Brain drain runs deep in the Philippines

On one of the iconic double-decker buses of Great Britain, an advertisement about the Philippines sending its best, caught the attention of Filipino netizens. The National Health Service (NHS), a globally-renowned British health institution, employs thousands of Filipino nurses who render valuable services in hospitals and clinics all over the United Kingdom. This is considered public knowledge, most specially following the first publicized inoculation of the COVID-19 vaccine which was performed by a Filipina nurse. The whole world values the contributions of Filipino health professionals as “frontliners” during the pandemic.

These Filipinos employed abroad and the Philippine diaspora as a whole have been instrumental in keeping the global economy running. From blue-collar jobs like construction workers in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and domestic helpers in Hong Kong and Kuwait, to white-collar jobs like managers, engineers, medical professionals, educators, and accountants in Australia, the United States, Canada, Singapore, and Japan, Filipinos have helped their respective economies grow through their valuable services. Global supply chains have also been dependent on Filipino workers, as logistics companies that keep international trade routes functioning well, employ seamen from the Philippines.

Overseas Filipinos have also tremendously kept the Philippine economy afloat. With annual foreign remittances amounting to around $35 billion, these monetary contributions, worth around 9 months of imported products, help prop up the country’s foreign reserves of around $100 billion. Local families of overseas Filipinos also benefit, as these foreign currencies aid in paying matriculation and tuition fees, basic family necessities like food and medicine, and other important utilities. Having a family member based abroad is seen as a success story in local neighborhoods, where ordinary Filipino youngsters dream of earning more, once they are employed outside of the Philippines.

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However, these gains are not without heavy societal repercussions. Despite various success stories from these Filipino families residing overseas, stories where earnings abroad are used not for investment purposes but for living decadent and immoral lifestyles are also common. Stories of infidelity and alcoholism in remaining family members frequently emerge while husbands or wives toil in difficult working conditions, most specially in the Middle East where Filipinos being abused and maltreated by their respective employers is a common scenario. Some overseas Filipino workers, in the most bitter of circumstances, end up going back to the Philippines inside cold and lonely caskets. With these parents becoming less involved in child-rearing duties as their children achieve important milestones in life, they also experience excruciating emotional pain seeing their own children become alienated from them. Such is the distress of these Filipino parents who, as a result of working for many decades outside of the country, suffer children barely recognizing them. They would end up questioning their own personal decisions, if it was indeed for the greater good. These kinds of opportunity costs are unfortunately, not reflected in the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). What has become of the country’s basic social unit?

On a national scale, labor export has been an important cash cow for the Philippine economy. Due to the reality that the country is greatly dependent on the service industry for economic growth, the Philippines has long not hesitated to send its best talent abroad. The country earns fleeting monetary gains for their services overseas. Ideally, the country’s best, brightest, and finest should remain in the Philippines to contribute to a more productive national economy. However, employment and academic opportunities to enhance their talents and skills are nearly absent in the Philippines’ domestic economy. Many intellectually-capable Filipinos who land scholarship programs abroad usually don’t return to the Philippines. Most emigrate with their families to their respective destination countries for a better and comfortable life, where they are properly remunerated. The better quality of life and more inclusive political and economic institutions in these countries serve as a strong deterrent for these highly capable Filipinos from practicing their profession within the Philippine archipelago. This brain drain makes the Philippines consistently rank low in intellectual quotient (IQ) rankings in comparison to other neighboring Southeast Asian countries.

The government policy of exporting Philippine labor began during the administration of the late former President Ferdinand E. Marcos in the 1970’s. With the unilateral dissolution of the Bretton Woods agreement by then-US President Richard Nixon, which broke the link of pegging the value of the US dollar to gold, numerous currencies pegged to the US dollar saw their respective exchange rates become dependent on the markets’ forces of supply and demand. This caused the quick depreciation of the Philippine peso’s value, which was further exacerbated by the brewing oil shock crisis experienced during the Nixon administration. As a way to soften the blow, the Philippine government sought to export Filipino labor as a way to quickly earn foreign-denominated currency to bolster the country’s foreign reserves. It was initially a band-aid solution, which unfortunately ended up persisting over the next five decades. The past 50 years has shown that Filipino politicians don’t want to engage in painful economic reforms because these entail sacrificing political capital, specially that built off support from landed elites and oligarchs. This patronage-style of politics paired with protectionism seem to perpetuate this labor export policy that has clearly divided, separated, and wounded Filipino families.

Fortunately, Filipino politicians and bureaucrats can learn from the successes of numerous Philippine communities abroad. According to the US Census Bureau, Filipino-Americans as an ethnicity, have the second highest median household income in the United States, right after Indian-Americans. This is despite the fact that less than 50% of Filipino-Americans have a Bachelor’s degree. What is behind this financial success of Filipinos in the United States? The United States’ inclusive economic institutions and Filipinos’ entrepreneurial culture are two possible yet compelling reasons why. Needless to say, the problem is definitely not about the Filipino people.

Brain drain and human flight are indicative of the Philippines’ weak state and society which can partly be accounted for by the country’s colonial roots where the Spanish weren’t able to administer government powers properly. Voluntary emigration due to lackluster employment opportunities hurts the economic productivity of the whole country. Thus, economic reform in the Philippines is of paramount importance if the country is indeed keen to keep its own peoples producing within its own borders, where they can practice their respective professions and skills and earn competitive remuneration.

A country’s most important asset is not its geographical nor natural resources, but its very own people. Filipino communities abroad have shown that they can be financially successful in their own endeavors where they continue to lead peaceful and prosperous lives. It is a matter of replicating the successes of Filipinos abroad back in the Philippines. This leaves the country with three missions to accomplish. First is to lift millions of Filipinos out of poverty. Second is to allow for greater social mobility, and, third, to improve the quality of life of the ordinary Filipino masses. Unless these objectives are achieved, the Philippines cannot afford to forget the harrowing stories of Sarah Balabagan and Flor Contemplacion.

3 Replies to “Brain drain runs deep in the Philippines”

  1. Having lots of workers abroad is something not to be proud about because it means the country has big problems in labor. To succeed in a cleaner way, you need to leave Philippines. Years ago, one wise Twitter user once said that gaining talent people’s loyalty is more powerful than generating talented people.

    Lifting people out of poverty is something many Philippine traditional politicians will hate, they want to keep poor people poor because poor people are easier to manipulate. If they’re out of poverty, then politicians will have more difficulties to manipulate them. I’m sure that the most trusted senator says that he loves the poor because it’s easy to manipulate them.

  2. “the first publicized inoculation of the COVID-19 vaccine which was performed by a Filipina nurse”

    Wow. This makes me Proud to be a Filipino.

    Nakakataba ng puso.

  3. I want to normalize sending the lot of intellectual Filipinos abroad until it causes mass hysteria and crisis in country. It seems Fail-left-penises have not learned their lesson when they always have the damn opportunity to improve stuff around.

    Looking at you, PRC.

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