Bernardo M. Villegas
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Highest Priority

           President Benigno Aquino III says, with all humility, that he is standing on the shoulders of others who have gone before him as he leads the Philippines to sustainable and inclusive growth.  Whatever might have been the failings of former leaders, there were always positive contributions they made to building the appropriate institutions that can be the bases for further growth and development.  In previous columns, I have referred to the accumulation of political, financial, market, social and governance reforms, at least over the last twenty six years, that have led to a tipping point that has brought the Philippines to a level where it can take off to a more robust growth over the next decades.

          A most valuable gift I received from former Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alberto Romulo just before Easter was a coffee table book entitled "The Highest Priority:  Protecting Overseas Filipinos and Promoting their Welfare."  It came just a few days after I gave the Opening Remarks to a major conference of the major stakeholders of the OFW sector in which Vice President Jejomar Binay delivered the Keynote Address. The conference was called "A Second Look at the Overseas Employment Program."  Besides Vice President Binay, there were top officials from the Department of Labor and Employment, the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, the Blas F. Ople Policy Center and Training Institute and a former DOLE Secretary, Patricia A. Sto. Tomas.  After going through the beautifully illustrated coffee table book, laden with photographs of OFWs all over the world in all the diverse circumstances in which they find themselves--both favorable and unfavorable--I was struck by the continuity of policies and programs focused on the welfare of OFWs from the last Government to the present.  Vice President Binay and the other officials working with him in promoting the welfare of the 10 million or so OFWs all over the world are also standing on the shoulders of the other leaders who have gone before them.  This augurs well for the welfare of our migrant workers abroad.

          Let me quote here from the Foreword of the publication I received from former Secretary Romulo:  "Philippine foreign policy, therefore, has sought to promote and protect their (OFW's) rights and welfare at bilateral, regional, and global levels.  Our comprehensive and multi-dimensional approach to migration management covers all facets of the overseas employment process, from pre-departure orientation to post-return reintegration and retraining.  Our diplomats are committed to extending vital Assistance-To-Nationals (ATN) services to Filipinos in need.  As chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2006, the Philippines led in crafting the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers.  In 2008, the Philippines hosted the International Conference on Gender, Migration and Development.  During the same year, the Philippines was the first developing and Asian country to host the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD).  In the United Nations, the Philippines has been a firm advocate of the international Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families."

          After reviewing all the events chronicled in the colorful publication identifying the highest priority in the last Administration, I have no doubts that much has already been done by our Government for the OFWs.  But much more can be done and that is what Vice President Binay and the other officials in this present Government tasked to protect and promote the welfare of OFWs are committed to do.  For their part, the private business sector, the NGOs and academics who attended the conference "Taking a Second Look the Overseas Employment Program" are also determined to implement more measures that will promote what I call the "integral human development" of each OFW.   To quote Secretary Romulo, there must be a "comprehensive and multi-dimensional approach to migration management."  This stems from the primodial dignity of each human being.  No one can be treated just as a factor of production, as a commodity whose only value to society is his economic contribution.  In macro terms, the OFWs cannot just be viewed as economic machines spitting out more than $20 billion in remittances every year, contributing 12% to Philippine GDP and serving as an engine growth through their consumption of goods and services.  That would be tantamount to forgetting that as a human being the OFW has more than economic needs.  He has also political, social, cultural and especially spiritual requirements.

          That is why I devoted my brief Opening Remarks to suggesting to the scholars and policy makers in the audience an agenda for research that can be the foundation of more enlightened policies and programs for the OFWs' integral human development, defined as development for every man and for the whole man.  In addition to research about the consuming and saving behaviors of OFWs, their needs for retraining and entrepreneurial development, their housing needs, etc. which address the economic dimensions of an OFW, there should be equal attention to identifying the requirements of the OFWs to fulfill themselves politically, socially, culturally and spiritually.  In the area of politics, I suggested that some of the scholars in the fields of political science and political economy should look into how to improve the electoral process so that OFWs can really exercise their right to vote; how the OFWs and their relatives are able to reshape the political dynamics in their respective communities after being liberated through their higher incomes  from the clutches of the feudal lords; and how some of the them, upon returning home, can make use of their newly acquired skills and world view to assume political leadership in their respective communities as LGU officials.

          In the socio-psychological disciplines, I suggested continuing research on the unfavorable consequences of fathers and/or mothers being away from their children for months or even years on end;  how family integration programs, especially in Europe, are reuniting the OFWS with their spouses and children who are now given greater access to becoming permanent residents of the host countries of their OFW parents; how manpower recruiting companies, especially in the seafaring industry, are actively giving values formation and skills training programs to the members of the family  left behind by the OFW; how child education program when one parent is absent can  be crafted to take into account the negative impact of an absent parent; how teenage boys of absent fathers can be given the necessary counseling so that they can avoid getting into trouble during their difficult adolescent years.

          As regards culture, I encouraged the anthropologist in the audience to probe more deeply into how local Filipino culture is being transformed with the exposure of the relatives of OFWs to a new world through the eyes of their OFW father, mother, brother, sister, etc.  One of our UA&P professors has done an ethnographic study of the objects that OFWs send to their relatives in the "balikbayan" boxes, interpreting their significance on shaping Philippine culture.   From my own personal experiences observing OFWs in Spanish and other European cities, I would recommend continuing studies on how Philippine culture still manages to thrive among our migrant workers or how OFWs are completely assimilated into the cultures of their respective host countries.   As regards intermarriages of OFWs with the citizens of their host countries, do their children still retain unique Filipino cultural traits, including the Filipino languages?  How many of these children end up speaking several languages.

           Finally, what happens to the original religious faith of the OFWs as they are integrated into their host countries.  What support do they need to preserve and strengthen their faith.  Do Filipino communities, especially in Europe, play an important role in the rechristianization of societies through their active participation in the lives of the parishes.  I encouraged them to document the spiritual experiences of Filipino priests who have served in the pastoral care given to OFWs.  I cited specifically the book written by a Salesian priest, Father Remo Bati, about his experiences ministering to the spiritual and doctrinal needs of Catholics abroad.  And finally, how can Catholic and other Christian OFWs working in predominantly Muslim countries promote the inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogues that have been encouraged by both the late Blessed John Paul II and the present Supreme Pontiff Pope Benedict XVI.

          These are only a few of the studies that we at the UA&P and CRC will involve our colleagues in other universities and think tanks in order to provide our policy makers in both the public and private sectors with well researched information about the multidimensional needs of OFWs.  That is the least we can do for these hard working and enterprising Filipinos who are making a significant contribution to national development while at the same time enriching the lives of peoples of other nations. For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.