What the Build! Build! Build! Program truly destroys

“Definitely, the airport city project is a part of the government’s Destruct-Destruct-Destruct scheme that primarily caters to business interests and conveniently leaves out genuine development prospects for the people.” – Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) Bulacan’s statement regarding the New Manila International Airport (NMIA). 

As claimed by San Miguel Corporation (SMC), which was awarded the franchise to construct the ₱738 billion project, the airport would apparently contribute to the improvement of Philippine transportation, while bringing “unprecedented level of growth” to Bulacan.

While it is fulfilling to envision an aeropolis that would serve as a doorway for tourism, a tool for mass transportation, and a means for obtaining investments, it is easy to overlook its underlying consequences; most of which are highly detrimental to the masses. 

Because the said airport will be constructed along the coastal areas of Bulacan, fisherfolk fear losing their livelihood, brought by displacement and the wider-scale, environmentally-damaging construction. Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamalakaya ng Pilipinas (PAMALAKAYA) – Bulacan expressed their worries and disappointment, saying that development must not come at the expense of their lives.

The problem brought by harmful infrastructure development, however, is not exclusive to Bulacan, as it extends to the whole country. The NMIA only constitutes the tip of the iceberg under the Duterte administration’s flagship infrastructure project, the Build! Build! Build! (BBB) Program.

Misdirection of funds

As soon as he assumed the presidency, Duterte promised a better economy for the Philippines. Bannering BBB as his centerpiece project economic-wise, Duterte aims for this initiative to “usher the golden age of infrastructure in the Philippines.” In this project, 52.1% are railways, 27.3% are bridges and roads, 8% are airports, 5.2% are mass transit, and 1.6% are seaports. 

Approved last June 4, House Bill No. 6815, also known as Accelerated Recovery and Investments Stimulus for the Economy of the Philippines (ARISE Philippines), is a ₱1.3 trillion package that is to be utilized to restore the country’s economy that was severely affected by the pandemic. Ironically, the bill centers the country’s funds on infrastructure programs.

With a little more than a year left in office, the Duterte administration is keen on cementing BBB as its ultimate legacy, so much that the lion’s share of the funds meant for the pandemic response is to be spent on infrastructure projects, setting apart ₱650 billion for the said program.

It was approved during the onslaught of a pandemic that exposed the long ailing healthcare system of the country. The health crisis resulted in more than half a million COVID-19 cases in the Philippines despite the implementation of the longest lockdown in Asia. Surprisingly, even if the cases continue to increase, only ₱10 billion is set for COVID-19 testing in the proposed budget. This is despite the desperate call of medical experts, who had since been saying that mass testing is crucial in defeating the threat of the pandemic. 

Fair enough, part of the general description of the infrastructure programs include the construction of modern health facilities and public school clinics. However, this has yet to be given a detailed breakdown, and the health sector seems to be excluded from the said bill. As of writing, there haven’t been major constructions of hospitals and health facilities to aid in the suppression of the virus.

In truth, the percentage of health budget prioritization has declined in the past years. According to IBON Foundation, a development and research organization, the health sector budget’s overall share in the national budget has fallen from 4.9% in 2019 to 4.5% in 2020.  We must also consider that this budget is even eaten up by inflation.

This decline persists despite a report from the World Health Organization (WHO) that revealed that most public hospitals in the country lack access to bare minimum facilities such as clean toilets. Moreover, numerous minimum wage earners and informal sector workers fail to receive medical attention, brought by costly health services, and unavailability of health facilities in remote areas. (Read: Our ailing healthcare system)

Health workers themselves are even calling out for more reasonable assistance, saying that the low COVID-19 Special Risk Allowance (SRA) and Actual Hazard Duty Pay (AHDP) are adding “insult to the dignity” of frontliners risking their lives amidst a health crisis.

It should be worth noting that while the government is busy finding a solution to “solve” the ongoing recession, its citizens, who themselves must be the primary beneficiaries to economic growth, are suffering, if not dying, from a substandard yet costly healthcare system.

An inefficient economic solution

Two years into Duterte’s administration, the country’s real gross domestic product (GDP) had registered a total increase of 11.3%. At first glance, it seems to prove the government’s claim of a growing economy through its flagship projects. Looking deeper, however, we find that in NCR alone, this economic growth was actually driven not by government programs, but by rising labor productivity. As presented by IBON, productivity increased by 12.7% in two years.

To put it in a different perspective, the economic growth that the country enjoyed at the time being is attributed to Filipino workers, who are still deprived of justifiable wages to answer their most basic needs. Despite the labor situation being worsened by the pandemic, the government is still convinced that raising our economy would best be done through furthering infrastructure spending.

In academic terms, the idea that infrastructure spending can serve as an economic stimulus is rooted from Keynesian economics. In the said theory, the government of a country stuck in recession can increase demand from the public sector through deficit spending. It would allow money to flow into the economy, multiplying the “raising” effect on various sectors. 

However, as Gabe Alpert wrote for Investopedia, “Construction spending tends to peak years after a project is started. In this case, the large multiplier effect associated with this kind of spending can be counterproductive, exaggerating rather than smoothing out economic cycles.” It goes against the idea that an economic stimulus must be timely and targeted. Infrastructure projects take years before fully realizing its potential; it also takes too long to obtain the desired impact.

After a recession, spending must be quick in order to multiply its effect. Therefore, funds should be directed towards financial distribution among low-income households, who are expected to spend eagerly for their basic needs after they have been financially challenged by the pandemic. 

More often than not, infrastructures are done to improve the government’s public appearance. In an attempt to win the favor of the masses, politicians are, in fact, authorizing and spearheading roadworks just before elections. This is a reminder that we must be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of infrastructure as a form of stimulus, so as to ensure that the government is not merely using such projects to put on a political show. (Read: Election ban on public works

Infrastructure projects increase deficit spending, leading to unsustainable government debt. As a matter of fact, data from the Bureau of Treasury (BOT) show that as of August 2020, the Philippines’ outstanding debt amounted to ₱9.615 trillion. Because of the pandemic, the government expects a debt-to-GDP ratio of 54%, which indicates the decreasing ability of our country to pay off our debts.

Needless to say, the money that will be used to pay off such amounts comes in the form of taxes, which further burden the masses. It comes with anti-poor laws such as the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion Law (TRAIN) Law, which increases the prices of basic goods and services, further “exacerbating”  poverty and our market’s already inflated prices. 

A tool for corruption and a doorway for imperialism

“They [infrastructure projects] tend to attract thieves,” said Ralf Rivas, a finance correspondent from Rappler. Directly emphasizing the point, he added that infrastructure projects have been historically plagued with corruption.

These statements can be quantitatively expressed through a presentation by the Research, Education, and Institutional Development Foundation (REID), an organization of economic solution experts. Providing a breakdown of the average expenses of a construction firm, the organization presented a graph that showed 15% to 35% of the expenses that were allegedly spent on “other costs of doing the business” – which, according to REID Foundation, represents the budget allocated for corruption. They claim that companies are choiceless when it comes to playing along the abusive corruption cycle. Some contractors even complain that it is the politicians themselves who demand such “fees.” (Read: Corruption eats up 15-35% ‍of construction firms’ budget

Even the president himself admittedly links the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) to corruption issues. In October 2020, Duterte told lawmakers, “If Congress would really want to know, ang mga project ng DPWH [ay] mayroon talaga ‘yan para sa give… ‘Yung mga project engineers, grabe ang corruption diyan… Walang construction na [nag]uumpisa dito na walang transaction.”

In addition to being a tool for corruption, infrastructure programs also seem to serve as a doorway for neocolonialists, given that numerous projects are funded by foreign entities. In fact, just three years into Duterte’s term, the Philippine government has already obtained $8.47 billion from external financing.

Kaliwa Dam, for instance, is funded by none other than the Republic of China. The loan agreement signed by the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) awarded the Export-Import Bank of China (EXIMBANK) to finance the ₱10.4 billion water source. According to Atty. Maria Cristina Yambot of the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), prioritizing a Chinese bank for the dam construction violates the Filipino First Policy, comprehensively stated in Article XII, Section 10 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution.

As we try to keep up and run side-by-side an economic race with developed countries, our government’s feet seem to be stuck at the starting line to give them the upperhand to win the race, barring 22 million Filipinos to even cross the finish line.

State and environmental neglect 

Infrastructure funding has also eaten up the agricultural and fisheries sector’s share, which is only to be given an assistance of ₱66 billion, despite being severely affected by the recent pandemic. Redo Peña, a farmer from San Jose del Monte, Bulacan said, “The strict lockdown crippled us…it is difficult to survive. Many of us only have a handful of our produce.”

Filipino farmers and fishermen have been receiving little to no assistance. What they have been receiving, instead, are threats of land-grabbing and militarization, as well as other forms of harassment. Only a few months back, there were burning of fishermen’s houses in Cavite; demolition of a fisher community in Batangas and farmers’ houses in Bataan; and the recent harassment suffered by Hacienda Yulo farmers, which included demolition and arson, amidst issues of land-grabbing.

Despite these problems, lawmakers continue to prioritize infrastructure projects in our budget. This seemingly caters only to the demands of the ruling class, while leaving out the real needs of the masses, whose calls for decent budgeting for their respective sectors are left unheard or unanswered. It is even worsened by policies such as the Rice Tariffication Law which jeopardizes farmers’ jobs due to increased importation, while violating their rights and access to resources. 

In addition to the agonies of farmers and fishermen, other marginalized families lament a high cost of living all the while a health and economic crisis. In a survey by the Social Weather Station (SWS), they found that 4.2 million Filipino families were involuntarily hungry just from the early months of the pandemic. In fact, the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) stated that the most affected sector during this pandemic is the marginalized population. While millions of poverty-stricken families starve and as if these problems are nonexistent, National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) Acting Secretary Karl Chua said, “There’s no point in giving subsidies if families can’t even go out and spend.”

To the government’s defense, data from the DPWH showed that BBB had generated 4 million jobs from 2016 to 2019. However, behind what is seemingly an excellent improvement in the labor sector is the persisting exploitation of companies on their employees, a situation worsened by the government’s minimal interference to raise the socioeconomic state of workers. The National Capital Region’s (NCR) nominal minimum wage remains at only ₱537, while other regions suffer lower rates like in Southern Tagalog, which is valued at ₱373. Needless to say, the working class fails to be given the same opportunities as the other societal classes, brought mainly by the lack of access to free and genuine education, and generally low job opportunities.

Besides the state’s neglect, BBB is also infamous for degrading the environment and threatening numerous Filipino residents of displacement. Much like the NMIA in Bulacan, a testament to this notoriety is the Kaliwa Dam, construction of which was established in order to “meet the increasing water demand of residents”. (READ: Defending Makidyapat’s land: Dumagats continue fight against Kaliwa Dam project)

What was overlooked, however, are the detrimental consequences of the dam’s construction on both the residents and on the environment. According to Advocates of Science and Technology for the People (AGHAM), building Kaliwa Dam would lead to “deforestation, biodiversity loss, loss of food source, decreased rainfall, flooding, and landslide,” submerging 12,000 hectares of Sierra Madre’s forest ecosystems. Moreover, it would displace the indigenous Dumagat and Remontado tribes, which rely heavily on the mountainous regions for their livelihood and survival.

According to the Forest Management Bureau, forest-covered areas have fallen to only 23% of the Philippines’ total land area, which is considered an “environmentally-critical level.” On the other hand, as per the Bureau of Soil and Water Management, 71% of the country’s land area is severely degraded. This environmental damage, as pointed out by IBON Foundation, is mainly caused by governmental infrastructure projects such as BBB. In their words, the Duterte administration “continues to promote…land use conversion as well as reclamation for real estate and infrastructure”.

What the Build! Build! Build! program destroys

There are at least 100 projects under the BBB Program, bannering Duterte’s supposed dream of economic development. Indeed, BBB may have built, built, built, but infrastructures are not the basis for development. Antithetical to its objective, BBB has been a tool of destruction.

It damages the environment, replacing forestlands with high-rise buildings; it aggravates the living conditions of the marginalized. The BBB program demolishes long-protected cultures, displacing indigenous people from their ancestral lands that are now reclaimed for “economic purposes.” It impedes genuine national development as it gives priority to foreign companies and investors.

With 22 million Filipinos struggling in poverty, a great number do not even have a roof over their heads, much less eat three times a day. It is worth asking who would really benefit from high-end airports, highways, bridges, railroads, and buildings. 

Considering the agricultural nature and archipelagic structure of the Philippines, the government should extend assistance to farmers and fisherfolk, instead of converting our natural resources to infrastructures. Assistance to the agricultural and fisheries sector would not only strengthen the sector’s profits, but would also guarantee our country’s food supply and sovereignty, consequently decreasing our dependence on global markets and our need to excessively import beyond capacity. 

If the Philippine government is earnestly keen on pushing for economic development, then it must be development anchored on the calls, advocacies, and needs of the masses: one that does not merely serve bureaucrat capitalists, oligarchs, or the comprador bourgeoisie. As Lodema Doroteo, a Dumagat teacher, stated, “Hindi kami against sa kaunlaran, pero dapat ang gagawing pagbabago ay ‘di rin makakaapekto [nang masama] sa karamihan.”

For every airport and dam, countless families are forcibly displaced from their homes. For every road construction, our forests and natural resources continue to deteriorate. And while the BBB program builds for the future, it destroys the lives of millions of Filipinos today. [P]

Photo from NEDA

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