Money from Pinoys abroad still short of spurring growth


SAN QUINTIN, PANGASINAN–THE spire on a Tudor-style mansion encircled by green rice reeds jutting from acres of land here points people to where money, real dollars, could be found: up.

The house belongs to Marietta Reyes who, like many of the 5,000 Filipinos in this fourth-class municipality, has flown in 300-seater jumbo jets that may or may not have passed the sky above it zooming outside Philippine borders.

Reyes and her family of four now live in Brussels, Belgium.

Their house is reputedly San Quintin’s tallest, residents here say. A walk through the poblacion (Spanish-era commercial center) offers guests a view of one- to two-storey concrete houses trying to outdo the Reyes’s.

San Quintin’s overseas Filipino workers who are in North America, Asia, and the Middle East are credited for these changes in their hometown. Ditto for the learning center in Labuan village on the hillsides of a mountain –“Quintinians” from eight countries raised the US$16,000 required for its construction.

San Quintin is a town of Marietta Reyeses: of many migrant workers. These images of migrant workers’ bounty at home are typical in Pangasinan province in the northern Philippine island group of Luzon.

It has been this way for more than a decade with hundreds of villagers leaving for work abroad and religiously sending home dollars after dollars.

Yet, despite the flow, the whole of Pangasinan’s 2003 poverty incidence of 18.6 percent has been slow in getting reduced compared to its neighbor Pampanga (6.0 percent), President Gloria Arroyo’s hometown, which over 125,226 residents have been overseas Filipinos since 1988.

According to government data, Pangasinan’s temporary contract workers and permanent residents abroad number to 111,029.

“There is no definite answer if international migration induces more poverty,” Ildefonso Bagasao of the Institute for Migration and Development Issues (IMDI) said recently. Studies of economists like Ernesto Pernia from the University of the Philippines and Alvin Ang of the University of Santo Tomas provided contrasting results as well.

“Having said that, our data could only show that in provinces with higher number of OFs, the poverty incidence has been decreasing,” Bagasao said, citing IMDI’s recent study on migrant philanthropy.

Building frenzy

THE LAST bamboo stick fell to the ground as hired carpenters begin construction of a concrete house for Reyes’s neighbor two blocks away. The project, they say, is funded by the eldest daughter working in Hong Kong.

Some of the workers just finished putting finishing touches on another house nearly a kilometer away. Soon both houses would provide stark contrasts of gray unpainted one-storey structures embraced by green rice paddies.

These concrete houses continue to mushroom here and replace many of the village’s nipa huts that stood until the late 1990s. During the late 1980s, for example, the land where Reyes’s three-storey now stands was of a bamboo hut.

The feverish construction is cited by Pernia as his basis for saying that international migration has lifted rural Philippines from abject poverty.

Pernia, who teaches economics at the University of the Philippines in Quezon City, also based his view by computing the impact of remittances on poverty alleviation and regional development.

Remittances, he said, have provided higher purchasing power per capita to the bottom 40 percent of Filipino households in the regions. Pernia’s computations also showed remittances raising consumer spending and investments in human capital and housing.

Such is why Filipino families, like Araceli Orante’s household, are happy with their economic bounty and their own marbled homes in San Quintin’s poblacion.

The Orantes lived long in San Diego, California, in the US and visit San Quintin at least six months every year.

They and other families of an estimated eight million Filipinos working and living temporarily or permanently abroad are credited for the second wind in the country’s real estate sector as well as tourism.

According to property broker CB Richard Ellis, the continuous “increase in OFW deployment supports prolong growth in demand for housing given the increase in disposable income”.

Frenzied building

BUT HAVE the dollars sent by Filipinos from abroad gone beyond their former farm-based families, spurring rural development?

Studies and anecdotal evidence provide affirmative bases.

Donations from Filipinos abroad supports IMDI’s findings this year on how these helped the top 20 provincial recipients via a government-backed program from 1990 to 2006.

Of these provinces, 13 posted lower poverty incidence levels than the national average. Apart from Pampanga and Pangasinan, provinces included in this list are Benguet, Batangas, Zambales, Cavite, Laguna, Bulacan, Nueva Ecija, La Union, Rizal, Davao del Sur, and Negros Occidental.

Still, other provinces have higher poverty incidence levels despite having received remittances and donations from migrant workers abroad, the IMDI study said.

“It remains a wonder if migrants’ remittances and donations have led to equitable development,” the study titled Development aid from ‘well-meaning’ amateurs: A scoping study on the status and prospects of Filipino migrant philanthropy wrote.

The juxtaposition alone of data on donations, number of overseas Filipinos per province, and poverty incidence levels “does not provide a clear trend” of certain links, the Institute said in its study.

But the Institute wrote that amid the continued flow of remittances and donations for overseas Filipinos, and the multiplier effects they provide in rural communities, these resources are going to places that do not have “any larger, coherent local development strategy”.

On the other hand, Ang’s 2006 study said remittances have “mixed influences” in terms of how these impact on economic growth in Philippine regions.

This situation, Ang adds, signals “that policies for a nurturing environment for regional growth remain lacking”.

He, however, doesn’t fault OFWs and their families for spending on basic needs and family investments such as housing, durables, and even education.

But when looking at the bigger picture, Ang said “remittances have yet to be translated to value-added activities and investments in the countryside.”

“Hence, the expected multiplier effects of remittances have remained slow, and unable to reach areas that need them the most,” Ang said.

Still, for many in San Quintin, the spire on the Tudor-style mansion of the Reyeses continues to spur them to gain a higher economic status. Hopefully, not only by looking up but also at the green rice stalks jutting from the ground and embracing the whole village of San Quintin.

OFW Journalism Consortium and the Yuchengco Media Fellows Program
University of San Francisco Center for the Pacific Rim