Business World, 3 May 2016


In the spirit of recording the contemporary experience and history of presidential leadership and governance, the University of the Philippines has conducted and continues to conduct the UP Public Lectures on the Philippine Presidency. The series of lectures is done towards the end of every presidency since the late President Corazon C. Aquino (1986-1992). This assessment has become a political institution and tradition. A few weeks before he exits from Malacañang, Benigno S. C. Aquino III’s turn has come. As one of the professors invited to the lecture series to assess Mr. Aquino’s performance, below is my initial assessment of his fiscal performance.

The national budget is a tool for development. But as the saying goes: the test of the pudding is in the eating.

What President Aquino did and didn’t do, and their policy consequences, will define his budget performance.


  • The Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP)
  • Serious underspending
  • Neglect of agriculture
  • Neglect of public infrastructure
  • Failure to reduce poverty
  • Failure to push fiscal autonomy as envisioned in the Local Government Code of 1991

1. The DAP is a monumental error in governance.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the President, with the advise of his budget guru, usurped the congressional power of the purse. This is a P149-billion mistake, and its authors shouldn’t go unpunished.

The SC ruling on the DAP will go down in Philippine history as the real reform in government budgeting. It clarified and amplified existing budget rules and procedures as envisioned in the Constitution, and should guide future Presidents and legislators.

2. Large underspending means lost opportunities for potential beneficiaries of unimplemented or delayed projects.

The amount unspent (excluding interest payments) from appropriations authorized by Congress is an enormous P805 billion from 2011 to 2015, and rising. It was P76 billion in 2011, P56 billion in 2012, P130 billion in 2013, P267 billion in 2014, and P276 billion in 2015.

To be fair, Congress passed all the annual budgets of President Aquino on time, and he should be congratulated for it. However, this means the blame for serious underspending is solely the president’s fault. Starkly, it also means that the early approval of the budget is a necessary but not sufficient condition for timely implementation.

Clearly, the epic underspending of the budget is not an act of fiscal prudence. Rather, it is a product of poor budget preparation and incompetence on the part of the President’s top men and women.

3. The Aquino III administration neglected agriculture.

A total of P260 billion was spent by the Department of Agriculture from 2011 to 2015. Yet agriculture continues to stagger; it was practically flat in 2015.

Agriculture grew by 2.6% in 2011, 2.7% in 2012, 1.1% in 2013, 1.6% in 2014, and a flattish 0.2 % in 2015. Because of El Niño, and the poor government’s response to this more-or-less predictable weather pattern, agriculture is expected to decline by as much as 5% in 2016.

Among the three sectors of the economy — agriculture, industry, and services — agriculture has the highest impact on the lives of the poor. About one-third of the labor force is employed in the sector, and more than half of the poor reside in rural, agricultural communities.

Given these, the conclusion that recent growth was not inclusive appears warranted.

4. As a result of past neglect and unfavorable economic conditions, infrastructure spending has been constrained before the Aquino III administration; yet, in an environment where interest rates are at rock-bottom interest rates and public debt-to-GDP ratio is low, Aquino III administration invested the least in public infrastructure as percent of GDP.

Consequently, the state of public infrastructure is the poorest among ASEAN-5 economies. Yet, there is unanimity among experts that the state of public infrastructure is a binding constraint to growth.

5. The Aquino administration failed to alleviate poverty.

From 2006 to 2015, poverty incidence remains unchanged at 26.3%. But because population has been increasing, there are more poor Filipinos now than before.

The Philippines is the only country among ASEAN-6 economies (ASEAN-5 + Vietnam) that failed its Millennium Development Goal (MDG) commitment to halve poverty by 2015. The others have met their MDG goal of halving poverty many years ago.

6. The Aquino administration is seriously undermining fiscal autonomy.

The Bottom-up Budgeting (BuB) program is being heralded by the Aquino administration as real reform; in reality, it is a tool for political patronage, a way of capturing political support at the grassroots level.

The Aquino team promises to expand the BuB program down to the barangay level — a clear case of ‘bribing’ local authorities for political support rather than encouraging them to live within their means.

Local government units have sufficient resources to pursue their own dreams and aspirations. The Local Government Code of 1991 made sure that local governments have adequate grants and taxing powers.

Last year, provinces, cities, municipalities and barangays received a whopping P418 billion in the nature of an unconditional grant called Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA). This year, the IRA is a hefty P465 billion, and this level is expected to rise overtime for as long as taxes coming from domestic sources are rising.

The irony is that the two devolved functions to local governments — basic health care and social welfare — have been significantly taken over by the central government through the National Health Insurance and the Conditional Cash Transfer Program. Moreover, practically all regional and district hospitals that were devolved to LGUs in 1991 have been recentralized.

But with less expenditure responsibilities than before, coupled with huge IRA, why should LGUs continue to be given additional support by the central government in the nature of the discretionary BuB projects? Remember that the central government has huge needs for funding nationwide and regional infrastructure projects.

The IRA and the grant of additional taxing powers for local government units are the legacy of Cory Aquino. However, local authorities are supposed to learn to govern frugally — to operate within a ‘hard budget constraint.’ Instead, the Aquino III administration is teaching local authorities to be fiscally dependent on Imperial Manila.

Given the poor quality of the projects funded by BuB, its loose implementation, and lack of effective third-party monitoring mechanism (a strong monitoring mechanism, by its nature, is expensive), there is a strong likelihood that public funds allocated for BuB will just be misused or will go to waste.

As an aside, in the May 9th elections, voters should choose local candidates who can operate and manage their respective communities within a hard budget constraint, rather than those who will continue to ‘beg’ central administration officials for extra largesse in exchange for their support of administration candidates in future elections. Vote wisely!


In addition to President Aquino III’s error of commission, he has committed major errors of omission, namely: first, failure to pass the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act; second, failure to pass the Fiscal Responsibility Act; third, the failure to pass Performance-Based Budgeting System which includes the Medium Term Expenditure Framework and the Organizational Performance Indicators Framework; and finally, failure to pass the proposal to limit the power of the president to impound appropriations.

President Aquino promised to pass the FoI bill but be reneged on his promise. The passage of FoI law is a litmus test to Mr. Aquino’s solemn commitment to openness in government.

Government authorities argue that uploading tons of information on the Web of concerned agencies is equivalent to being transparent. Sadly, they missed the point totally. Transparency is not about uploading tons of data on the Web; rather, it is about citizens having access to the right information from the right agencies at the right time.

In order to institutionalize reforms in government budgeting, Congress needs to pass the Fiscal Responsibility Act and the Performance-Based Budgeting System.

Another important budget reform is the proposal to limit the power of the President to impound appropriations.

When they were senators, Mr. Aquino and Mr. Mar Roxas supported a version of a budget impoundment control bill. They see it as an important measure to limit the abuses of an imperious president. But when they were in a position to push for this vital budget reform, both opted to keep quiet.

Mr. Aquino changed his position on both the FoI bill and the Budget Impoundment Control bill. He is like most politicians: where they stand on key issues mostly depends on where they sit.

(A complete list of future budget reforms are discussed in my paper entitled “Recent Philippine budget reforms: separating the chaff from the grain, the whimsical from the real,” The Philippine Review of Economics, June 2014, pp. 60-85.)