Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Remittances: More than the Dollar

I received this article in my e-mail from the Metro DC based Migrant Heritage Commission. I think it is worth a thought, and more.



When people talk about remittances, most Filipinos will perhaps think about the dollars their overseas brethrens send regularly. That’s an extremely restricted and limiting perspective, according to a recent paper by the Migrant Policy Institute (MPI).

“Whether we see remittances as a development panacea or as a way for states to shift responsibility for solving structural problems to migrants, economics is not the whole story,” wrote the paper’s authors – Peggy Levitt of Wellesley College and Harvard University, and Deepak Lamba-Nieves of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Center for the New Economy.

“Migrants from the developing world bring with them social remittances that shape their encounters with and integration into their host societies,” the pair pointed out.

More significantly, they stressed that migrants “also send back social remittances that promote and impede development in their countries of origin.”

This merely reinforces what many have observed as the richly multi-dimensional qualities of the modern Diaspora.

The authors lament the lack of studies on this aspect of international migration. It could hardly be a stretch to see at least some facets of the recent Philippine election linked to the historic ascension of America’s first African-American president and the message of hope and change that catapulted him to power.

Levitt herself coined the term “social remittances” in 2001 to call attention that dollars is not the only thing overseas workers and expats send home.

She focused on a village in the Dominican Republic and the Jamaica Plain neighborhood in Boston, MA.

She observed that there are at least four types of social remittances – norms, practices, identities and social capital.

Through over a decade of study, Levitt and later Lamba-Nieves, explained the three key concepts of social remittances – that they are circular in nature, they are inclusive and they influence development either by “scaling up to other levels of governance and scaling out to other domains of practices”.

“The ideas and experiences migrants bring with them strongly influence who and what they are exposed to and interact with in the countries where they settle. These circumstances then affect the social remittances migrants send back,” they noted.

They observed for instance, that “when Boca Canesteros (from Dominican Republic) recreated their baseball league in Boston, they not only came into contact with other immigrant and native-born players and fans, they also had to learn to negotiate the municipal park system and to secure permits for hosting fundraising events.”

In turn, the Boston-based Boca Canesteros’ influence in the Dominican Republic was manifested in the way they suddenly demanded that “builders and caterers there sign contracts and stick to deadlines the same way saw food and beverage suppliers are held accountable in the United States.”

With about 10 percent of the Philippine population living and working overseas – about four million of them in the US – it seems evident policy and decision-makers should explore the possibly pervasive effects of social remittances on the 90 percent who’ve stayed behind.

Modern amenities (cellphones, Facebook, Skype, etc.) tend to accelerate the pace of social remittances.

Taking into account a United Nations study that showed dollar remittances are primarily used to pay for basic needs (food, clothes, electricity, etc.), education and health – understanding social remittances could have commercial implications as well.

There are, of course, positive and negative outcomes from social remittances, the study (aptly titled “It’s Not Just About the Economy, Stupid”) pointed out.

That could come in the form of greater emphasis on health and fitness (such as the influence exerted by the Boca Canesteros).

It could also, as political scientist Luis Jimenez discovered in Mexico, “challenge people’s ideas about democracy and the rule of law.”

“Every time a street light went out or the garbage wasn’t collected, Gilberto visited City Hall,” the authors recounted because in the US “that what governments are supposed to do and that citizens should make sure that happens.”

They also observed how professionals and entrepreneurs from Pakistan and India “not only send back new technology and skills but ideas about conducting business. Working in the United States has emboldened some to take chance, think outside the box, and challenge a superior rather than deferring to him”.

Levitt and Lamba-Nieves point out, however, that social remittances help perpetuate the “culture of migration”. Moving, they say, becomes almost inevitable “because people are no longer satisfied by the economic and social opportunities their homelands offer.” Over decades of practice, it can be relegated to a “rite of passage” especially for the youth.

“Social remittances are an understudied, important piece of the migration-development nexus,” the authors wrote, “Their impact on immigrant incorporation and sending-community dynamics is not well understood…They are a potential resource and a potential constraint.”

Social remittances, we found, can be a fascinating subject – not only to better see how and why life back home is changing the way they do from the practices and ideas overseas Filipinos take back home, but also how their adopted countries are changing because of what Filipinos bring on the table.