The Tragedy of Failing to Improve the Country With OFW Remittances
by Manuel L. Quezon III
Do you view the Philippines as a corral or an incubator? This was the question I asked students in a youth leadership convention’s after-hours discussion. The question was provoked by an animated debate during which the other resource person (a banker) expressed his opposition to proposals to limit the migration of Filipino nurses. One of the youth leaders expressed the fear that the country would run out of nurses. The banker countered by saying the surest way to run out of good nurses would be to impose some sort of export control on people; I myself ended up tending to agree with the banker.
We discussed the phenomenon of Filipinos going abroad as nurses, including the decision being made by many doctors to shift to nursing so they can go abroad. I gave them the example of the dentist I go to, who doesn’t have a practice restricted to the wealthy. In fact, the vast majority of his patients are from the lower middle class. The result is that he is open to haggling on the part of his patients (something I’ve never seen anywhere else), many of whom pay on the installment plan. The dentist told me that he’d had several opportunities to work abroad: Many of his friends and fellow dentists already having opted to work overseas. He said, the decision to stay home was a sentimental one, and was a form of professional suicide.
Though far from poor, the dentist knew he could do very much better elsewhere; in his case, the comfort of remaining in his own country trumped financial considerations. He did say, though, that his wasn’t a decision he’d impose on others facing a similar situation. What I took away from my discussion with my dentist is how it is increasingly difficult to maintain the kind of social and professional standing one normally used to expect as a reasonable result of engaging in a profession. The result is the stampede of many Filipino professionals to foreign lands.
On the other hand, I suggested to the youth leaders, consider two other examples. The first involves a Filipina nurse who left for the United States in the 1970s, and raised her child there. Over the years, she did well enough to be able to buy a home, and send her son to the best schools. Her son became an archeologist and returned to the Philippines to participate in setting up the University of the Philippines’ new archeology department. Had she stayed in the Philippines, she wouldn’t have been able to send her son to study in the United States, and he probably wouldn’t have ended up helping to pioneer a program that is enriching the study of Philippine history.
Consider, too, an experience I had in San Carlos City in Negros Occidental Province. A developer showed me around a residential village undergoing expansion, and I happened to inquire who were putting up new houses in the development. “Ah,” the developer said. “There, you see a house built by a seaman; here, a home erected by a nurse; over there, a teacher married to a German fellow.” The developer belonged to an old, landed family well known in the province for close to a century. The homes he was pointing out with pride were built by people whose parents had been sharecroppers in their estates. Had the seaman, nurse, or teacher stayed home, they wouldn’t have been able to buy land, or put up new homes like these. And so I asked the students, isn’t it quite revolutionary that these people born into a feudal society are now members of a new emerging middle class?
Of course change doesn’t come overnight. I countered my own stories, in a sense, with yet another one. On a flight from the United States back to the Philippines a few months ago, my seatmate was a Filipino, an engineer who had migrated in the 1980s and raised his children there. Like many Filipino expatriates, he was full of a kind of pride not only in his achievements (a good home in Chicago, children sent to good colleges and newly-married professionals to boot), but admiration for all the things that he felt were done right in America: The absence of corruption, good public services, and so on. He was going back to attend a niece’s wedding; and as we prepared to land, he pulled out his wallet and began to count out some currency. He looked at me, smiled, and said, “Oh, you know, I’m just getting ready for the usual expectations of bribes by Customs people.”
The youth leaders were puzzled at this point, so I explained: The changes taking place because of Filipinos working abroad are tremendous and revolutionary. But the changes aren’t complete and in a sense, those undergoing a transformation haven’t reached a critical mass. If working abroad shows you societies that work – or have attributes that reveal to us the extent of the improvements needed at home – we haven’t quite gotten to the point where it has actually yielded results.
The wealthy Filipino who goes abroad gets to learn to do things for himself he otherwise wouldn’t learn to do; the Filipino from humble origins on the other hand, gets to see, more often than not, places where your lack of social status doesn’t necessarily handicap you when it comes to goods and services. And even if a Filipino undergoes hardship and discrimination overseas, he does so as someone in charge of his own destiny, and who can reasonably expect that whatever progress he makes is due to his own efforts. Eventually, the Filipino exposed to new ways overseas, will demand corresponding changes at home.
In the end, the enterprising Filipino who sees his future overseas can’t be stopped. Many of those advocating putting limits on overseas migration, I noticed, are of a socialist orientation and immediately I think of Cuba, where neither a dictatorship and its secret police or the country being an island prevented people from leaving. The real bargain should be the guarantee, on the part of the Philippines as a country, to its citizens, that in exchange for their working abroad, a better future will be built for their loved ones who have been left behind.
The tragedy of the Philippines is that going into the second generation of migration, the country hasn’t found ways to channel the finances or energies of those who’ve left to benefit those left behind — so that one day, no one will want to leave at all, because of the opportunities at home.