Government News Analysis

Philippines: Not For Sale

EU Aid package

Thanks but no thanks. That basically is the Philippine Government’s response to a PHP380 million aid offer from the European Union (EU). And the reason for Manila’s rejection – again, basically – is that the package is too expensive to accept. In short, it comes with too many strings attached.

It’s also unlikely to be the last funds offer which the Philippines turns down from the EU – in fact, according to EU Ambassador, Franz Jessen, Manila is poised to reject a PHP2.4 billion aid package for sustainable-energy projects. And if that happens, the reason again, will be that for the Philippines to avail itself of those funds will require the government to accept certain terms of compliance which it believes could undermine Philippine sovereignty.

On the face of it, to refuse offers of cash from potential donors looks reckless – surely, the Philippines needs all the financial assistance it can get? Well, it does – but these aren’t gifts. These are carefully crafted deals which bring with them deeply entrenched political conditions and give the donor considerable sway over the policies of the beneficiary country. And that’s Manila’s concern here with the terms of the EU-Philippine Trade Related Technical Assistance (TRTA).

As many of us know, aid packages are a way for powerful countries like the US, for example – or in this case, a political and economic union of states, the EU – to ‘buy’ and exert influence over smaller ones. They can allow them to shape the foreign policies of beneficiary countries in a way that’s more advantageous to them. Or – to address Philippine concerns over the now-elapsed TRTA – they can facilitate the ‘bearers of these gifts’ to increase their leverage over domestic policies.

Of course, the large benefactors will dispute all this – they’ll argue that the overriding purpose of foreign aid is to help lift poor countries out of poverty by making investments in areas such as infrastructure and human capital. All very laudable and good when it works. Unfortunately, though, it’s never been proved to be that successful.

Let’s face it, over the years some fairly unsavoury individuals have benefitted from aid doled out by the West – leaders of countries who no one should be doing business with. The United Nations World Food Programme, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) have often found themselves in bed with dictators, tyrants and warlords who’ve increased their wealth from such aid while the people it was supposedly intended for never saw any of it.

Its purpose, all too often, has been to extract political concessions and to give the donor country a foot in the door, enabling it to exert its influence on the national and domestic policies of recipient countries. Such machinations have been unmasked many times. In 2012, for example eight South American and Caribbean states called on fellow members of the Bolivian Alliance for the Americas to expel USAID from their countries for its involvement in their domestic affairs.

Aid to them then – as with the Philippines now – had come at too high a price. Financial assistance to fight poverty always looks good – but when you peel back the label and look inside the can, what you find is a very sticky product; funds in exchange for concessions – trade, but also political ones. For example, it’s notable that countries sitting on the UN Security Council receive more foreign aid when their votes are sought on contentious political issues than at other times.

And anyway, if these rich countries really want to help reduce poverty why not de-politicise aid-giving altogether? Make it dependent solely on the results of poverty alleviation. Set targets and make aid the reward for achieving them. In other words, incentivise poverty reduction rather than using the promise of it as a political stick masquerading as a development-assistance carrot.

Now let’s look at this in the context of the Philippines. Jessen explained that Manila’s objections relate to certain words in the proposed agreement – words like “rule of law”, “democracy” and “human rights” which, he pointed out, concern conditions which the EU lays down for all countries. They’re “not specifically for the Philippines” he said.

Well, of course, that’s correct. The EU is not exclusively looking to gain influence over the Philippine and its political direction; it’s seeking to do that with any country to which it supplies aid. In fact, the more countries the EU can influence – buy into – the greater its clout on the world stage. And it’s no secret how much the EU craves global power.

By the same token, however, the Philippines rejection of the TRTA package – as Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano has explained – is also “not an EU-specific policy”. It’s a universal policy as far as Manila is concerned. The government won’t be taking money from anyone who makes policy requirements a pre-condition of any aid agreement.

Jessen then went on to say this: “For me it’s a bit sad that after 30 years plus of development cooperation, we suddenly get into this situation. And the independence of Philippine foreign policy – I’m still struggling a bit to understand how we are interfering in that”.

Let’s respond to that. What precisely has EU assistance funding done for the plight of the Philippine poor in three decades? And would the Philippines be so much further behind where it is today without it?

Here’s a snapshot of just the last decade. In 2006, the poverty incidence in the Philippines – the percentage of poor within the general population – was 27.9%; in 2015, it was 26.3%. In other words, it improved by 1.6% in 10 years – or, by an average 0.16% for each of those years. That’s barely progress and certainly nothing to make a song and dance about.

Contrast that with the plan of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (photo) – a man, if the truth be known, the EU does not want running the Philippines. He’s aiming to reduce the poverty incidence by 25% over the next two to three years.

And, as far as Jessen being miffed about how the EU could interfere in Philippine foreign policy is concerned, he’s being disingenuous. In the specific case of the TRTA, Philippine concerns centre primarily on the EU’s intervention in its domestic policies which we’re sure he must be aware of.

And the Philippines should be concerned. For much of Duterte’s term, the EU, through its Parliament, its politicians, its agencies and its friends, has been one of the world’s leading critics of the president’s domestic policies – not least, his War on Drugs. It’s also fostered and supported the political opposition to Duterte, both overtly and covertly.

In March last year, for example, the European Parliament urged member nations of the EU to call for the establishment of a UN Human Rights Council investigation into the “unlawful killings and other violations” which it claimed had been carried out by Philippine law enforcement in their anti-drugs operations. It also called for the release from police custody of arch Duterte critic, Senator Leila De Lima – arrested on serious drugs-profiteering charges the previous month – and demanded “all politically motivated charges against her” be dropped.

Last September, the EU Parliament directed the embassies of member countries to “monitor the abuses of human rights” in the Philippines, while EU MPs claimed that Duterte’s rhetoric concerning drug suspects or offenders had actually encouraged mass killings.

And then, the following month, some 40 members of the European Parliament sent a letter to the Philippine Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III, and to Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, stressing that “Senator De Lima’s situation remains of serious concern to the European Parliament”. The letter, dated 26 October, asked them to find a way to allow De Lima “to carry out her role as a senator since she has not been convicted of any crime so far”.

If that’s not interference in the internal affairs of another country, we don’t know what is. Furthermore, just for the record, the EU is not privy to information which the Department of Justice has amassed concerning the case against De Lima, and its assessment of deaths resulting from the anti-drugs campaign are based almost exclusively on reports by media and human-rights agencies who are firmly opposed to Duterte. It has no independent verification of those reports whatsoever.

But, given all that – and there’s much more besides – why on Earth would Duterte want to accept aid from an organisation that’s already insinuated itself into the domestic running of his country; an organisation that’s wholly opposed to a number of his policies and has publicly called for him to desist from them? That would be like giving the fox open access to the hen house.

What Jessen and his colleagues in the EU – as well as their fellow travellers in the US – have failed to realise is that Duterte puts national interests above all other considerations. Philippine sovereignty for him is sacrosanct; it’s non-negotiable. He’s the head of a sovereign state; he doesn’t require EU approval of his policies. He’s not some East African warlord who’d sell his mother if he could make a quick profit.

Duterte will never pawn his country’s sovereignty. Put another way, he’s not prepared to sell its soul. If he did that he’d be going against the will of his people. He’d be betraying them; selling his country out. That’s never going to happen and by now the EU should know it. Thirty pieces of silver will buy them nothing from this president. The Philippines is not for sale.

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