Archive for September, 2010

Toiling Far From Home for Philippine Dreams

September 19, 2010

MABINI, the Philippines — Mediterranean-inspired, pastel-colored houses dot the coast and hills of this rural town in the Philippines, dwarfing their traditional counterparts made of unpainted concrete blocks under roofs of corrugated zinc. The larger houses, barely inhabited, many of them empty, belong to overseas workers who plan to return here one day.

Despite their absence, the workers have contributed money to help build roads, schools, water grids and other infrastructure usually handled by local governments. They pay for annual fiestas that were traditionally financed by municipalities, churches and local businesses. Thanks to their help, Mabini became a “first class” municipality last year in a government ranking of towns nationwide, leaping from “third class.”

In one village nicknamed Little Italy, where a quarter of the 1,200 residents are working in Italy, the overseas workers paid 20 percent of the cost to construct a public hall.

“We couldn’t have finished it without the O.F.W.’s,” the village head, Raymundo Magsino, 64, said in an interview inside the building, referring to “overseas Filipino workers.”

Remittances, which the government says have been rising sharply — from $7.6 billion in 2003 to $17.3 billion in 2009 — now account for more than 10 percent of the Philippines’ gross domestic product. The payments are also the main factor driving the country’s recent economic growth, which would have otherwise remained stagnant.

But critics, including many overseas workers, say the government has developed an unhealthy dependence on the remittances, turning a blind eye to their social costs, especially divided families and the reliance on them to pay for services while failing to build a sound economy that produces good jobs at home.

About 15 percent of the 42,000 residents of Mabini, about 80 miles south of Manila, live overseas — typically working as maids, nurses or service workers — compared with an estimated national average of 10 percent.

One recent morning, Jocelyn Santia, 40, was packing her bags after two months of vacation here to return to her job as a housekeeper in Milan. She and her husband, who died six years ago, began working in Italy 20 years ago after being recruited by an employment agency.

Her grandparents and a brother raised her four children here, though the two eldest now attend college in Italy. Her sacrifice, she hoped, would yield good, white-collar jobs for her children. But with her departure — and yet another separation from her two younger children — looming before her, she expressed bitterness about having to leave her family.

“The economy is bad here, salaries are low,” she said. “It’s the fault of the government that so many Filipinos have to go abroad. If there were good jobs here, why would we ever think of going abroad?”

Nilo Villanueva, the mayor of Mabini, said he had often heard this criticism from overseas workers. Mr. Villanueva was elected in 2007 by campaigning in Italy and championing the interests of overseas workers. The mayor connected Little Italy to the water grid last year.

Yet, even as Mr. Villanueva has sought overseas workers’ investments in a feed mill and other projects, he said he worried about the town and country’s reliance on remittances. “Many people have become lazy now because they are overdependent on remittances,” he said.

He said the municipality not only counted on investment from its overseas workers, but also had become dependent on their earnings in less direct ways. Most overseas workers here, for example, send their children to private elementary schools, which have smaller class sizes and offer richer educational and extracurricular programs.

“They are helping the municipal government because we are spending less on public schools,” Mr. Villanueva said.

At the private Santa Fe Integrated School, which charges an annual tuition of $370, 80 percent of the 250 students are children of overseas workers. About half have both parents overseas and are being raised by relatives or housekeepers, said Louella D. de Leon, the principal.

Kate Michele Mendoza, 12, and her sister Christina, 8, are typical cases. With their parents working in Italy since Kate Michele’s birth, they live with their grandparents and two cousins, whose parents work in Oman. The parents return here once a year, staying one to two months.

“We go malling when they are here,” Kate Michele said.

Ms. de Leon said that while the children of overseas workers were better off financially, they lacked discipline and scored poorer grades than the children whose parents were present.

“The kids of O.F.W.’s have everything in terms of gadgets — the latest cellphones that you can’t even find in Manila — and they have bigger allowances than even the teachers,” Ms. de Leon said. “But they have an attitude. They are arrogant.”

“I don’t understand their parents,” she added. “They are working as maids in Italy and they hire maids here to take care of their own children. They value their money more than their families.”

The national government has highlighted the positive effects of the O.F.W. economy, calling the workers “heroes” and presenting awards for the model O.F.W. family of the year.

In an interview in Manila, Vivian F. Tornea, a director at the Department of Labor’s Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, said the benefits of the remittance economy far outweighed the costs. Ms. Tornea denied that the national and local governments had become dependent on remittances, saying that overseas workers’ contributions to building public infrastructure were simply “payback” because they did not pay income taxes.

“Just as we get assistance from other funding institutions, why can’t we accept from our own nationals who are willing and capable of giving something for their own community?” she asked.

While the government has welcomed the overseas workers’ remittances, it has done too little to ensure their long-term financial health, critics say. Atikha, a private organization here, provides financial literacy programs for overseas workers who, here in Mabini and elsewhere, tend to invest in houses and vehicles that remain unused for years.

Ella Cristina Gloriane, a personal finance adviser at Atikha, said overseas workers often incurred debts overseas to build their dream houses here. “That’s one reason why many of them can’t come home,” she said. “They have to keep working to repay their debts.”

In the Pulong Lupa neighborhood, about half of the houses belong to absent overseas workers. No one answered the doorbell at several houses, but a caretaker, Jovel Bonapos, 16, appeared at the gate of a large pink house.

The house, he said, belonged to a couple and their four children living in Italy. They visited only once every two years, staying up to two months each time. The house had four bedrooms and three bathrooms, and it is “completely furnished,” he said.

In a large house not too far away, Lorena Sawali-Baquillos, 37, lives with her three children while her husband works as a seaman. Ms. Sawali-Baquillos, who leads a small organization of O.F.W. families, said she understood the motivation behind building the Italian-style houses.

“Filipinos are stuck on status symbols,” she said. “After the sweat and tears of working in Europe for many years, they build a big house to show the fruits of their labor.”

“But it’s weird,” she added. “How can you enjoy your house if you can only see it in photos? The houses have huge beds, even though they may use them only a few weeks a year. They’re fully furnished with plasma televisions and ovens, but there’s no one to bake a cake.”


Cheap Lives

September 12, 2010

The New York Times Laments “A Sadly Wary Misunderstanding of Muslim-Americans.” But Really Is It “Sadly Wary” Or A “Misunderstanding” At All?

  • Martin Peretz
  • September 4, 2010 | 9:23 pm

Danger to Humanity

September 4, 2010
3 September 2010 Last updated at 23:41 GMT

Radical Islam is world’s greatest threat – Tony Blair

The Tony Blair BBC interview
Tony Blair has been making the rounds following the publication of his memoirs

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has described radical Islam as the greatest threat facing the world today.

He made the remark in a BBC interview marking the publication of his memoirs.

Mr Blair said radical Islamists believed that whatever was done in the name of their cause was justified – including the use of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

Mr Blair, who led Britain into war in Afghanistan and Iraq, denied that his own policies had fuelled radicalism.

Asked about the argument that Chechens, Kashmiris, Palestinians, Iraqis and Afghans were resisting foreign occupation, he said Western polices were designed to confront radical Islamists because they were “regressive, wicked and backward-looking”.

The aim of al-Qaeda in Iraq was “not to get American troops out of Baghdad [but] to destabilise a government the people of Iraq have voted for”, he told the BBC’s Owen Bennett Jones in a World Service interview.

‘Stronger will’

The former British leader – who now acts as the Middle East envoy for the international Quartet – said that Iran was one of the biggest state sponsors of radical Islam, and it was necessary to prevent it by any means from developing a nuclear weapon.

“We need to give a message to Iran that is very clear – that they cannot have nuclear weapons capability, and we will stop them,” he said.

Mr Blair said he was not advocating military action, but simply saying no option could be taken off the table.

Iran denies pursuing a nuclear weapons programme, and insists its atomic work is for civilian purposes.

Mr Blair told the BBC his view of foreign policy had changed as a result of the 9/11 attacks: “After 11 September, rightly or wrongly, I felt the calculus of risk had changed.

“There is the most enormous threat from the combination of this radical extreme movement and the fact that, if they could, they would use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

“You can’t take a risk with that happening.”

Mr Blair said he agonised over how to respond to radical Islam and still had doubts that he was right.

These are really difficult issues, he said, but added: “This extremism is so deep that in the end they have to know that they’re facing a stronger will than theirs.”

Mr Blair has also expressed optimism about the prospect of peace in the Middle East. Direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians began in Washington on Thursday.

Speaking in Dublin, on the prime-time entertainment programme The Late Late Show, Mr Blair said he believed the Middle East peace process was similar to Northern Ireland – and would be successful.

He said: “I feel it can be settled. You just have to carry on.”

There was a small anti-war protest outside the Dublin studio where the interview took place.

Mr Blair also told the Late Late Show that his successor as prime minister, Gordon Brown, remained a friend.

In his autobiography, Mr Blair said Mr Brown was “maddening”, had “zero” emotional intelligence and sought to frustrate key reforms.

However, Mr Blair said there were many things he admired about Mr Brown and would “probably” still go for a drink with him.