Tuesday, April 16, 2013


We got this “breaking news” from Dr. Jimmy Montero this morning – the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO) is mounting a 3-year project to build a one-stop portal for “diaspora engagement” by overseas Filipinos.

CFO chief Imelda “Mely” Nicolas was responding to a spirited email chain among Filipino American physicians in the United States. Though they say it many different ways, they feel the Philippine government is not doing enough to tap the immense talent pool of millions of overseas Filipinos – most of whom have acquired skills and experience – not to mention the material resources – since they left the country but are unavailable or in short supply back home.

“We seem to be more welcome in other countries than our ‘motherland’,” Dr. Domingo Alvear lamented. “Our generation is very loyal to the Philippines and we will continue to help regardless of how we are perceived. Our life span is short and if the Philippines do not recognize and use our talents, they lose,” he added.

“Don’t you think it is time for action,” Chicago-based Dr. Cesar Co asked. “We are all getting older. Most of us are developing age-related issues. The Government of our Mother Country has failed to tap an enormous work force of retired Filipino doctors, nurses and health care providers worldwide.”

“First generation immigrants (like many Fil-Am doctors and nurses) are more likely than those farther removed to be actively engaged with their countries of origin; many have close family members there, own property, and follow social and political events closely,” explained Susanna Groves, an associate policy analyst of the DC-based Migrant Policy Institute (MPI).

Dr. Alvear said he’s been doing medical missions in the Philippines for the past 5 years and feels he’s only got 2 more years left for the rigors of frequent travel and volunteer work.

“Many of us only ask for acceptance by our colleagues back home. We are not competitors. Our desire is to serve,” stressed Dr. Co. He said many volunteers are brought to tears seeing the enormity of the needs and the lack of equipment and resources to meet them.

Dr. Conrad Zapanta, an otolaryngologist from Harrisonburg, Va. said he’s been joining medical missions in Ifugao since 1989. “We are not supported by any organization and we pay our own way,” he revealed, “although I retired last year, I will continue to organize and lead surgical medical missions to the Philippines, the land of my birth.”

Health Secretary Enrique Ona will be holding a dialogue with these doctors and health care professionals in Washington DC this Wednesday.

“The ultimate solution,” Dr. Montero surmised, “is a government initiative to create a sub-Cabinet level agency to act as a clearing house/sounding board, whose only job description is to facilitate the process of expatriates giving back to their motherland.”

Hence, he welcomed CFO’s proposed “Balinkbayan” project.

The importance of diaspora engagement has been recognized by the US, which has the largest diaspora community in the world. Diaspora members living in the US sent nearly $52 billion in remittances in 2011, according to the World Bank. Filipinos were the 4th biggest senders of dollars back home, next to India, China and Mexico.

“In addition to sending remittances, US-based diaspora members make investments, establish or support businesses, make charitable contributions, volunteer, support political parties, campaign for human rights and good governance, promote post-conflict reconciliation and (in countries where such activities are permitted to non-residents) vote and run for office in their countries of heritage,” Groves explained.

Dovelyn Agunias, also with the MPI and now based in Manila, dissected the various agencies created for diaspora engagement in Asian countries, including the Philippines. She noted that the government has created, aside from CFO which is directly under the Office of the President, “sub-ministry level special offices” in the Departments of Labor and Foreign Affairs.

The country’s Health Department still has to ink a memo of agreement to join the “Balinkbayan” project (it already includes the Departments of Trade, Science, Agriculture, Environment & Natural Resources, Agrarian Reform and Tourism), Nicolas intimated.

Agunias noted that limited resources made it difficult to fully assess the impact of diaspora institutions. She identified two key elements – understanding disaporas’ needs and potential; and creating institutions that are trusted and embraced by diaspora members.

Attaining these goals, she added, can be aided by inviting diaspora involvement in setting agendas but should also be careful against “creating a privileged insider group of diaspora partners.”

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has begun working with diaspora organizations to promote diaspora engagement. They are funding collaborations with the Diaspora Networks Alliance (DNA) that “focuses on creative mechanisms through which diaspora communities can contribute to growth in their countries of origin or heritage” in the fields of diaspora philanthropy, volunteer corps, direct investment, capital markets, tourism and nostalgic trade, and advocacy and diplomacy.

Nicolas indicated they will formally unveil “Balinkbayan” on June 12, the Philippine Independence Day.

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