It's now time to scrutinise govt 'aid' packages
The severe economic downturn caused by state lockdown measures seems to give the Prayut Chan-o-cha government a mandate for a quick spending spree on myriad rehabilitation programmes and economic stimulus packages aimed at accelerating the post-pandemic recovery.
But some critics have cast doubt on these packages and plans, likening them to "a corruption fun fair" if the government fails to assure transparency and efficiency of spending which is expected to skyrocket in a few weeks, now that relief and economic stimulus funds have gained parliamentary approval.
Of particular concern is the 400-billion-baht scheme for creating jobs and boosting the economy that saw state agencies at every level scrambling for a slice of the budget.
According to ThaiMe, the government website updating the scheme's implementation, more than 46,000 proposals worth more than 1.4 trillion baht were submitted to the National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDC) for screening.
Critics have cried foul over several proposed projects which appear to be routine procurements and have nothing to do with job creation.
Some ministries and local administrative organisations sought a fund for holding annual events such as tourism fairs, boat races and the Loy Kratong festival.
Many project proposals, such as a sufficiency economy learning centre, seem noble in principle -- but they have been criticised for being vague, and lack key details that make them difficult to be assessed.
Going through several proposals, I cannot see how they will improve workers' conditions or spur the ailing economy. Not to mention that some proposals seem fishy, with such high costs that there are fears some officials might take this as an opportunity to fatten their pockets. Those familiar with Thailand should know such fears are not groundless or exaggerated.
I'm not against the stimulus packages. I simply don't agree with projects that waste taxpayers' money. Moreover, the public has little chance to monitor and scrutinise those project proposals.
What they can do is to submit feedback to the government via the ThaiME website, and that's it!
The opposition bloc has pushed for a House committee to scrutinise the spending of the stimulus packages. It would make sense if the panel was chaired by an MP from the opposition.
But the job has gone to Paiboon Nititawan who is better known for his role as a guardian of the government and the PM.
Many economic experts have urged the government to spend its annual budget carefully, accounting as it does for 9% of GDP and increasing the public debt to GDP ratio to 57% in 2021, which is near the limit of the 60% ratio under fiscal rules.
As a matter of principle, the budget should be directed to those who are deserving, especially SME owners and workers who have been hit hard by the pandemic.
They are eligible for soft loans and skill training to restart their jobs or businesses.
But the fact is not everyone affected can access the government's aid. There are reports that banks, out of concern over non-performing loans, have rejected SME owners' requests for soft loans or charged them high interest rates.
This is why so many SME operators have missed out on state assistance.
I interviewed several low-income workers in Bangkok and they told me they could not find jobs, especially in the service sector, even after most of the lockdown restrictions were eased.
This is because they are unskilled. When employers resort to laying off workers, these people are the first targets, and the last to be hired back.
Obviously, they need to be reskilled so they can have job opportunities in many more diverse sectors and do not have to depend on state assistance.
But many project proposals in the stimulus package do not strategically focus on specific groups and areas affected by Covid-19. Such unspecific target groups in the package open the door to corruption and malpractice which means the money, our tax money, will go to the wrong places, supporting ineligible people, while the bad officials would make ill-gotten windfalls.
Of course, some state investment projects will help boost GDP, but as some economists pointed out, GDP has nothing to do with poverty eradication, let alone disparity.
The government must involve opposition parties and the public, enabling them to scrutinise its aid packages and procurement systems and assess the results.
We need a trustworthy monitoring mechanism and open data sources to ensure our tax money is well spent for a good cause.
Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.
Paritta Wangkiat is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.