Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

Archive for April, 2008

The Philippines can overcome the rice crisis

Posted by butalidnl on 18 April 2008

Lately, there have been speculations to the effect that the government has blown up the rice crisis beyond proportion; that it used the rice crisis as a diversion from all the corruption scandals that plagued the government.  My reaction to this is: I don’t think it is a conspiracy. After all, the rice crisis is not only affecting the Philippines. In fact, it affects many more countries, with rice stocks being shepherded by surplus countries, and the price of rice and other grains rising dramatically.

I think that the rice crisis just arrived; and the government of GMA was confronted with it. Of course, I suppose it is a not unwelcome change after all the months of scandals and political intrigue. A crisis such as this makes things simpler. It even gives them an opportunity to regain a bit of good will with the people.

So, we have the crisis. But are we reacting too early?
I don’t think so. The fact that we don’t see hungry Filipinos rioting in the streets does not mean that we are just crying wolf, when the crisis is still far away. The crisis is real, it has been seen in advance – before becoming really acute. This is the right time to face it, when we still have more options. Both short term and medium term measures could still be taken to address the problem. If we waited too long, the problem would have become very difficult to solve, and no good options would be left.

It is good, in a sense, that we face the food crisis now instead of later. One crisis at a time, I would say. In a couple of years, the country (and the rest of the world, by the way) would be facing an acute fossil-fuel crisis with extremely high prices and even shortages. If we are successful in meeting this food crisis now, we will have enough capacity to deal with future crises when they do come.

Good steps taken, more needed.
One thing about having a crisis is that some political decisions may be easier to make then, than when there was no crisis. All of a sudden, things fall into place, and the necessary steps are perceived as such; and as the “lesser evil” as compared with not taking those steps. Let us take a look at some of the good first steps taken by the government which they could not have taken without a crisis. These would include:
– a freeze on land conversion;
– increased farm-gate price for rice (from P12 to P17);
– more funds earmarked for increasing agricultural production.

Of course, these are just a start. They should be followed up. A freeze on land conversion should be followed by a comprehensive Land Use Law, and even specific decisions to roll back many cases of land conversion. Increased farm-gate prices don’t mean much if there is not enough money set aside for the NFA buying program. And funds set aside to improve agricultural production should be used well.

Additional steps need to be taken, and they require a bit more political will than the initial steps mentioned above. First among these would be a freeze on the biofuel program. It is scandalous to continue with using food crops for transport fuel, at a time when people are literally getting short of food. The biofuel program should at the minimum be frozen.

Then there comes the question of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program. The current CARP is coming to an end, even though there is still a lot of land at the hands of landlords that have managed to evade redistribution. CARP should be extended, and the remaining lands redistributed. As part of CARP,it is important that the government support the new (small scale) landowner/farmers with extension services, financing, post-harvest facilities etc.  They should really be assisted, so that they can immediately make optimum use of their land to produce food.

An even more “sticky”, but necessary, step would be to “liberalize” rice processing and distribution. Rice millers and wholesalers have a stranglehold on the farmers – they lend farmers cash, fertilizers, seeds, etc. and in turn the farmers have to sell their harvest through them. This monopoly position make it possible for them to dictate prices, and to block others who try to buy or mill rice. What they are doing is not technically classifiable as “hoarding”, but the effect is almost the same, since it stifles productivity, and minimizes the income of the farmers, resulting in smaller harvests. Mechanisms should be set up to open up the agricultural market – for there to be real competition among millers and distributors.

And lastly, Overseas Filipinos (even those with other passports) should be allowed to invest in agriculture. This would open a vast reservoir of capital and knowhow that our agriculture sector can put to good use.

We can overcome this crisis.
This crisis is one which I am sure the Philippines can overcome. We have a lot of good ideas; we have enough technicians and managers.  We even have enough financial resources (especially if we count the increased allocation of government funds, and tapping Overseas Filipinos).  The problem we now face, with the rice shortage, was caused and aggravated by the lack of political will. We can even say that politicians didn’t pay attention to the problem – and didn’t feel the need to take the necessary steps to address it. Now that the problem has to be solved, it will be. Or political careers would suffer.

Solving the food crisis will also put the Philippines in a better position to solve other crises that we are sure to encounter in the coming years. If we successfully address the food crisis, we will have proven to ourselves that this kind of big problem can be solved, if we just decided to do so.

Posted in Philippine economics | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Think twice before starting with a nursing course

Posted by butalidnl on 17 April 2008

Nursing courses are booming in the Philippines. People are pushing their children to take up nursing in the hope that they would be able to get a job in the US and earn a lot of money. It is getting to the point that one could say there is a “nursing bubble” in the country – too many people taking up nursing courses, resulting in a glut of nursing graduates. But whatever we may say, parents and relatives almost force their children to take up nursing – even if these children have no real aptitude or inclination to take up the course; just because it is apparently a good way to get a US-based job and lots of dollar remittances.

Now that the school year is about to start in the Philippines, the question then arises: should he/she take up a nursing course?

Yes. If the student really has a feel for nursing, and is willing (and even expecting) that she/he may be practicing the profession in the Philippines itself.

No/maybe. If the aim is to get a high-paying job in the US. Why do I say so? Some reasons:

Only one fourth or less of those who start with a nursing course end up with jobs in the US.
In the latest nursing board exam, only 43% of the examinees passed. Of these, many if not most will try to get the NCLEX, the exam to get qualified for US nursing jobs. Not everyone will pass. Of these, they still have to actually get jobs. Then they will have to contend with visa limits; this month (April), the visa quota for the US from the Philippines for 2008 was already met, and thus no more visas will be issued this year.

One fourth success ratio seems not bad. However, please note that this is the best of times. The US is suffering a nursing shortage and till this year, it has been able to absorb as many new nurses as we can produce. This ratio will get worse from this point on. Think of the backlog in visas – next year, those who didn’t make it this year will try again, and then with the additional competition of a whole new batch of nurses. The oversupply will back up, lowering “success” ratios to 1/5 or even 1/10 of graduates in only a few years.

The Philippines is not the only source for nurses for the US.
True, there is a nursing shortage in the US. But who says that all those openings are just waiting to be filled by Filipino nurses. There are many more countries where nurses could come from; and with the Philippines reaching its quota maximum, they will surely be coming from these other countries in increasing numbers.

We also need to consider the increasing supply of nurses from the US itself. Enrollment in nursing courses in the US is increasing. As economic hard times come, there is also the tendency of many Americans who left the nursing profession during the boom times to come back to nursing. There is a large number of former nurses in various other kinds of jobs in the US right now; they are starting to return to nursing, which they view as a stable job with a good income – perfect for these difficult times.

In six years time, a lot of things could happen to the nursing job opportunities in the US. Of course, there are still jobs for nurses in other countries e.g. Europe, the Middle East, and Japan. But with all the new nurses who will be around in 6 years, the competition for these jobs will also be quite intense.

Other professions will also be in demand 6 years from now.
The world will change a lot in six years, and there will be lots of jobs available both in the Philippines and abroad. Those with professional and technical qualifications would be able to land these jobs. Think about the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry. We know this more from the call centers that have sprouted all over the country. However, BPO does not end with call centers – it is just the beginning. There is a big untapped market for the outsourcing of accounting, bank back-office functions, IT development, even research and development. With the development of communications technology, it makes more and more sense for companies (and not only those from English-speaking countries) to outsource many of their functions. The Philippines is only starting to tap into this market. This will be booming in six years. Thus, there will be lots of jobs for those with degrees in accounting, banking and finance, IT and even the applied sciences.

Then consider the jobs that will be available abroad. There will be a continuing need for skilled technical personnel from heavy machinery operators, to electricians, plumbers, refrigeration technicians etc. At the higher end, there will be enough jobs for architechts and engineers, accountants and computer experts of all kinds. Not only will foreign companies continue to hire Filipinos; Filipino companies will increasingly bring their own workers to their foreign projects.

Even seemingly unpromising jobs e.g. school teachers or agricultural extension workers may see an increase in demand, accompanied by a marked increase in salaries. Sooner or later, the country will realize the importance of such jobs. Teachers, after all, are all-important in ensuring that the country continues to produce skilled workers and professionals for domestic and international jobs. And farm extension workers are essential in ensuring that the country produces enough food.

With all the possibilities, it is no longer a simple and cut case for nursing as the quick route to a big income. Nursing may still remain as one of the viable options, but the beginning college student has a lot of choices of what course to take.

Why only “maybe”?
Now, let us go back to why “maybe”. One thing about the range of jobs that will be available 6 years from now is that there is a lot of possibilities for “sideways” movement. One possibility for those who tried but failed to land a nursing job abroad, is get a job with a BPO company. Some companies still do medical transcriptions; people with a nursing background will qualify quite well for this. And, there is always the call center agent possibility – if you are good enough to pass the nursing board, your English is probably good enough to become a call center agent.

And there is always a possibility that even though one did not have the inclination for nursing to begin with, that they would acquire it over the years of studying to be a nurse. And there will be enough jobs available (and some with quite reasonable salaries) in the Philippines as nurses – of course, you would probably be working in a public hospital, or a rural clinic. But wouldn’t that be fulfilling?


Posted in Philippine education, Uncategorized | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

Rice self-sufficiency, an essential goal

Posted by butalidnl on 16 April 2008

There is a rice shortage that threatens not only the Philippines, but the whole world. It especially affects the Philippines because rice is our staple food, and also because we don’t produce enough of it to feed ourselves.

This is not merely a result of our high population growth, nor what they say is the low productivity of rice growing in the country; the cause lies deeper still. We have inherited a neoliberal (neo-classical almost) economic thinking that says that open markets are the best solution for everything. So, while rice production did slowly decrease over the years in relation to our rice consumption; our government officials did not only NOT do anything, they even thought that this was absolutely the best policy. The logic seems to go that rice production in the Philippines is not as cost-efficient as in other countries, and that we should plant other things that made more money, export these, and then we can use the money to buy rice and much more from abroad.

I do not agree with the idea that it would be better for the Philippines to import the rice it needs. Rice is too important for us to depend on others for it. Our government should commit itself to a policy of rice self-sufficiency. The country needs to grow enough to feed its people, with a bit of extra for buffer.

We need to be self-sufficient in rice.
We should disregard the neoliberal mantra that keeps us from even trying to be self-sufficient in rice. Rice is so essential to the national diet, even for our literal survival, that we cannot afford to continue being dependent on the international market for it. Look what this misguided policy has led us to: we are now one of the world’s leading importers of rice. And this for a country whose people could not, would not, substitute rice for other sources of carbohydrates. We simply do not feel as if we have eaten a full meal if it is not rice. Even if we have had a lot of spaghetti or siopao or pancit, we would still need rice for the meal. The rest would just be vijand or snacks.

Western European countries were not self-reliant in food crops before World War II. They were mostly dependent on European colonies (or former colonies) for food. During the war, a lot of this food supply was cut for various periods. England suffered a lot, as a result of the German naval raids on their shipping, which cut them off from food supplies in the first years of the war. And of course, Germany and the countries it occupied were cut off from  food imports in turn. After the war, they all resolved that they would never again allow themselves to be dependent on imported food supplies. And this is why they instituted national, and then Europe-wide programs for food self-sufficiency. (the problem we have now is that this has become a huge food surplus in Europe, partly as the result of big subsidies)

The US, which is the country which has been advocating the open market for rice has been doing so mainly in order to keep the Philippines open as a market for US rice and wheat. It does not really apply the neoliberal mantra re food production to itself. The US subsidizes its own farmers to produce food, which it does in quite a large amount.

We can become self-sufficient in rice.
Rice self-sufficiency does not mean that we forego the planting of other crops. Take the cases of Vietnam and Thailand, they were able to diversify their agricultural production while at the same time maintaining and even expanding their rice production. It is not a question of the mix of crops (as in, food crops vs cash crops), but more a question of giving enough resources to the growing of food crops especially rice.

The Philippines still has the potential in growing not only enough rice for the present population; we can readily produce a surplus. There is enough land; even enough land in the hands of farmers. The problem is more in terms of financing, agricultural extension services and post-harvest facilities. A lot of farmers that have land do not have the money to invest in more efficient production. At the same time, rice millers and traders have such a stranglehold on the whole production and distribution process that the farmers are forced to sell their palay at a low price, just to be able to repay debts they made for the inputs etc. from the millers/traders.  This in turn makes it impossible for the farmer to accumulate resources, and also keeps them from increasing their harvest. There is something really wrong when the country’s rice production is held hostage by the monopolistic behaviour of these middle men.

Increasing the NFA buying price for palay is a good first step. However, it should be done more massively – a significant percentage of the harvest should be covered by NFA purchases. In addition, this should be accompanied with a mechanism to provide cheaper inputs e.g. seeds, fertilizers, to the farmers; as well as technical assistance so that farmers learn how to use these inputs optimally.

Rice self-sufficiency helps in all-round economic development.
Producing enough rice for the nation’s needs has benefits beyond keeping people well fed. First of all, it saves the country money; money that would otherwise have gone to other countries, or more precisely to farmers in other countries. The amount of money that is spent to increase rice production generally stays within the Philippines; farmers will spend their increased income on basic goods and to increase production. And the producers of fertilizers etc. will also spend their added incomes in the general area where they are, or at least in the Philippines. This would be good in terms of stimulating the local economy. And the government, even if it would spend money in the effort, would be able to recoup at least a part of the money in terms of increased VAT and other tax collections due to the increased economic activity.

Rice is so basic that if the country is producing enough of it, production of other foodstuffs e.g. vegetables and fruits would also be stimulated. A general improvement of life in the rural areas would mean lesser migration to the urban areas of unskilled labor. It would also mean that many more children of rural families would be able to afford a good education and better health care – leading to better labor supply for a whole range of jobs, both in the urban and rural areas.

The present rice crisis is an opportunity. It is an opportunity for the government to make the Philippines self-sufficient in food; an opportunity  to develop the Philippines in balanced way.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Filipinos and the US elections

Posted by butalidnl on 4 April 2008

Many people in the Philippines are regularly following the US presidential primaries. This is in sharp contrast to how these same people may refuse to really get really interested with the political maneuvers of Philippine presidential hopefuls.  Funny, in a sense.

It is remarkable in that we Filipinos don’t really have much to cheer about the US as a whole. As our former colonial ruler, the US is quite terrible. I could not fail but compare the way other countries treat their former colonies – with generous aid/development programs, special status to immigrants from these countries, etc. The British Commonwealth has quite a broad set of continuing beneficial links between Britain and its former colonies.  Filipinos, in fact, get very warm treatment in Spain (our other former colonizer) – in the way Filipinos living in Spain  are given various benefits for being nationals of a former colony. But the US? it treats the Philippines like shit – no respect at all. Even now, six decades after World War II, the US refuses to acknowledge Filipino soldiers who served in the US army then.  And when US soldiers commit crimes (rape, murder) in the Philippines, they don’t get turned over to Philippine authorities. [this is in contrast to US soldiers in Japan, who end up immediately in Japanese custody] And the US is amiss in many of its economic and military commitments to the Philippines.

In a sense, it would not be too wide off the mark for us to say – to hell with America, we don’t want to have anything to do with it!

But Filipinos continue to follow the US election process with keen attention. Why?

It is an excellent spectator sport.
The US election is interesting to Filipinos precisely because we won’t feel the immediate effect of the result. It is exciting, especially with the way the media covers it. It is also very Filipino to “bet” on these kinds of contests, often quite literally. I remember that a South Korean basketball player once commented that he felt at home in the Philippines, even when his team is playing against the Philippine team. The reason, he said, was that “whenever we play, one half of the spectators are cheering for us”.

There are millions of Fil-Ams ,  and these  people naturally influence their Philippine-based relatives. I learned that when you know somebody from a certain country, you tend to get interested in developments in that country.  When something big happens in the Philippines (e.g. a natural disaster, etc)  my neighbors, colleagues at work, etc talk to me about it – it turned out that they had paid more attention to Philippine news because they knew me, a Filipino. It’s the same for me, also. For instance, if there is a heat wave in New York, I could not help but think of my friends who live there. So, why not think about an election that involves many of our friends and relatives in the US?

The elections do affect our relatives and friends in the US.  I don’t have exact figures, but I’m sure that a lot of Fil-Ams served and are serving in Iraq, and hundreds of FilAms have died or got injured during this war. So, the issue of whether or not the Iraq war continues is concrete for Fil-Ams.

US economic policies affect the Philippines.
The Philippine economy is very much affected with what happens in the US. The US dollar drops in value vis-a-vis the peso, and Filipino exporters feel it in declining sales. If the next US president clamps down on the trend to outsourcing, the entire call center industry will have a problem. And of course, if the US limits the hiring of foreign nurses; many people in the Philippines will be affected.

But whom should we cheer for?

As with most things, it depends.

McCain wants to keep the US in Iraq till well into the future. If McCain wins, more FilAms will die in that war.
But on the other hand – McCain is an ardent believer in open markets and free trade. I don’t expect him to want to cut down on outsourcing or hiring foreign nurses.

Both Obama and Clinton want to get the troops out of Iraq. I am inclined to think this is a good idea, and not only because of FilAm lives which this would save.
At the same time, they are both making protectionist noises. This is disturbing, especially if the Philippine economy will likely suffer from the US shutting doors to the world.

In terms of choosing between Obama and Clinton, I think the choice is a matter of taste. Clinton is “the devil you know”, in the sense that though she may not sound too inspiring, we know that she will manage the country reasonably well. Also, her life has been too public for too long – so I don’t think she is prone to having nasty scandals when she becomes president.

Obama, however, is “the devil you don’t know”. While there is a chance that he will remain clean, and manage the country well; there is nothing to really hold on to regarding this man.  For all we know, Obama has  closets full of skeletons. He is a “loose cannon”- we don’t know what he stands for, except that he says he will change things. Really.
However, as an “athlete” in  this spectator sport – Obama is great. He makes good television.

It could be useful to try to compare the US candidates with Philippine presidents.

Obama reminds me of Magsaysay. Both had a privileged upbringing, but  succeeded in repackaging themselves as being one with the “common man”. Magsaysay was a great speaker; but as president, he pursued policies that only made things more difficult for his successors (e.g. his mass transfer of Central Luzon farmers to Mindanao). And Magsaysay had a lot of corruption scandals (which were not exposed, because he died before opponents had a chance to do so).

Clinton for me, would be Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Both are members of the political elite, with links to former presidents who did well in their times. (Bill Clinton, and Diosdado Macapagal were good presidents). Both opt for technocratic, in-system solutions for the country’s problems. And if you ask me, I don’t think they would be judged as bad presidents, when everything is over.

As for McCain, his Philippine counterpart has to be Marcos. Both lay claim to being some kind of military hero; but didn’t spend too much time in the military. Their political message is generally based in the past; of wanting to make the country great again.  Both of them wanted to be president enough to be tempted to change political party – which incidentally, Marcos did (from Liberal to Nacionalista) .  Both opted for the military solution to the country’s problems (Marcos’ declared Martial Law, McCain supported the Bush Iraq policy) One big difference (maybe) is that McCain is not really corrupt, while Marcos beat all records re this.

So, if you were to cheer for a candidate, which one would you choose: Marcos, GMA or Magsaysay?

Posted in World Affairs | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

CPP-NPA helps maintain status quo in Philippines

Posted by butalidnl on 1 April 2008

The CPP-NPA is supposed to be working to overthrow not only the present government, but also the entire ruling system, and replace it with a peoples democratic state (or something like that), which will eventually lead to socialism. Thus, it is against foreign control of the economy, the power of the landlord-dominated elite, and corruption in government; and as such should be the No. 1 enemy of the present ruling elite. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your political leanings), the CPP-NPA is not very effective in doing its work of destabilizing the Philippine political system. It very much seems to be doing the exact opposite – that of helping to stabilize the country’s political system.

What do I mean? Well, for starters, the present government treats the CPP-NPA more as a nuisance than as a threat. It doesn’t even bother to try negotiating peace with it. Why should it? It’s activities are hardly destabilizing, hardly even annoying. NPA local attacks are just that – local – and it has no national, or even provincial significance. But it is not only their negligible impact that leads one to conclude that they are a not a force of instability.

Let us look at some of the reasons for concluding that the CPP-NPA is helping to maintaining the status quo in the Philippines.

It serves as an outlet for disgruntled people.
Since the CPP-NPA still is able to recruit disgruntled people, many of them intellectuals; it effectively removes them from the “agitated masses”. When the CPP-NPA actually led massive demonstrations, etc. such as in the Marcos period, these disgruntled intellectuals’ energies were directed towards the “masses” – they led demonstrations, influenced the media, etc. Nowadays, with the CPP-NPA a marginal force, the withdrawal of these people from the mainstream actually reduces the overall temperature (or “average agitation”) of the mainstream, effectively cooling things down.

The CPP-NPA disrupts the work of grassroots NGOs and peoples organizations which are not affiliated with it.
In its attempt to be the leading force of the opposition, the CPP-NPA attacks the grassroots work of groups it consider to be its rivals – and sometimes quite literally, by murdering their local organizers. This effectively weakens the overall impact of the work of opposition groups locally and nationally.

Their goals are more modest than what the people want and can get.
The CPP-NPA’s specific goals are often less radical than what the people want or can achieve. A good example of this is in the case of land reform: in Central Luzon, agrarian reform activists together with pro-reform officials at DAR were able to negotiate with landowners to a crop division of 75-25 (i.e. 75% for the farmer, 25% for the landowner). This compares favorably when compared to the NPA’s aim of “terciong baliktad” which means 2/3 – 1/3 division (and thus giving the farmer only 67%) of the harvest.

Its opposition to mining in the Philippines is clearly less advanced than that of the Catholic Bishops. The bishops oppose mining throughout the country, while the CPP-NPA is only against certain mining companies. One might even suspect that they are opposed to those firms who refuse to pay the CPP-NPA “taxes”.

Their agenda is watered down as a result of their presence in Congress.
The CPP-NPA is present in Congress through its front parties e.g. Bayan Muna, Gabriela, Anakpawis. But instead of using their position to undermine the ruling system, they often help to protect it. Take for instance their opposition to the reduction of “pork barrel” allocations. The CPP-NPA benefits from pork barrel allocations either directly (through projects in their base areas) and indirectly (through kickbacks). They don’t want their lucrative source of funds to dry up!

During elections, they behave more like trapos.
During elections, the CPP-NPA do their best to make the maximum financial gain. Foremost is their policy of charging campaigning fees for candidates who want to campaign in their areas. This usually results in the traditional politico having campaigning access to these areas, while the more idealistic (and less rich) candidates or parties not gaining access.

Going beyond the campaigning fees, the CPP-NPA also makes all sorts of alliances with traditional politicians, which often extend beyond the campaign period. Thus, we would see alliances with landlords and the NPA against farmers groups.

All in all, I cannot help but conclude that the CPP-NPA is no longer the radical group that is determined to bring down the corrupt Philippine political system. Those wanting radical change would need to find other ways of doing so.

Posted in NDF, Philippine politics, Philippines, politics | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »