The BARMM timetable: Another COVID casualty?

STARLINE-FREEPIK

The Philippines today faces dire challenges from the COVID-19 and regional security — violent extremism and Chinese incursion in the West Philippine Sea, among others. We from Muslim Mindanao worry that the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) will again be the last priority. This will surely be counterproductive.

Last Thursday, the World Bank hosted a Technical Working Group (TWG) on “Knowledge Sharing and Training Capacity” focused on Public Finance Management in the BARMM. Members of the TWG include development partners and selected organizations that are operating in BARMM in the field of knowledge and training. The TWG first met in October 2020.

We were honored to be joined by no less than the Chief Minister of BARMM, Ahod “Al Haj” Murad Ebrahim, a clear signal of the Regional Government’s prioritization of Public Finance Management.

BARMM’s challenges for transition are much greater now than before, particularly as precious time has been lost due to the pandemic. At the outset, we already knew that a three-year transition period was extremely tight as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) leadership had to learn how to manage and steer the ship without the benefit of years of training in governmental processes and bureaucracy. They were “inheriting” the poorest, most conflict-affected and least served region of the country.

Over a decade ago, as the negotiators focused on the nitty gritty of the peace process, we at the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy (PCID) realized that it was important to start focusing on the economics of the region — business and investment, fiscal management, and introduce the MILF leadership to the private sector leaders of the country. No one, at that time, was working on this critical area. We convinced a distinguished group — the Foundation for Economic Freedom (FEF) — to help. Former Finance Secretary Gary Teves agreed to lead the initiative. This led to a fruitful partnership among FEF, the MILF, and PCID. We had a two-year project which focused on business and investments, fiscal matters, land issues, agriculture, and labor issues among others, including capacity building for the Bangsamoro Development Agency (BDA) management staff.

Our two-year project led us to the following observations:

o Weak fiscal management of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), resulting in poor performance as an autonomous region, was attributed to little control over fiscal resources from the National Government and expenditures as well as weak governance and accountability in ARMM.

o Poor implementation of available taxing powers complicated by politics and clan relationships interfering with local tax collection since taxation would erode the standing of local politicians.

o Revenues generated would be insignificant in a conflict-affected war-torn economy with a high poverty incidence dependent on a largely underground and informal economy.

o Budget processes in the ARMM were fragmented, complicated and thus unsound. Non-integration of the ARMM budget processes with the national budget processes leading to difficulties in promoting coherent policy goals through budget allocations.

o ARMM has a history of poor governance and accountability marked by misuse of funds and the lack of effective expenditure control systems and reporting.

Achieving fiscal autonomy is critical for overall autonomy to be effective. Institutions and capacity need to be in place to ensure that fiscal resources are mobilized efficiently and with transparency and accountability; and spent wisely, reflecting the needs for sustainable and inclusive growth in a still conflict-affected and war-weary region. (FEF and PCID had actually prepared a follow through proposal for this and other economic issues in 2019 but COVID-19 intervened.)

The TWG discussions also picked up the issues raised above, particularly as we were focused on Public Finance Management in a fragile state.

However, the BARMM Regional Government seems to have fared better than expected, less than two years after taking over with the budget left by the previous administration. BARMM was able to access the block grant only in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged. According to the Chief Minister’s Report last January, the Regional Government has:

o strengthened revenue collection with the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources, and Energy’s P306-million collection in 2019 which is P101 million more compared to the highest annual remittance of ARMM.

o 28 Seal of Good Local Governance Awardees in the region, five more than ARMM achieved, making BARMM the No. 1 region in Mindanao and 5th in the entire country.

o increased level of transparency in infrastructure work with the Expanded Bangsamoro Advanced Road Mapping and Management (E-BARMM) System — an online repository of Ministry of Public Works (MPW-BARMM) projects using geotagged photos for data validation.

o registered an amount of P4.153 billion in 2019, exceeding the Regional Board of Investments (RBOI-BARMM) target by 180%.

o 5.9% growth rate in terms of Gross Regional Domestic Product (GRDP), ranked 2nd among the regions in Mindanao and ranked 7th in the country.

All these accomplishments and more were attained even as the Chief Minister and his administration were learning the ropes of governance and bureaucracy. What makes these even more remarkable is the fact that the implementation of major programs and plans of the various ministries and offices were greatly affected by the pandemic, in the first year that BARMM accessed the block grant.

Clearly, the Chief Minister and his administration should be allowed more time and support to implement the transition. As the world, particularly South East Asia and the Philippines, still face security challenges due to violent extremism extension, the success of the peace agreement between government and the MILF is critical to ensure Muslim Mindanao’s resilience to the lure of extremism and terrorism.

President Rodrigo R. Duterte should certify as urgent the extension of the term of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority and Congress should act on it before the political winds slow down legislative action. Government needs to ensure the success of the transition not only for the sake of regional security but because it is obligated to address the needs of the most conflict-affected, least served region of the country. Government is best served to support the extension, bearing in mind that the transition mechanism is also designed to ease the MILF from revolution to bureaucratic evolution.

Amina Rasul is the President of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy and a former member of the Ramos Cabinet