US Ups Philippines Oversight

The US wants to keep better track of the money it spends in the Philippines. Is it breaching Filipino sovereignty?

Luke Hunt

As Barack Obama took office a couple of years ago against the backdrop of the ongoing global financial crisis, it was a fair assumption that US spending abroad was heading for tough times—the long arm of the accountant was set to be felt from Afghanistan and Iraq to the Philippines and South America.

But the slash and burn attitude seems to have abated. In the Philippines, the United States has instead re-orientated its spending and geared it more towards results.

For example, Washington intends to strengthen its workforce there of 1,400 people and ensure proper implementation of developmental projects, particularly on Mindanao in the southern Philippines where civil conflict has taken a hefty toll on the civilian population.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has more than $500 million to spend in the Philippines for 2009/13 and will use this to boost staff numbers under its leadership initiative programme to ensure they’re ‘providing daily management oversight and accountability of funds.’ This means more hires directly from the United States at a junior and senior level, and their job will be to make sure the money ends up where it’s supposed to.

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Given the levels of corruption that have plagued Filipino administrations, a change in spending initiatives isn’t surprising. According to the latest Transparency International annual survey on global corruption, the Philippines is ranked 134th in the world—down near Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone.

The government of recently elected President Begnino Aquino has made a solid start in attempting to kickstart the stalled peace process in Mindanao, which effectively broke down in August 2008 when the courts overturned an agreement on an ancestral domain for native Moros.

Armed conflict erupted and the security environment deteriorated a lot further when almost half a million people fled their homes and the fighting. The continuing armed conflict in Mindanao is also threatening existing disparities by disrupting growth and worsening poverty.

The rebels for their part are now claiming that spending on increased oversight was a disguise for beefing-up the US military presence in the south where the Joint US Military Assistance Group works closely with USAID to ensure assistance is spread widely in the troubled southern provinces.

Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, or Bayan, an umbrella group for social campaigners, is warning the extra personnel could be a signal of greater US intervention through its counter-insurgency programme as development programmes go hand-in-hand with US troop deployments in the south.

Local politician Antonio Tinio, meanwhile, insists combining military programmes with humanitarian intervention is loaded with contradictions, is a gross breach of sovereignty and has failed to address the root causes of poverty in the southern Philippines.

Another politician, my ASEAN Beat co-blogger Mong Palatino, said the plan was simply an excuse to increase the number of US soldiers deployed to the Philippines and was ‘another affront on our sovereignty.’

Perhaps, however, it might also mean the US would simply like to ensure its money is spent appropriately, something that in the Philippines is a lot easier said than done.