By Camille A. Aguinaldo, January 23 2019; Business World

Image Credit to Business World

THE Senate has blocked in the proposed 2019 national budget the P20 billion Chinese-funded Safe Philippines Project, whose commercial contract was signed during the Manila visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping last November.

In a statement, Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph G. Recto said the Senate version of the budget bill, which reached third reading approval last Monday, added a “block payment” provision. He said this guides the release of funds for overseas development aid and other foreign-funded activities.

He said the provision under the unprogrammed funds section of the budget bill stated that: “No amount appropriated herein shall be utilized for any project intended for public video surveillance and communication system with suppliers or service providers that are considered as serious risks to national security or interest or are involved in cases regarding information leakage, computer or network hacking, and other forms of cyber espionage, whether in the Philippines or in other countries.”

Another provision enumerated a list of foreign-assisted projects that could be funded in 2019 but excluded the Safe Philippines Project.

The project in question is an emergency response and video surveillance system, which uses CCTV cameras to be installed in Metro Manila and Davao City. Its commercial contract was signed between the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) and Chinese firm International Telecommunications Construction Corp. (CITCC) last Nov. 20, as witnessed by President Rodrigo R. Duterte and Mr. Xi.

Mr. Recto said the project was “lacking in studies, consultations, validation.”

“We have asked for documents from the lead appraisal authority, the NEDA (National Economic Development Authority), and they cannot provide us any. It’s thin and it looks rushed. Usually the documentation for a project this size is voluminous. In this case, almost nothing could be given,” he said in a statement.

He also said the alarming trend of the executive bloating the public debt by agreeing to donor-driven loans “must be slowed down, more so if the process lacks transparency.”

The Senate leader also clarified that he was not against an emergency response system which uses Information and Communications technology, but only emphasized that Filipinos deserve well-studied and transparent programs.

“What the Filipinos people do not need is one whose evaluation and approval was hastily done, lacks transparency, no consultations, no independent appraisal, is a tied loan and a donor-driven expenditure,” Mr. Recto said.

The Senate leader has also sought an inquiry into the project, citing national security and data protection concerns.