What the COVID-19 budget tracker tells us about government spending so far 2
Residents from Barangay Batasan Hills in Quezon City line up to receive cash under the social amelioration program amid the enhanced community quarantine on May 4, 2020. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

What the COVID-19 budget tracker tells us about government spending so far

Who are we forgetting? What's getting in the way? And why we are a long way before this country can get to a point where it can care for its people properly. By JAM PASCUAL 
ANCX | May 11 2020

For those who aren’t up to speed: the Philippines now has a budget tracker that can trace where all the money in the government’s COVID-19 response budget is going. The initiative was created by Ken Abante, who used to work in the Department of Finance and currently works as a policy researcher in Ateneo De Manila university. We wrote an article about it.

What’s awesome about the tracker is that it is a number-crunching, money-sleuthing mechanism that can hold the government accountable on how it’s spending money to fight the pandemic. Abante and a committed team of more than fifty volunteers comprised of finance and data experts, are running through all government-furnished data like a fine-toothed comb. 

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What’s ostensibly not awesome is, well… actually looking at the tracker—the budget tracker displays, how to navigate it in an organized and cohesive manner, how much money is being spent for which things. Even with a rudimentary understanding of math, all those numbers are going to be too much for the average person to understand.


How the budget is divided

Before anything else, let’s get a few things straight. The budget of the Bayanihan act is P350 billion. The budget is being split into three chunks. The first is social amelioration—where P270 billion is allotted. The second is for health—P40 billion. The third is for bayanihan grants for provinces and municipalities—37 billion.

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Residents queue during the distribution of cash assistance during Social Amelioration Program in BASECO, Manila on May 7, 2020. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Let’s also get some assumptions out of the way as well. First off: some might be tempted to say that too much of the budget is going into funding police forces and checkpoint security, what with cases in which the police have demonstrated how brutally they can dispatch individuals they deem suspicious, whether guilty or innocent. Despite this, there is no available data on whether or not any of the budget is going into funding police efforts. According to a previous interview with Abante, “We don’t know enough about that fund flow to, say, PNP, AFP (Philippine National Police, Armed Forces of the Philippines.) What we’ve seen, though, is, like there are some donors that donated directly to AFP. But these were for health kits.” So, not necessarily guns and bullets.

Secondly: is Manila getting less attention, or more attention, compared to other cities and provinces? How are the other provinces doing? In that same interview, Abante invites us to consider the nuances of fund distribution. “Social amelioration is one thing, but how effective are the LGUs (local government units) in actually distributing the cash is another thing.” Abante says it’s not true that a higher percentage of funds for SAP (social amelioration program) is given to Metro Manila. “Because all of the provinces, especially the poor provinces, actually get more funds. But the actual disbursements is another story, and we don't know the story of that yet.”

There’s still so much that we don’t know. The budget tracker is barely a month old, and the people analyzing all this data are volunteers—so it might be too much to expect they’ve already figured everything out. Still, there is much that we do know.


4Ps and other acronyms 

Let’s begin with what is perhaps the most pertinent question: who is the government not reaching? The simple answer: a lot of people.

Households who are eligible for the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4P), which is run mainly by the Department of Social Welfare Development (DSWD), have been getting financial aid, but not enough. In an email interview, Abante and Miguel Sevidal state, "3.8 of 4.4 million 4Ps households (87 percent) have received social amelioration. The DSWD should be commended for the quick distribution to these families who have Land Bank cash cards. But this 4Ps number has stayed stagnant for weeks now. We need to ask: why haven't more than half a million 4Ps families without bank accounts been given their first round of subsidies? We think this is linked to the same issues as those non-4Ps families."

Among non-4P households, of which there are 13.5 million, only 6.4 million (48 percent) have received the subsidy.

Among workers, only 1 million out of 4.5 million have received the subsidy. That includes formal and informal workers under DOLE CAMP and DOLE TUPAD respectively, and overseas Filipino workers under DOLE AKAP who've been displaced by the pandemic (44.8 thousand out of 150 thousand). It's a lot of acronyms and numbers, guys.

The government would be wise to commit more attention and aid to those working in public transport. According to Abante and Sevidal :"Only 40,418 of 90,000 drivers (45%) in the public transport sectors have received their subsidy. We think our PUV sector need more support."

They continue: "But more than subsidies, which are a mere relief measure, we think the public transport sector itself is in danger of collapsing under the new normal. We are VERY worried about the way public transport is being handled. Some transport economists and urban planners have actually sounded the alarm on this, calling this the equivalent of watching a volcano about to erupt.”


Think of the social workers too

What is getting in the way of the money? What blockages are hindering the budget from getting to the people struggling in this lockdown?

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Residents receive cash assistance as part of the government's Social Amelioration Program in Malibay in Pasay City on May 01, 2020. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

In our previous article, and in a paper published in Research Gate, Abante illustrates the budget process with the analogy of watering a garden. Abante and Savidal state, "Using our analogy, the most significant issue is in the watering of the garden. We have the water (cash). We have the buckets (budget line items). But it's pouring the water onto the flowers of the garden (spending)—that is the biggest challenge."

In order to speed up social amelioration delivery, the budget team generally suggests establishing solid rules, guidelines, mechanisms and channels for getting the cash out. How about an information dissemination drive? Putting down channels for ESP (employee saving plan) distribution? And what about DSWD and LGU field staff? As Abante and Savidal state, "Social workers and barangay workers are frontliners too." Shouldn't the government give them safeguard mechanisms, and compensate them at least with hazard pay? These suggestions can be found in the budget tracker team's #SpendFasterToStopHunger report and in a slideshow, also made by them.


How does one track corruption? 

Is there a way for the budget tracker to detect corrupt spending practices? It's an interesting question for sure. The budget tracker relies on official government reports as the main sources for their data, and it's not like we can expect our government to outright confess its corruption.

Basically, the budget tracker team is addressing this concern in two parts. Firstly, "We are forming a team that will look into procurement data. We will see whether this work is feasible given the current publicly available data." And secondly, "For a wider community verification process, we recommend that LGUs, DSWD, DOLE, DOF/SSS publish the list of beneficiaries to prevent allegations of corruption. We also recommended that communities take the initiative to do a localized audit to see if they are being reached by social amelioration efforts. We think random sampling after the pandemic."


Spend faster is key 

What’s the take away? Spend faster, spend faster, spend faster.

We have the money. Loans aside, the budget of the Bayanihan act is a lot of money, and worrying about the government running out of money is not as big a priority as spending the money we currently have properly.

Aside from the aforementioned 4P and non-4P families and workers in the public transport sector, our medical frontliners would benefit from swifter spending.

"Despite the lack of budget information on health, we can still say that health spending is not as fast as it should be," say Abante and Savidal. "We recently breached 10,000 coronavirus cases. Only 97,000 individuals (0.1 percent of our population) have been tested. We can do only 5,000 to 6,000 tests per day; we missed our end-April target of 8,000 per day. Only 19 of 65 testing laboratories have been accredited."

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Seniors lining up for COVID assistance. Photo from ABS-CBN News

The budget tracker team also advises that we do not forget "about our community health workers in rural health units who form the foundation of our primary care system." Based on the team's analyses, "As far as we know, the DOH data drop focuses on hospitals (tertiary care); there is no indication of PPE stocks or capacity at the rural health unit level. We think we should monitor stock levels at the level of our primary care units, too." It bears mentioning that Abante has personal stakes in this issue—Bicol is his home province, and his aunt is a frontliner in a rural health unit there. Abante was motivated to make this budget tracker because of the difficulties his medical frontliner relatives encountered in securing personal protective equipment.

But more than flattening concern, the most compelling reason to shift the stick into sixth gear with our spending has to do with feeding the hungry.

"For social amelioration, we need to spend faster to stop hunger because many of our brothers and sisters are daily wage workers. Under strict lockdown rules, they were forced to stop working and practice physical distancing to prevent the spread of the virus. The grim reality for most of our people is: those who cannot work cannot eat. Hunger is more real to them than the virus. Government, business owners, and members of civil society need to support them in this time of crisis."

This is a unique historical juncture for not just our country but the world. Entire industries have been turned upside-down, a record number of workers are being laid off, only the lucky are able to work from home. Take into account as well those who are unemployed but still have to pay rent. Who's going to look out for them?

"We cannot pinpoint an exact figure about the budget, but eight weeks into enhanced community quarantine, the first round of cash grants should have been distributed already. That should correspond to around 40 to 50 percent of the budget. We are just at 25 percent."

In light of all this data, it is only sensible to say that we have a long, long way to go, before this country can get to a point where it can confidently say it is taking care of every Filipino. I mean, we’re in the middle of discussing possible ECQ extension. In many ways, the pandemic is testing how capable our public servants are in terms of managing a crisis. Maybe your mayor is taking care of you. Maybe you're doing fine. If you're reading this, there's a good chance that you're in relatively good health with a roof over your head and food in your fridge. Can you say that for everyone?