FOR all the triumphalist praise heaped on the concept of OFWs, the Philippines is certainly making poor use of what is arguably its most valuable resource.
An article in The Economist at the end of last month shed some light on some of the interesting ways several countries with big diasporas are attempting to make the most of their large overseas populations. It is not easy to do – as one Mexican academic pointed out, very few people leave the country “por gusto,” and expatriates tend to be a fickle, critical crowd – but the economic and political payoff is potentially enormous.
As the article explains, Israel is probably the archetype for countries wishing to take advantage of their overseas populations. The Israeli government officially considers any Jew anywhere as (at least potentially) “one of their own,” and applies a great deal of effort to attract that talent and income-generating ability back to the homeland, through such programs as housing and scholarship assistance and the promise of free or very low- cost healthcare, among other things.
There are three potential advantages to a diaspora from the point of view of the home country. First, there are the direct economic benefits, which we here in the Philippines are already familiar with; OFW remittances account for between 10 and 14 percent of the country’s GDP. In some poorer countries, the flow of remittances—which is a remarkably reliable source of foreign currency—is even more critical; the central Asian country of Tajikistan, for example, gets about half of its GDP from overseas workers, and India’s annual remittance haul is in the neighborhood of about $70 billion.
The second advantage is the intellectual and vocational experience expats can return to their home countries. China, for example, has in recent years launched a number of initiatives to take advantage of it, such as building dedicated business parks for returning investors, and setting a higher wage scale for people who have overseas education or work experience.
The challenge to this, however, is that expats are not eager to return to underdeveloped places; the Economist article estimates that overall, only about 9 percent of expats ever permanently return to their home countries, and the majority of those people are from highly developed countries in the first place. Returning Taiwanese, for instance, outnumber returning mainlanders by about five to one, and those that do return to mainland China tend to congregate in big cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen, or Beijing.
The third and most subtle advantage of a big expat population is the geopolitical influence it can wield, and again, Israel is probably the best example. The pint-sized nation is able to not only exist but prosper in a region that is hostile to it mainly because of the ‘soft power’ it projects through large Jewish populations in places like the US and Europe. Since the accession of the Modi government, India has initiated a number of efforts to do the same thing, with some success. In the US, much of the easing of restrictions on immigrants in recent years can be attributed to the growing political influence of the Mexican-American population.
Again, gaining more than simple, direct financial benefits is not easy. Expats, once exposed to better ways of life in other places, tend to make uncomfortable demands for political rights, cleaner and more efficient government policies, and practical development in infrastructure and basic public services. But as The Economist points out, these are things that governments should be doing, anyway.
It should not take an epiphany for the government to realize that having more than one-tenth of its population living and working in other parts of the world can be a real competitive advantage, rather than just a milking cow. Calling OFWs “heroes” is nice; actually treating them as such, however, would have a practical payoff.