase in ODA inflow. Infrastructure projects have now become supply-driven instead of being dictated by social needs. As long as there is ODA, there will always be production of projects even as these are not inspired by people’s needs.
By the ODA Law, the NEDA and the COA were mandated to approve and audit ODA projects. A Congressional oversight committee, although intermittently active, was also formed for the same purpose. The inter-agency Investment Coordination Committee (ICC) led by the NEDA was created and assigned to scrutinize foreign-assisted infrastructure projects. Recently, however, the ICC has been stripped of its function by no less than Mrs. Arroyo herself after she created and authorized the so-called NEDA Cabinet Group and the Pro-Performance System Steering Committee to approve projects and evaluate project costs without going through the ICC.
Madam Speaker, what the ZTE scandal has revealed is rather scary! It revealed that the NEDA has been clipped of its authority to evaluate government projects such as those funded by ODA or private investments through the build-operate-transfer scheme. The weakening of the role of government agencies, such as the NEDA, in evaluation, procurement, bidding, and the entire process of ODA approval, including contract signing and loan agreements, further obliterates transparency and accountability. Worse, it paves the way for larger irregularities, project overpricing, economic infeasibility, and social unacceptability.
Madam speaker, political pressure and sponsorhip of projects undermine the procedure of cost-benefit analysis being done by economic and technical experts. The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism cites the Bohol Irrigation Project Phase 2 for instance as having two different project costs – P2.4 billion by the NEDA-ICC and P3.6 billion (52% higher) by the NEDA Cabinet Group. The project was inaugurated by the President at the higher project cost despite disagreement from the NEDA-ICC and after a new NEDA chief was assigned.
And then again, we also heard recently of numerous cases where bids although exceeding budget costs by wide margins have been awarded after all, and suspended and canceled only after whistleblowers and expert witnesses have come up to reveal the anomalies. The Northrail Project, for instance, a deal financed by a disadvantageous loan of around US$503 million from the Export-Import Bank of China and awarded to Chinese contractors, was overpriced and allegedly involved some US$50-100 million in commissions to high-ranking government officials.
Madam Speaker, the US$ 50-100 million commissions from the Northrail or North Luzon Railway Project could have produced 4,000 classrooms for our children or 3,636 houses for our poor families or it could have treated 2,000 women with breast cancer at P1 million per treatment.
The Cyber Education Project (CEP) will clearly conclude my point. The CEP is financed by a US$465.5-million loan from China. This amount which represents 80% of project cost is ostensibly meant to upgrade the quality of Philippine education through multi-media. It intends to install multi-media classrooms in 37,794 public schools nationwide. A multi-media classroom with 2 personal computers, 4 television sets, 1 printer and 1 antenna costs P479,000, according to CEP. The nominal figure, however, is an exaggeration if we compare it with the cost of the DepEd project called GILAS (Gearing up for Interconnectivity and Learning to Assist Schools). GILAS installs in each school 10 personal computers, 1 server, 1 printer, 1 LAN arrangement and free internet access for one year, all for only P300,000. In peso terms, the CEP thus is overpriced by P6.7 billion.
The CEP focuses on information technology more than on teacher training. But studies have already proven that good teachers account for 60% of the improvement in student performance. In short, the project is utterly irrelevant!
Madam Speaker, the US$6.7 billion overprice involved in the Cyber Education Project could produce 13,530 classrooms, 12,300 houses for the poor and finance 492,071 college scholars at P13,748 per student per year. Moreover, this could support our maternal and child care program at the Department of Health which needs additional budgetary allocation of P2.315 Billion to service poor women.
Madam Speaker, financial experts have warned that foreign-funded projects may sink the country in a debt crisis similar to that of the 1980s. Understandably so, since ODA loans are cheap and concessional. Chinese ODA in particular is lenient in requiring social, environmental and labor standards – the reason for the frenzy of the Philippine government. But ODA has increased the debt service burden. According to IBON Foundation, around 40% of the outstanding foreign debt may be attributed to ODA availment. In the end, it is the people, especially poor toiling women who will shoulder these huge debts.
But the liberalization-agitated frenzy for cheap concessional ODA loans has not only eroded transparency and accountability. It has piled up potential white elephants and projects that are economically unviable, socially irrelevant and unacceptable, and of questionable value –all to be shouldered by poor taxpayers. On the ground, communities and their organizations can attest to numerous ODA projects that have failed to benefit their communities yet have economically dislocated or worse physically displaced them as well as devastated their environment.
Undoubtedly, ODA projects have become huge sources of commissions for corrupt officials and their cohorts even as these projects have generated enormous foreign and domestic debts at the expense of the poor and toiling masses especially the women.
Clearly, the Arroyo administration benefits tremendously from the unbridled corruption pervading the political and economic system. The series of corruption scandals that is rocking the administration, the most recent of which is the multimillion dollar ZTE contract, is the clearest indication. It is no wonder that the administration consciously protects such a flawed system. It does this by 1) weakening the very institutions meant to provide transparency and protect the country’s interest, as seen in the formation of the inter-agency Investment Coordination Committee, the NEDACabinet Group and the Pro-Performance System Steering Committee, which effectively usurped NEDA’s power to evaluate and recommend projects; and 2) preventing the people from exercising their constitutional right to get at the bottom of the truth, through executive issuances such as E.O. 464, and often enough, through resorting to hooliganism by harassing media and by kidnapping and/or physically eliminating whistleblowers and oppositors.
Madam Speaker, what has become a big shame to the Filipino women is that this large-scale and unbridled corruption is happening under a woman President whose presidency, to quote the statement of a network of women’s organizations and individuals called Babae Laban sa Katiwalaan or Babala, “has evolved into arguably the most fascist, dishonest, corrupt, cynical and morally degenerate in this country’s history”
Babala further said that “While most mothers teach their children the value of honesty, she has taught her family and country the enjoyment of corruption and lies. She allowed the channeling of monies intended for education, health services, housing programs and other such basic needs that any human being desperately needs, into the pockets of her family and cronies.”
Babala further said that, “Clearly, she has betrayed the great and resplendent tradition of heroism and integrity of women and shamelessly disgraced the Filipino people.”
Madam speaker, as members of this chamber, we have the responsibility to re-institute and ensure government control not only over the ODA process but also in the overall direction of development. We have the responsibility to ensure transparency and accountability in all transactions concerning ODA. I urge this body to revive the oversight committee and strengthen its role in ODA evaluation, putting on its agenda the review of the recent changes in the powers of the NEDA. Moreover let us investigate the more publicized corruption cases in ODA projects, including looking into the COA report. Finally, we have the responsibility to review the laws, especially those that have relentlessly liberalized the economy, for these have aggravated conditions of poverty and social misery, and perpetuated the oppression of our marginalized people especially our poor and toiling women.
With the fervor and spirit with which the International Women’s Day was founded, let us stamp out corruption and the system and people that perpetuate it for the sake of our poor women, the people and for the future of our children. Thank you Madam Speaker. #