It has been established that the dismal state of infrastructure in the country today is the result of low spending on its development, averaging only an equivalent of 2.6 percent of gross domestic product during the previous six administrations that spanned roughly 50 years.
That insight can be gleaned from one of the quick facts cited by the Department of Budget and Management in its primer on the 2018 People’s Proposed Budget.
It may be argued that a large chunk of the overall fiscal spending during those 50 years went straight into the pockets of corrupt politicians. Those who profited from the weak implementation of any anti-corruption policy by previous governments are perceived to have left their posts with a legacy of unfinished or even non-existent bridges vital to domestic trade.
In some cases, farm-to-market roads built in the summer had been easily washed away by the monsoon rains. These obviously were the handiwork of unscrupulous, uncaring officials and suppliers who knew full well that taking cuts from the allocated funding would afford only substandard materials and engineering works for the projects.
The ideal envisioned by the administration for the national budget is to enhance the capability of the government and its people to implement the reforms crucial to achieving that elusive inclusive growth and a globally competitive knowledge economy.
Those are definitely idealistic words, reflecting an idealistic vision of tomorrow—particularly 2018. But such idealism and the people behind it may soon be left floundering in a sea of predators waiting for the disbursements to happen and profit from the weak system of implementation prone to graft and corrupt practices.
The national budget is assailed on both ends of the spectrum.
On one end is the revenue side, its main proponents being the Bureau of Internal Revenue and the Bureau of Customs—both line agencies of the Department of Finance, both popularly known as hotbeds of corruption.
It remains to be seen at the Customs bureau if the one-strike policy of newly appointed Commissioner Isidro Lapeña would actually work and lead to a cleaner bureau. It also remains to be seen if the anti-corruption drive implemented by the Finance department at the Internal Revenue bureau will result in a more efficient revenue-generating agency.
Then there is the disbursement side of the equation, involving the Department of Public Works and Highways, also traditionally labeled in public perception as one of the most corrupt line ministries. The department will be in the forefront of the Build, Build, Build program to usher in the purported Golden Age of Infrastructure, and its nearly P9-trillion budget during the term of the Duterte administration.
What guarantee do people have that ghost projects will no longer haunt them, particularly the farmers who need to cross the river, rain or shine, to get their cash crops to the market? Who will ensure that the roads will be there for at least five years even after the first monsoon has come and gone?
Transparency International, the anti-corruption watchdog, did not mince words when it referred to the machinations of graft and corruption: “When companies bribe to win contracts, grease the wheels of bureaucracy, or get around rules, they damage not only their competitors, but also the societies in which they operate.”
There is no country in the world that wears a badge of honor for zero-corruption, but the Philippines is in that stage of development where the drive is strong to purge the government of wickedly corrupt people and systems. Safeguarding the budget and how it is spent must be defended to the utmost by this government, for its chance to do so comes but only once and failure could deal a severe blow to its “Golden” ambitions, not to mention public trust in this administration.