23 October 2016
Filipinos are beginning to return home in greater numbers, raising hopes that the brain drain that has stunted development in the Philippines is finally going into reverse. Photo: Internet
Filipinos are beginning to return home in greater numbers, raising hopes that the brain drain that has stunted development in the Philippines is finally going into reverse. Photo: Internet

Filipinos abroad returning home to better prospects

Improving conditions at home and weakening demand for imported labor in places like the Middle East have begun to reverse a Philippine brain drain.

Since the 1970s, Filipinos by the millions have left the country — many for jobs as domestic helpers, chauffeurs and construction workers, but also doctors, academics and tech professionals who saw no prospect of earning a good salary or achieving their career goals at home.

But the trend is finally turning, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Talented Filipinos once driven overseas by their country’s stagnation are beginning to return in greater numbers, raising hopes that the brain drain that has stunted development may finally be going into reverse.

Political stability and economic growth — averaging 6.2 percent between 2010 and 2015, second only to China’s among East Asia’s major economies — are changing perceptions among the Philippines’ diaspora.

Since reaching more than 10.4 million Filipinos living abroad in 2011 — a nearly 50 percent jump from 2005 — the number of Filipinos working abroad has gradually begun to fall, according to the Commission on Filipinos Overseas.

President Benigno Aquino III recently said the number of overseas Filipinos may be as low as 9.4 million, and cited the decline as one of his administration’s main achievements.

There is no data on how many white-collar Filipinos have returned, but the trend is visibly gathering pace, said Raphael Oriel, the editor of the Filipino-American magazine Balikbayan.

“A lot of people were turned off by the previous administration and all the stories of corruption—the country had an image crisis,” said Oriel, referring to the years before Aquino became president in 2010.

“But now a lot of these people are seeing the Philippines as somewhere they can seriously think about going back to.”

Brain gain

Paco Sandejas was at Stanford University in the 1990s when he founded the Brain Gain Network, a community of overseas Filipino technology professionals he hoped would work together to counter the so-called brain drain, or the emigration of highly qualified Filipinos.

We didn’t attract much interest” at the time, Sandejas said.

“Many just said, ‘Why would I want to do that? The Philippines is such a mess.’ But now the tide has turned, there are many people coming back.”

And some are coming back to establish startups or take senior executive roles at existing companies, bringing a new dynamism to the economy.

Today Sandejas runs Narra Venture Capital, one of several venture-capital firms in Manila’s nascent startup scene.

The Brain Gain Network, which connects Filipino expatriates with one another and with potential employers in the Philippines, has grown to 2,500 individuals.

John San Pedro didn’t set foot in the Philippines for 40 years after his family fled the turmoil of the Marcos dictatorship in the 1970s.

But in 2014 he gave up a successful information-technology career in the US to found a startup incubator, Incubix Technologies, in Manila.

“I realized something was really happening here,” he said.

Whether it continues may depend in part on the May 9 election for a successor to the term-limited Aquino. He delivered political stability and curbed graft during his six-year tenure, and consolidating those gains will be key to bringing back more of the experienced professionals the country needs, economists say.

“These are the entrepreneurs, the people who create jobs and stimulate the economy,” said Cielito Habito, who served as socioeconomic planning secretary in the 1990s.

Rising middle class

Patrick Cuartero launched Pylon Partners, an umbrella company for a range of business ventures, in 2014, three years after resettling in Manila to run Groupon’s Philippine operations.

Cuartero employs 60 people and has plans to rapidly expand his workforce to 400 as demand surges in the bar and restaurant sector, one of Pylon’s areas of interest, thanks to the increasing affluence of Manila’s middle class.

“If you are an entrepreneur, you can really make things happen here,” Cuartero said.

To be sure, thousands of Filipinos still leave the country every day.

In 2014 nearly half a million went abroad to take contract work, according to the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency, which links Filipino job seekers and foreign employers, while nearly a million more renewed existing contracts.

That doesn’t count those who go abroad outside the agency’s auspices.

Nearly four million jobs were created in the Philippines during President Aquino’s six years.

If the next administration can slash red tape for businesses and encourage domestic investment, it will persuade more entrepreneurs to return, and enable more workers to stay, said Ronald Mendoza, an economist at Ateneo de Manila University.

“Already some people are saying, [an overseas salary] is not enough to make it worth leaving my family,” said Mr. Mendoza. “That’s a good sign.”

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