‘Localization’ and brain-drain in the Philippines (and elsewhere)

Posted on: June 2, 2017 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: Filipino Aid Workers

 ‘Localization’ and brain-drain in the Philippines (and elsewhere)

This is a followup post to one I wrote several weeks ago about what ‘localization’ means in the Filipino context.

Sobering to say, recent events in Manila and in Marawi are now testing the resiliency of Filipino culture and the mettle of the civil sector, including humanitarians. An even closer look at the response seems ever more urgent.  In the meantime, here are some further thoughts on ‘localization.’

The UK based Start Network defines the term ‘localization’ here as “a series of measures which different constituent parts of the international humanitarian system should adopt in order to re-balance the system more in favour of national actors, so that a re-calibrated system works to the relevant strengths of its constituent parts and enhances partnership approaches to humanitarian action.”  Their mission, in part, is to foster, “…a system that reduces the power of centralised institutions and bureaucrats and gives more control to communities and individuals on the front line of every crisis.” A ‘Grand Bargain‘ indeed.

I offer that perhaps the term should be not ‘localization’ but rather ‘re-localization’ or even ‘de-paternalizing’.  My point regarding ‘re-localization’ is that historically the Filipino culture -like all viable cultures- have many systems in place to insure appropriate response in times of crisis:  people pull together during disasters.  I discuss the sociological groundings for this observation here.  As for ‘de-paternalization’ I point to 400+ years of colonial and neocolonial influences that remain an integral part of the Filipino historical, sociocultural, political and economic landscape.

Getting into the weeds with regards to the Grand Bargain
Localization means building the capacity of local and national humanitarian aid and development entities, but these efforts are sometimes hampered by the fairly common phenomena of ‘cherry-picking’ the best and brightest local staff to work for INGO’s.  The Start Network looked at this phenomena and used the Philippines as a case study, arguing that recruitment and hiring practices of some INGO’s were undermining local capacity.

In the end their report makes sound recommendations.  In broad strokes I do think that ‘localization’ in the Philippines is (1) going in a positive and progressive direction and (2) can and should continue to proceed with all deliberate urgency.  Our survey data support these views (see the whole series of posts on this blog reviewing our data from Filipino aid and development workers).

But is there a negative side to ‘localization’?

A down side to ‘localization’?
In this hyper-globalizing world with fluid or non-existent economic boundaries, ‘brain drain’ is a significant issue.  This is true for all manner of sociopolitical entities, all the way from small villages to nations.  Any list of entities impacted by brain drain certainly includes local aid and development CBO’s and NGO’s in the Philippines and elsewhere.  Brain drain in the Philippines is significant, with 10% of the population living abroad (the highest percentage living in the US).  In looking at this issue much emphasis has been placed on the medical field for good reason.

Brains and talent may leave the Philippines but all is not lost, far from it.

Looking at data from the World Bank, we can see that globally remittances have almost doubled in the last decade going from US$330 billion in 2006 to US$601 billion in 2015.

“Of that amount, developing countries are estimated to receive about $441 billion, nearly three times the amount of official development assistance. The true size of remittances, including unrecorded flows through formal and informal channels, is believed to be significantly larger.” [emphasis added]

The Philippines is the world’s third top remittance receiving nation with nearly US$30 billion in 2015, behind only India and China.  This sum represents 10% of their total national GDP.

Though the Philippine Development Plan hopes to curb brain drain the fact remains that impact of Filipinos moving abroad to work is significant.  No one knows with certainty the amount of money flowing into the Philippines every year from remittances, but if indeed this figure dwarfs that of all development funds coming in (see above), one has to wonder if, in the end, brain drain may be a good thing after all.

The tragedy of the commons:  everyone is making rational decisions
But whether or not brain drain is good or bad may be a moot question.  Both people and organizations tend to make decisions based on their own self interest, and, to put a fine point on this, if I am a young, mobile, highly trained and skilled aid or development worker the most rational thing I can do is to seek out -or respond positively to- job offers from INGO’s, especially if they pay more.  For their part the INGO’s are responding to the very positive and progressive goal of having a diverse team employed that, well, are not all from the global north.  Making policy and practice suggestions like the Start Network has done is useful and necessary, but may not hit at the fundamental reality that the humanitarian sector is part of the larger global employment/economic system.

Final thought
Allowing for the open labor market to control the flow of workers -labor commodities- by an ‘invisible hand’ implicitly supports a neoliberal agenda.  The brain draining, capacity sucking, cherrypicking of skilled ‘local aid workers’ will continue, hampering the ‘localization’ of the aid and development sector in the Philippines and the rest of the global south.  This is so because most of us fail to acknowledge the elephant in the room that is the global economy which inexorably responds to the largely unquestioned system of free market capitalism.

Comments and questions?  Yes, reach me here.


Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised second edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishers

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