Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Romulo Neri: steward or switik?

It was probably propitious the lector assigned last Sunday (September 23) could not meet his ministry schedule so I was asked to change my own and pitch in for him. The timing seemed perfect because the first, second and Gospel readings have some striking bearing upon certain hot-button issues in the Philippines today that I’ve wanted to write about.

The first reading was from the Book of the prophet Amos whose prophetic tenure is believed to have taken place in the 8th century.

Amos 8:4-7 (New International Version) reads:
Hear this, you who trample the needy
and do away with the poor of the land,

saying “When will the New Moon be over
that we may sell grain,
and the Sabbath be ended
that we may market wheat?”—
skimping the measure,
boosting the price
and cheating with dishonest scales,

buying the poor with silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
selling even the sweepings with the wheat.

The LORD has sworn by the Pride of Jacob:
“I will never forget anything they have done.”
While in the selection quoted, prophet Amos has again denounced the abuse of the poor and the lowly by the wealthy and the privileged, a common theme in other Amos’ oracles and in those of other major prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah, it was however different in the sense that it highlighted the conjunction of the religious hypocrisy of the rich and economic exploitation.

To drive home his point, Amos cited specifically the impatience of the wealthy with religious bans during Sabbath that cut the bottom line, their underhanded and corrupt practices and the “commoditization” of people.

The first two examples of breaches of fair dealing could be as old as the Bible and commerce. As to the third, in the age of universal respect for individual liberty, one would be hard put first to find an appropriate analog today – until he starts thinking of the plight of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

In the second reading (1Timothy 2:1-8), St. Paul has instructed the Christian communities “that requests, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for everyone - for kings and for all in authority so that we may live peaceful and quite lives.”

By “we” however could mean the Christian communities only which, as mere subjects, were at the receiving end of the policies of the Imperial rule (essentially by tyrants, not by rulers democratically chosen by the people), and as to which, even when those policies were so conceived to repress Christians, they have no say; therefore, those supplications, prayers, petitions and thanksgivings by the Christians were in some way self-serving, the invocation being ultimately in order to be “let alone” in their ways.

In the current context, it may be well to note that certain fundamental requirements of supposedly democratic societies are honored more in the breach than in the observance. If for instance only a handful of interlocking corporate ownerships control the TV networks and the print media, is freedom of speech a meaningful freedom for the majority or the vast many in the Philippines (or even in mature democracies like the U.S.)? Or have the peoples’ representatives in fact been voted to office by fair and free elections? When an un-elected High Tribunal, bounded only by the consciences of the individual members, frequently sets and selects the ground rules of governance, can ours still be considered a representative democracy? And why are so many people so politically desensitized they would rather just pray and “move on” than exercise the full extent of their citizenship so that “we may lead a quiet and tranquil life”?

The Gospel reading (Luke 16:1-13), a reflection on the concept of stewardship, reads:

TheParable of the Shrewd Steward
Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’

“The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’

“So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
“ ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied.
“The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’

“Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’
“ ‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied.
“He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’

“The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”
Literally, a steward is a household manager who takes care of the property of the absentee owner.

According to the Anchor commentary of Father Joseph Fiztmyer, the estate under management in this parable was losing money so, to make the owner whole, the steward has made the choice to take the loss himself by cutting down on his pay (since he was paid by commission for running the estate) and save the estate (upon the profitable operation of which many more people possibly depended).

Management guru Peter Block defines stewardship as “ the willingness to be accountable for the well-being of the larger organization.” It is choosing service over self-interest.

Is Romulo Neri a shrewd steward who cut down on his bottom line to serve the larger community? Or is he, as mlq3 has described him, a switik, plain and simple?

Monday, September 10, 2007

The intangibles of diaspora philanthropy

(This piece was first published in on Sept. 6, 2007)

In 1995, the world's second richest man, Warren Buffett, so it is said, made the following remarks:
I work in a market system that happens to reward what I do very well - disproportionately well. Mike Tyson, too. If you can knock a guy out in 10 seconds and earn $10 million for it, this world will pay a lot for that. If you can bat 360, this world will pay a lot for that. If you're a marvelous teacher, this world won't pay a lot for it. If you are a terrific nurse, this world will not pay a lot for it. Now, am I going to try to come up with some comparable worth system that somehow redistributes that?

Then Buffett concluded that "society has a big claim" upon those with such a "peculiar talent" as an astute investor as him, a knock-out artist as Mike Tyson or an ace baseball slugger.

On another instance Buffett actually has opened up: "There's nothing material I want very much."

About a decade later, or in June 2006, Warren Buffett gave away approximately US$30.7 billion to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, established by the world's richest man Bill Gates, making the donation the largest in charity history.

If Buffet is after efficiency, he's probably right in putting his historic endowment literally in one basket but I think he's off in implying that society does not have a claim on the talent of a marvelous teacher or a terrific nurse.

A parallel can [once again] be drawn, perhaps a stretch, from Nick Joaquin's criticism of the Filipinos in the Heritage of Smallness that "We seem to be making less and less effort, thinking ever smaller, doing even smaller. The air droops with a feeling of inadequacy. We can't cope; we don't respond; we are not rising to challenges."

The foremost Philippine National Artist has unleashed more of his cavil at his compatriots: "And commerce for the Filipino is the smallest degree of retail: the tingi . . . this is a country, perhaps the only one in the world, where people buy and sell one stick of cigarette, half a head of garlic, a dab of pomade, part of the contents of a can or bottle, one single egg, one single banana."

Absent a Filipino Warren Buffett, the tingi system is however doing wonders for a "people-powered" philanthropy, Joaquin's contumely notwithstanding.

But first the big picture. The survival today of the Philippine economy leans on the money transfers from the Filipino diaspora community, the eight million or so Pinoys working abroad, comprising a tenth of the population. They are teachers, nurses, caregivers, entertainers, nannies, mechanics, beauticians, welders, seamen, japayukis, IT professionals, construction workers, and you name it. In 2006, their remittances officially reached $12.8 billion (minus the volume that bypasses the financial system), a figure that is more than three times the annual foreign direct investments the country targets to attract. The flow of money keeps immediate relatives out of poverty and children in school, and the country's economy afloat by enhancing purchasing power.

There could be downsides: for instance, on the part of individuals, dependency and other social costs that migration inflicts on separated families or, on the part of the government and the nation's wealth creators, a disincentive to improve on poor performance or to be competitive. This is not to rub in any further the "brain drain" argument against the phenomenon even before it became a recognizable fixture.

Aside from the enormity of the remittances constituting a tenth of the GDP, certain upsides border on the intangibles: a unique occasion for introspection as to someone of the Warren Buffett sort, at least disposition wise, who would come to realize "There's nothing material I want very much." To a plain migrant teacher or nurse that would be no more than committing some volunteer time or skills or giving out what little spare (money or goods) he or she has for others beyond the immediate household out of utang na loob (society's claim?) and bayanihan (town effort) toward a place they continue to call "home." Where migration results in separation, the ensuing "alienation" in far away climes also engenders the opposite phenomenon of reconnection, communal bonding and networking even as remote, transnational, if not virtual or electronic, relationships among former town mates, schoolmates and neighborhood are forged by shared and common goals for their kapwa (fellow beings). These motivations, it is believed, have kept millions of migrants and hundreds, probably thousands, of nondescript hometown organizations, alumni association, professional groups, nonprofit and charitable corporations and similar groupings around the globe to manage whatever they can (as in tingi) just to help their hometown and, largely by ripple effect, their homeland.

Funding is raised in multifarious ways aside from individual contributions: garage sales, raffle tickets, direct mail and email appeals, evening charities, golf outings, concerts, auctions, beauty pageants, souvenir books ads, corporate solicitations, and the like. It seems like tiny drops in the bucket but four years ago, on in 2003, the official estimate of this philanthropy by overseas Filipinos came close to a quarter of a billion US dollars. A larger figure could be extrapolated now given that remittances grew from $7.6 billion in 2003 to $12.8 billion in 2006 as cited above.

Diaspora philanthropic projects or programs are similarly varied and include school repairs and reconstruction, livelihood and nutrition, health and sanitation, library construction or enhancement, housing, disaster relief, educational scholarship, sports development, medical mission, environmental and cultural preservation, computer literacy and the like.

Now, Warren Buffett, to be efficient, might have chosen the easy path, so to speak: cut the check out to Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which has all the logistics and professional expertise in place to put his magnanimity to effective use.

As amateurs, some migrant philanthropists have to start from scratch to initiate, implement and complete their projects.

A few however have adopted the Orozco and Welle system which prescribes the following criteria:

1. Ownership: which requires the participation of the beneficiary community in terms of planning, decision-making, implementation, and project control upon completion.

2. Correspondence: which determines how much the project matches the community basic needs and priorities on the basis of an accurate assessment of the conditions in the community.

3. Sustainability: which refers to how the project enables development goals on a long-term cycle without imposing undue burdens on the community.

4. Replicability: which considers whether the project utilizes resources that are available in other communities that make it replicable.

The efficient channeling of migrant remittances for development in ways that are attractive to migrants remains a challenge to entrepreneurs, bureaucrats and policymakers. Investment instruments or mechanisms contemplated include the issuance of debit cards to beneficiaries to induce multiplier effects, micro-finance time deposits linked to small-enterprise loans, or municipal bonds with migrants as investors financing local infrastructures. We will leave that debate to the experts for now.

But, for a run-of-the-mill migrant, a marvelous teacher or a terrific nurse, simply looking back and being engaged out of utang na loob, or being driven by bayanihan for their kapwa through giving by tingi are a good starting point to build essential intangibles - trust and a renewed sense of country.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Magsaysay, the people's guy, was America's nightmare

Manuel L. Quezon III has lamented in his blog that the birth centenary (August 31, 2007) of Ramon Magsaysay was officially ignored. The young Quezon’s commemorative piece somehow re-ignited the debate of whether the seventh President of the Philippines had been America’s stooge, manipulated by The Ugly American.

The “basic assumption” that Ramon Magsayay was in fact packaged by the CIA as a rags-to-power politician while “overstated” could have some grounding. For one, Magsaysay was not a poor mechanic from Zambales but himself a son of a wealthy merchant and landowner. Atypically of a Filipino teenager of his time, he sported a Ford in high school, best-selling author Stanley Karnow has pointed out in In Our Image. There are certain serious materials indicating that Magsaysay, as an aspiring politician of national standing, agreed to work “for” the CIA. However when as president he converted, his term was cut short by a fatal plane crash. The conversion was from acting out his supposedly assigned role in America’s battle for hearts and minds to becoming an earnest reformer in protecting the Filipino peasantry from abuse in the belief that “he who has less in life should have more in law.” In having done so, Magsaysay actually began to live his manufactured image as a “man of the people,” as if a Jacksonian democrat, at a period of sensitive global strategic alliances.

The plot is not simple.

There’s a reason why American journalists called Ninoy Aquino a Jeffersonian democrat.

But first, a better way to understand a Jeffersonian democrat is to define its antithesis, the Hamiltonian federalist. Hamiltonian federalists, like John Hay, advocated the rule by the “best people” upon the idea that “those who own the country ought to govern it” and that government should not interfere with but support private enterprise.

Jefferson, born of a landed aristocracy, believed that the government should operate for the benefit of ordinary Americans, the yeoman farmers who best epitomize republican virtue. So, when Jefferson said that the best government is the one that governs least, he was not demanding the laissez faire system but only expressing his support for popular self-governance versus a strong central regime.

Ninoy too was wellborn who believed in the Filipinos and promised to subdue the oligarchs if he would be president. But he was an accomplished politician. Pressed with a question at a television interview during the 1978 parliamentary elections of whether he worked for the CIA, Ninoy deftly explained that he worked “with,” but not “for,” the CIA.

The conversion of Ninoy took place in his detention cell. After about 8 years in confinement, he was allowed medical furlough in the US for a heart bypass surgery but then to save himself from the drudgery of life in exile, he returned to fulfill his destiny and his belief that the “Filipinos are worth dying for.” Jefferson’s full conversion was at deathbed where he spoke of the end of democracy and freedom once power shifts to the aristocracy of “banking institutions and moneyed incorporations.”

Now, a better way to define Jacksonian democracy is to distinguish it from Jeffersonian democracy? Jefferson’s crowning glory was not the dismantling of Hamiltonian aristocracy but his successful negotiation for the purchase of Louisiana from Napoleon Bonaparte. The Louisiana acquisition however established the template for expansionism, the idea that people and territory could be acquired by purchase. Also, succumbing to pragmatic politics, Jefferson was accused of tyrannical act when he sought the passage of the Embargo Act which prohibited American exports, resulting in thousands of factory workers being thrown out of jobs. While Jefferson might not have lost faith in the common man (although he also believed that universal education should precede universal suffrage) Jeffersonians never became a mass-based organization.

Once again, when Jeffersonian democracy had called for the people’s self-governance, it was more of a call for state’s rights against the centralizing power of the Federal government; Jacksonian democracy two decades later went further by demanding direct governance by the common man (the electorate was then broadened to include all white male adult citizens, rather than only the propertied in that group of the Jeffersonian era) and therefore Andrew Jackson’s new democracy as politics for the people crossed social class lines and beyond mere geographic sectionalism. It was during this era that Davy Crockett, a semiliterate rifleman, was voted thrice to congress by Jacksonian rabble and was in fact groomed by his organized constituents to take on the presidency.

Karnow has suggested Magsaysay populism was Jacksonian.

The sub-plot: that Erap para sa mahihirap was stillborn owing to the pre-termination of the presidential term of another people’s champion unofficially by the conspiracy of the middle class and the “Makati rich” that was EDSA Dos and officially by a judicial misadventure in semantics (hence Erap’s ouster via “constructive resignation”) by elites in black robes.

Where is the connection?

Remember the intelligence dossier prepared by former US ambassador to the Philippines Joseph Mussomeli? The dossier was in turn based upon the reports of certain US agents detailed in the Philippines following the resignation of the “Hyatt 10” when the momentum for the Arroyo ouster movement heightened? The agents calculated that there was a clear and present danger People Power III would take place, hence the rush to scout for an acceptable replacement.

It was then logical for the US agents to conduct a job interview with the one who is formally next in line. However, not bound by constitutional requirements, the talent search has to meet other threshold priorities. How did Vice President Noli de Castro fare? Miserably by the interviewers’ own account.

First, De Castro was assessed to be lacking the required sophistication for the job in view, for one thing, of his comments on US-RP trade relations: sounding more like a fair-trader, he complained about the “imbalance” in those relations. De Castro was also quoted in the dossier as saying to the effect that the Philippines is America’s “Number One ally” and our President is its “Number One fan” and yet other countries are favored more.

Second, regarding De Castro’s take on Iraq, the dossier stated: “On Iraq, however, he said he didn’t understand ‘what was behind it.’ He then turned to his real interest in Iraq: jobs for Filipino workers.”

Third, on domestic matters, De Castro was portrayed as naive at best: “We asked about his legislative priorities and waited patiently as he searched for words. His chief of staff, Jesse Andres, broke the silence, noting that De Castro identifies his policy interest as anything that would benefit the masses. . . .”

U.S. can deal with a left-leaning nationalist or a patron of OFWs. But the third one was the proverbial straw that broke the Camel’s back. Why? Because a Filipino leader (or Third World leaders, for that matter) who pays attention to the needs of the masses is likely to ignore America’s powerful interests and U.S. strategic imperatives.

“[Magsaysay] undoubtedly had [American] support, because of the Cold War and the rise of the Huks,” mlq3 has attempted too make the connection. In the comment thread he added this caveat: “I understand some historians have been working on this which, combined with contemporary testimony, should lead to a reexamination of what has become a basic assumption.”

In another breadth, Jacksonianism, as reinterpreted by some historians today, is also about the creation of mass democracy as a check upon the expansion of manic free-market capitalism.

Not communism, not terrorism but the “excess of democracy,” or a true “government by the people, of the people, for the people,” whether of the Jefferson, Ninoy Aquino, Andrew Jackson or Magsaysay (and for that matter the Hugo Chavez) variety, is America’s worst nightmare.