Time, Talent, Treasure: Revisiting Developmental Partnerships Between the Philippines and the USA

Time, Talent, Treasure: Revisiting Developmental Partnerships Between the Philippines and the USA

Out of acts of goodwill came the perpetuation of the long standing stereotypical images of the prosperous and the impoverished. There is no doubt that the development sector has played a significant role in the world today, especially as globalization has brought countries closer together to collaborate on programs that benefit the most vulnerable in society. These partnerships include volunteer programs that seek to engage willing individuals or groups to join short-term missions for intervention in key focus areas such as health, infrastructure, and environmental management to name a few. On a larger scale, partnerships for development are forged through foreign aid given by one country to another, often from high income to middle and low income countries.

These approaches to development in contemporary times are surfacing some critical problems that exacerbate poverty in beneficiary countries. Although partnerships can be mutually beneficial for both countries, genuine emancipation from these barriers to development becomes more difficult for the recipients to overcome.

The partnership between the United States and the Philippines is one of the longest standing and most strategic alliances formed in modern history. Philippine public opinion of the United States is generally positive with 90% of Filipinos viewing US influences as positive. This was confirmed by the BBC Country Rating Poll held in 2011.

But with this positive view of the US-Philippine Relationship is the responsibility of both nations to ensure that the programs that they implement together are mutually beneficial to both parties. However, despite the seeming benevolence and altruism by the US to the Philippines, questions have been raised as to the ethics of the relationship between these two countries.

On smaller scale commitments, there seems to be a growing trend of American volunteers sharing their time in the Philippines to do what is often seen as an act of compassion. While we do not question the genuineness of their good intentions, there are issues which need to be raised with regard to its effectiveness and the kind of relationship it is forging between the two countries, particularly between its people. Do American volunteer programs actually seek to engage the poor that they interact with in developing lasting solutions to social problems or do they promote a culture of dependence on aid? On the other side of the coin, to what degree are groups in the Philippines which partner with volunteer organizations keeping vulnerable groups in poverty such that the “attraction” would always be there to keep up with demand?

On larger scale programs and engagements, has the Philippine government, whether consciously or not, put its former colonial masters at the center of its priorities over its own people? Have aid programs been designed to fit American solutions for Filipino problems?

                Considering the amount of material and non-material investments pumped into these programs, it is important to re-examine the kind of impact and the quality of relationships it builds between these two nations. 

American volunteerism in the Philippines

Volunteer travel is slowly becoming a trend in the tourism sector. Although it is a largely European concept, “voluntourism” has successfully found its niche in the United States tourism market. This ultimately led to Asian countries, including the Philippines, to open various communities and even the most obscure parts of the country to short-term mission trips. Although it has not reached its tipping point yet, various non-profit organizations in the Philippines have started receiving foreign volunteers through various organizations such as Up With The People, AIESEC, The Peace Corps and different faith-based and youth groups. Some are individual tourists who come to the Philippines for a holiday and heard of opportunities from locals to be involved in some form of outreach program. Some are university students who hope to apply themselves in the real world through community services.

While contributions by these groups to volunteer mobilization are highly appreciated, the goal of their visits to such countries and the activities that they are tasked to perform are not responsive to the needs on the ground. Although there are positive motivations for these volunteers to serve poor communities and “give back” to society, the negative effect of these activities could not be unseen. Often, these programs are cookie-cutter type of activities that are designed around the interests of the volunteers. Never mind that the paint on the walls of homes in relocation sites are almost an inch thick, for as long as the volunteers feel good about what they have accomplished, the objectives of their visit have been met – or so they think.

In the United States of America, it is not uncommon that young people are reminded that they are “blessed” to live in the land of plenty and of opportunity. They are also painted the image of developing countries as destitute and less fortunate that they were. At a very young age children are taught to see things at face value, in other words, “those poor people over there,” rather than to critically look at the situation, systems, and environments which have hindered development. The sense of responsibility and obligation is strongly engrained into the American culture that it is no wonder that many easily get lost in it. There is no lack of compassion, but it is that sympathy which drives the “savior” or “hero” complex which many short term volunteers have been disillusioned with.

In seeking an alternative to the traditional vacation, many Americans have sought out the opportunity for sincere interaction with local people in the Philippines. They also genuinely want to be of service to others while having a good time – after all, it is a vacation. Good intentions for a short period of time will leave a volunteer feeling proud that a good deed has been done and perhaps that the CV is a bit more attractive to universities and employers, but it is not enough; surely not for the so-called beneficiaries. In fact, it is simply egotistical and arrogant.

Community development is never an overnight process but a long-term commitment towards improving the quality of life. But the way that these groups have advertised such programs reduces it into a benevolent and altruistic form of leisure. With a simple search through Youtube or their websites, it would not take long to encounter videos of these volunteers “making an impact” in an urban poor community in Metro Manila while running after kids or giving them piggy back rides, or maybe planting Mangroves along the long coastlines in Batangas. A weeklong visit to a community gives volunteers the impression that they are already saving the world and making a huge dent in the fight against poverty. One could wonder if there truly is justice in such form of activities.  

In the Philippines, schools often fall victim to generous deeds of American voluntourists. Part of the agenda might include helping out at a local school. Instruction is interrupted when new groups of volunteers are introduced to the pupils and as welcoming hosts, short programs have been developed to highlight the school and its students. What the volunteers see is that particular block of time – their week of volunteering. But, what they don’t see is that it all happens again next week with a new set of volunteers. The volunteers will help to tutor, plant school gardens, and other activities. This volatility of new people constantly being introduced to children’s lives, quick attachment, and eventually having to say good bye is not necessarily beneficial for the development of the child, especially if one develops a friendship with a particular volunteer.

Acknowledging there is a market for generosity, several groups have taken advantage of the good intentions by turning them into a commodity. What these voluntourism organizations are inadvertently teaching those volunteers is that they are in a superior position than those who they are intending to help. When they go on volunteer vacations, these people with good intentions only see the beneficiaries in their most vulnerable state. On the contrary, those who are being “served” will always see the volunteers in their most chivalrous moments. This only hardens the longstanding mutual stereotypes of each other. When it comes to sustainability, this kind of undignified relationship is not based on mutual understanding and partnership.  

This is not to say that these programs have to stop, but inevitably, the paradigm in which these activities have been carried out or the pedagogy behind the experience must be reviewed. It is commendable that there are people who would share their time and talent to the betterment of the Philippines, rather than paying off residual colonial guilt. It is also needed that people are inclined to get involved in the environments and situations of the “other.”

It is more important and more urgent, however, to find sustainable solutions for both stakeholders. Both the United States and the Philippines have to promote responsible volunteer tourism that does not diminish the capacity of communities to handle their own development. While it would take more time, dedication, and coordination, a two way exchange opportunity promotes fairness and additional opportunities to learn about each other. It is essential to have substantial preparation for volunteer groups which critically examines the history, context, structures and systems which have caused and prolong impoverished conditions. And, there is need to seriously answering the question of what happens when volunteers return to the United States.

Too often volunteers return to the comfort of their homes and lives in the USA having tucked away the memories of their experience in a photo album never having to think that the choices and behavior are intrinsically connected to the life and wellbeing of those whom they have just “served.” For those involved with volunteer tourism, it should be stressed that their good will and time in the Philippines should not be compartmentalized, but to be put to good use by looking at the context, structures and systems in the USA which propagates poverty in the Philippines.

Even more so than that, however, it is imperative that the United States and the Philippines promote responsible volunteer tourism that does not diminish the capacity of communities to handle their own development.  

Development Aid

The United States of America and the Republic of the Philippines has fostered strong relationships cultivated by their deep historical ties. Long after the end of American rule, it has been evident that their presence is a fixture in the Philippine political landscape. In fact, over the span of five years, the USA has been one of the largest contributors of official development assistance to the Philippines, invested US$ 318 million in the last year. Majority of foreign aid spent comes from the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a bilateral foreign aid agency that “provides development assistance that reduces extreme poverty through economic growth and strengthens good governance, economic freedom, and investments in people”. Development assistance disbursed through the MCC is intended to supplement aid given through the United States Agency for International Development.

Although much of the relations between the USA and the Philippines’ relations in terms of mutual support are heavily focused on looking into military relations, discussions about the effectiveness of aid programs in addressing poverty-related interventions need to be given equal attention. Despite the sizable contribution of the USA, one could argue on the effectiveness of aid in promoting long-term development in the country. Have American interventions such as aid weakened the capability of institutions in the Philippines to carry out reform programs that largely benefit its populace?

Macroeconomic reforms have been at the forefront of the Aquino administration’s agenda. The Philippine Development Plan is focused on achieving inclusive economic growth through the creation of jobs, strengthening of the service sector, and increasing foreign direct investment into the economy. While such goals are laudable, and the United States’ support in the government’s strategic objectives injects much needed capital into the realization of such programs, the negative effects of aid could not be ignored.

In achieving broad-based economic growth in the Philippines, one could wonder how many of these aid programs and their presumed goals affect those at the bottom of the pyramid. $120,000,000, for example, of the Millennium Challenge Account’s aid to the country is disbursed through KALAHI-CIDSS, a community-based development driven program that aims to enhance local infrastructure, governance, participation, and social cohesion, the measures of its effectiveness has yet to be measured. In fact, in some provinces in Mindanao where there are high levels of insurgent activities, such programs have been subject to sabotage.

In a 2012 study by Crost, Felter and Johnston, it was seen that even at the start of the social preparation phase, there is already much resistance from groups such as the New People’s Army and Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Municipalities that have been rendered eligible to receive such aid have recorded casualties related to the program. This could be attributed to the competition among potential recipients. The fact that high amounts of aid could pour into the development of communities could increase tensions among competing municipalities. Furthermore, if aid programs could possibly weaken the insurgent group’s clout in a certain region, it gives them a reason to incapacitate the implementers.

Aside from the violence that could emerge from such programs, the implications of aid in the drive towards sustainable development should be discussed. The consideration for local and indigenous cultures must be examined. Development trends, especially those imposed by other societies, could impinge on the values promulgated by different local groups. Furthermore, their way of life, often seen as backward and irrelevant against the tide of modernization, is complicated by these external factors. So instead of promoting justice, the development practices introduced by well-meaning groups actually degrade and distort the values system and traditions once strongly upheld by these tribes, and without proper legislative protection, they are easily marginalized from mainstream Philippine society.

Dependence on aid also significantly reduces institutional capabilities to carry out programs that are responsive to real, expressed local needs. Institutions that are tasked to monitor and implement the development objectives of the government are prioritizing palliative solutions such as the conditional cash transfer program and over-extended humanitarian programs for typhoon relief instead of longer term interventions that could truly bring people out of poverty. Inasmuch as these are needed, these are already bringing forward problems that surface corruption. There have been reports, for example, that election campaigns in the Philippines have converted donated items by the USAID into campaign materials for politicians. Some have been repackaged and reused by those seeking re-election to show their commitment to the welfare of typhoon victims. In some storage houses, sacks upon sacks of rice are piled up and remain undistributed. This being said, the real goal of human development, which is to enable people to have wider choices by improving the quality of life, is defeated. 

Bringing these problems forward, however, does not mean that development aid has to stop at once. But its structure and trajectories have to be reconsidered. The Philippines, being a strategic ally of the United States in the Asia-Pacific, should not remain aid-dependent forever. Just as development seeks to free humans from being prisoners of social injustice over time, aid programs should be designed to make countries less dependent on external funding for its internal needs. In building its relationship with the Philippines, the United States should allow it to define its development agenda according to the current state of its populace and its readiness to accept technologies and practices. The Philippine government should be thinking less of “will the United States give us support for this program” and more of “will our people be freed from chronic poverty through this initiative”. The United States, on the other hand, must look at the quality of the impact of its programs and partnerships. If their approach continues to perpetuate poverty in all its forms and brings more harm than good, then they must reconsider the way these programs are implemented. After all, the return on investment on aid is not merely in terms of economic gains that both countries can reap from such partnerships but in the positive change that it brings to their formal and informal institutions.

International aid programs and volunteer tourism have its roots in charity and genuinely building good will between the Philippines and the United States.  However, acts of charity are only temporary fixes to surface level challenges between unequal partners. True development of both countries is not simply pumping financial resources to boost a partner economy to protect the interest of one.  It is much deeper, involving the radical change of how relationships between peoples, systems, structures, and countries view, understand and interact with each other.  Perhaps there is still hope to finally break the proscribed stereotypes where one forever plays the role of a damsel in distress and the other a knight in shining armour.  Only then will we be able to create a truly genuine and mutual development partnership between the two countries.




Name: Jeanne Carmel PUERTOLLANO

University: De La Salle University

Program: MA Development Policy

Nationality: Philippines


Name: Christopher Derige MALANO

University: St. John’s University

Program: MA Global Development & Social Justice

Nationality: United States of America

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