24. Parting Shots

  1. 01. Giving It Away
  2. 02. Mind Games
  3. 03. Customer Service
  4. 04. Getting Down to Business
  5. 05. …And Not a Drop to Drink
  6. 06. The Commission
  7. 07. Service!
  8. 08. Instant Celebrity
  9. 09. The Pinoy Diet
  10. 10. Life As We Know It
  11. 11. Doctors’ Borders
  12. 12. Poor, Poorer, Poorest
  13. 13. Half Empty
  14. 14. Me and My Leg
  15. 15. Always Be With You
  16. 16. Going Underground
  17. 17. Decisions, Decisions
  18. 18. I Shall Depart
  19. 19. A Volcano within a Volcano
  20. 20. A Nod and a Smile
  21. 21. Not Fighting City Hall
  22. 22. Stasis in Places
  23. 23. Fond Farewells
  24. 24. Parting Shots

[This is the final tantrum in the series Smiling Kodiak Volunteers]

It has been six months since I left the Philippines, so it is high time I wrapped up this series, Smiling Kodiak Volunteers. In fairness to myself, I arrived home only two months ago, after gallivanting around the planet for a while.  Life is just starting to get back to “normal”, whatever that is. I have struggled to get my thoughts and feelings in harmony regarding the volunteering experience, which signals that there is something profound in there – if only I can find it.

The Philippines faces enormous problems, problems that will take generations to address. Foreign volunteers will be, at best, a microscopic part of any solution.  The Filipinos are very much aware of this. From time to time over our assignment, I could detect frustration and perhaps even a little resentment arising from our contribution as foreign volunteers, particularly from movement leaders. That is fair enough – we fly in with grand recipes, then fly out leaving things half-baked.  The simple reality is that in the long run, only the Filipinos can fix the Philippines.

 

 

There is much promise in the Philippines. Neighboring East Asia boasts a string of wealthy, prosperous countries — South Korea, Japan, Taiwan.   All are crowded, sea-faring nations, all enjoyed and suffered the same American influences since World War II. Those nations have less in the way of resources than the Philippines. I keep asking myself “What went wrong in the Philippines?” Why is poverty so endemic?  Pollution so pervasive? Corruption so rampant?

One distinguishing factor is, of course, the Catholic Church, which has been running the Philippines for about four hundred years now.  The prevalence of large, impoverished families is no coincidence.  Regardless of one’s beliefs, there can be no doubt the church’s teachings on abortion and birth control have played a significant role in creating unmanaged population growth.

It isn’t that simple, though. On the other side of the ledger, the church has made many significant, positive contributions, particularly in schools and hospitals. Recently, the church is one of the loudest voices protesting Duterte’s ongoing extrajudicial massacres.  It is not fair to lay all the problems of the Philippines at the feet of the church.

Emigration is a big problem. Many of the best and the brightest leave. They are urged to leave by friends and family so they can send money back. Remittances from overseas Filipino workers (OFW) is the country’s largest source of income, “vital to sustaining growth”, so one reads in the newspapers. This fails to take into account the debilitating effect of generations of skilled workers leaving the moment they have established their skills.

Recently in the USA, the idea has popped up of changing its immigration system to be less focused on family relations and more focused on skills. The UK, Canada, and Australia already take this approach, amongst many other countries. In fact, I was a skills-based immigrant in Australia twenty years ago.

Until recently, I had rather extreme pro-immigration views: Anybody that wants to come here, should be able to come here, I thought.

My time in the Philippines changed that. There is something criminal about the rich nations of the world luring away the skilled and useful from the poor countries of the world. Moreover, there’s something just plain stupid about it as well.  The poor countries will only become less poor – and therefore less threatening from terrorism and refugees – if they can retain the skilled and useful to improve their economies. Skills-based immigration almost guarantees a growing gap between the rich and poor countries, and with that, global conflict. In the long run, the rich nations will be better served by encouraging the skilled to stay put.

Since leaving, there are two questions I frequently get asked.

The first question is “Did you enjoy the experience?”

The answer is a resounding “No.” There are many reasons; most I have covered in gruesome detail in the previous tantrums of this series. The foremost reason was the leg injury, which will nag me for the rest of my life. Not far behind was the environment of Metro Manila, which is an assault on the senses: polluted, loud and crowded, with emphasis on unbreathable air, filthy streets, and no open space. In combination, these things, in the space of nine months, left me feeling ten years older than the day I arrived.

The second question is “Are you glad you did it?”

Oddly enough, the answer is an unqualified “Yes.” It may sound corny, but it has made me really appreciate how lucky I am.  I thought I knew how lucky I was, but now I have a much deeper, visceral understanding of it – and how little I have done to deserve it.

It is not only the material things, or the abundant food I enjoy daily. It is breathable air, drinkable tap water, walkable streets, and swimmable shores. Most of all, it is freedom from fear: fear of disease, accident, crime, government — the list is endless. Four months out of Manila, each time I ride my bicycle, or see a wide green lawn of a public park, or breath the fresh ocean air, I have a physical reaction of gratitude, right in my gut.

Last week a neighbor cornered me on the footpath. After a homely “Welcome back!”, she thrust in front of me a petition demanding ourlocal council establish more neighborhood parking restrictions. She explained she suffered an ongoing injustice from non-locals parking in “my space”, on the street in front of her house. This, apparently, was the biggest problem she had in life.

I could not control myself. I burst out laughing, right in her face. Seeing she was understandably insulted, I tried to explain. “In Boston, when the winter snow filled the streets, I would spend hours looking for a parking space.” She failed to see the relevance.

“And I got just got back from Manila,” I tried to continue, “where…where…”

I couldn’t help it. I started laughing again.

I don’t think she will be asking me to sign another petition anytime soon.

I hope my appreciation lasts a lifetime. Even if it fades over the coming days, it was worth it.

The volunteer experience has had other unexpected benefits – I suspect some I don’t recognize yet. One that I do recognize is that we threw out or gave away a lot of stuff prior to putting our lives in storage for a year. That is a very healthy exercise. Our once-cramped house is now spacious. Things at home are so orderly we can rent the place on AirBnB without going to much trouble. As I write this, a pleasant family from China is in there. This income source may make future travel much more affordable.

Way back in my first tantrum of this series I wrote “The truth is that I don’t expect to accomplish much. …my intention to have a blast getting to know the Philippines, its people and culture. For me, this is about adventure, new experiences and challenging assumptions.”

I cannot say I had “a blast”. I did fulfil my expectation to accomplish not much. I certainly got to know the Philippines, its people and culture. And it was quite an adventure with new experiences, challenging assumptions. I reckon I checked eight of nine boxes.

There’s a third question, which nobody asks except me: “Would I go back?”

That’s a toughie. I like to think that in the right circumstances – if the stars all aligned, if there were specific, actionable tasks to be performed in a short and finite period – I would go back.  That may or may not be true, I really don’t know. It is a moot issue, I think. The stars are most unlikely to so align.

 

I still wonder whether my assignment was “worth it” in the view of the bureaucrats that arranged it, or the taxpayers that paid for it. From the outset, the bureaucrats made it clear, we were not expected to accomplish everything our assignment descriptions said we would try to accomplish. That paperwork merely justified the money, it seemed. In the private sector, we call that “misleading”.  In the public sector it is called “aspirational”.

In the end, we filed reports saying we did what we set out to do. This was true, even though it was not what we wrote we would try to do. In this way, government bureaucrats can fulfil their statutory obligation to remain rigorously inscrutable.

In my view, everyone involved, including the taxpayers, got tremendous value from the assignment, even if it wasn’t what they signed up for. From what I’ve seen, this is true of every capacity-building volunteer assignment. The capacity built is the volunteer’s. The volunteer brings home a profound understanding that nobody has a birthright to increased riches and luxury. To sustain and improve what we have, success depends on understanding how extraordinary it is in the first place.

Go ahead, you try to come up with “SMART KPI’s”[1] to sell them outputs to the taxpayer. I submit that there is nothing the taxpayers need more. Here’s why:

The Philippines is poor, polluted, and corrupt. With a reasonably developed economy, sporadically functional democracy, and heightened environmental awareness, they are smack dab midway  on the global development scale.  Many nations are working hard to become more like the Philippines.

Amazingly, it is not just the poorer nations! It seems the USA, in particular, is hell bent on sabotaging its democracy, decimating its economy, and destroying its environment. If global osmosis means the nations of the world eventually reach economic, political, environmental and social equilibrium, this world is going to be a lot like the Philippines is right now.

Arguably, the Philippines is our future.

SK

[1] specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound key performance indicators