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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A mediocre gets paid measly because the amount allotted for the sum-total-of-mediocres is distributed across the thousands and thousands of mediocres.

You'd think people would know by now that if they increase their economic productivity by 50%, that they will at least quadruple their income, right?!!!! But it does take a lot to increase one's productivity by 50%, and the mediocres prefer the easier route which is to whine... whine...whine...

September 14, 2007 10:55 AM  
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