The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) is arguably the most inefficient agency under the Duterte administration. It is certainly among those that deliver the least service to the Filipino people.
For those unaware, the DFA’s mandate is composed of seven key components: to protect and defend national sovereignty; to contribute to national security; to assist in national development; to protect the rights of Filipinos abroad; to project a positive image of the country; to promote Filipino culture; and to forge mutually beneficial relations with other countries.
How does the DFA measure up?
In terms of protecting our sovereignty and ensuring national security, the DFA’s passive position towards China’s flagrant encroachment on the West Philippine Sea is a disservice to the citizenry and future generations of Filipinos. The fact that the DFA has not asserted our rights based on our victory in the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague leads many to believe that it is working for China’s interest. Its actions suggest that it is not opposing the encroacher, but abetting it. Worse, the manner by which it bends backwards to feed China’s interest is something I look at with trepidation. Abetting onerous loan availments, allowing Chinese people employment opportunities which could otherwise be given to Filipinos, and facilitating lucrative deals in telecommunication, transport and infrastructure seem dubious. In this aspect, I view the DFA as having undermined Filipino interest.
As far as its role in national development is concerned, unfortunately, the DFA is stuck in the 1980s paradigm of OFW-centered diplomacy. Even today, the primary purpose of our embassies abroad remains to be the protection of our OFWs. Nothing wrong with this — but it should not be the end-all-be-all of its existence. Our embassies should also be utilized to promote investments, trade and tourism. Doing so is what is called “economic diplomacy” and this is what our aggressive neighbors like Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia have been doing for years.
Sure, some of our embassies abroad have trade and commercial consuls — some even have tourism consuls. But let’s be honest, they are token positions, too few and defanged by minuscule budgets. In southern Europe, for instance, there is only one trade consul to facilitate trade and investments in Portugal as well as in France, Spain, Italy, Greece and the other Mediterranean countries. It is physically impossible for one person to cover such an enormous territory. No surprise, our intake of investments is minuscule and we suffer a trade deficit with most.
The DFA will argue that assigning commercial consuls is the responsibility of the Department of Trade and Industry. True, but I contend that the DFA must take the lead in economic diplomacy since our embassies abroad are funded by the DFA’s budget. Besides, doing so it part of its mandate.
So in the realm of national development, the DFA, to me, fails again.
As for promoting Filipino culture abroad, I have seen, first-hand, how our embassies try their best to initiate events to promote Philippine culture. Their efforts, however, are greatly constrained by lack of funds. It is a case of “A” for effort but “D” for impact.
In terms of fostering a good image abroad for the country, the DFA’s efforts have been reduced to killing public relations disasters, managing bad news, and contextualizing the politically incorrect statements of the President. In short, its efforts have been defensive, not proactive.
Back home, the DFA’s presence is strongest felt in passport processing. How does the DFA fair? The time it takes a citizen to secure an appointment is between 7 and 15 days. After completing the application process, one must wait another 7 to 14 days before the passport is delivered. Thailand, in contrast, allows its citizens to simply walk in for passport application and the same is delivered within 4-6 working days. The DFA’s performance is inferior to our neighbor to the west, though not by much. To be fair, it is a huge improvement to what it was some 10 years ago.
Nowhere is the DFA’s ineffectiveness more evident than in forging bilateral treaties to obtain visa-free entry for Filipino citizens in foreign lands.
According to the Global Passport Power Rank of 2019, the Philippines’ passport is at the 63rd position among 169 countries in terms of strength. The Philippine passport allows its holder visa-free entry to 34 countries, visa-on-arrival in 26 countries, but mandatory visa requirement for 128 countries.
For context, Singaporeans enjoy visa-free entry to 127 countries, visa-on-arrival in 39 countries, and visa required for 32 countries. The Philippine passport is of equal strength as those of Zambia and Cape Verde.
Countries in which Filipinos have the privilege of entering visa-free include: ASEAN, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Ivory Coast, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Fiji, Gambia, Haiti, Hong Kong, Israel, Macau, Micronesia, Mongolia, Morocco, Palestine, Peru, Rwanda, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, Suriname, Taiwan, and Vanuatu.
Aside, from ASEAN, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, none of those countries are frequented by Filipinos. Hence, they serve little purpose to the majority.
So, unfortunately, in this aspect too, the DFA fails yet again.
Admittedly, it is not easy to negotiate visa-free privileges, especially for a country like the Philippines. Several factors work against us. Among them is the sheer size of our population, relatively low per capita income, and the risk of overstaying, low human capital index (level of educations and skills), our political and geo-political conditions and threats of terrorism.
However, it is still within the power of the DFA to negotiate visa-free privileges by virtue of reciprocity, our newfound economic vitality, our status as founding member of ASEAN, and existing trade, diplomatic and defense treaties with counterpart countries. The bottom line is that the DFA must take the initiative.
The Philippines has existing free trade agreements with China, Japan, India, South Korea, New Zealand, United States, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. These countries are low hanging fruit for which the DFA can negotiate visa-free entry. All, except China and India, enjoy visa-free entry to the Philippines. Unfortunately, the rule of reciprocity has not been lobbied for by the DFA.
Filipinos who travel frequently to Europe, North America, Australia, and Japan have no choice but to go through the tiresome process of visa application each time. I am one of them. Fortunately, I have found a way to get around it. Obtaining dual citizenship and having a second stronger passport have worked for me.
Securing a second citizenship no longer takes five to ten years as it did before. Due to the financial crisis, certain countries have programs that award residency status in less than a year and citizenship within two years in exchange for investments. This is their way of infusing capital into their economies. The good news is that monies invested are not a sunken cost but remain in one’s asset portfolio, albeit parked in the country where citizenship is sought.
Many of the countries with citizenship programs have visa-free privileges to nations frequently visited by Filipinos. A list of these countries and how to apply for citizenship can be found in www.artoncapital.com and www.enterph.com.
Based on my research, three countries stand out as having the best inward immigration programs: Bulgaria, Montenegro, and Portugal.
Bulgaria is an excellent choice. As the newest member of the European Union, Bulgaria is hard-pressed for capital to fund its infrastructure and social development needs. Bulgaria offers one of the fastest immigration processing today with permanent residency granted in 6 to 12 months and citizenship in as fast as two years. Investment requirement is 511,000 euros in bonds, which can be financed for as low as 190,000 euros. Physical presence is not necessary, neither is an interview. Citizenship privileges even extend to children older than 18. Bulgaria has the world’s 11th strongest passport with visa-free entry to 116 countries and visa-on-arrival to 42 countries.
Portugal is my second choice. The Iberian nation has launched its immigration program following its financial crisis in 2010. The minimum investment requirement is among the lowest in the EU at only 350,000 euros. The applicant’s net worth is not looked into, neither is an interview necessary. Physical presence of the applicant is only required for 7 days out of the year and one can earn residency in 6 months and full citizenship in six years. As a resident, however, one gets access to the entire EU without a visa. Portugal enjoys visa-free entry to 124 countries and visa-on-arrival in 42 countries. The citizenship privilege extends to children under 18.
Montenegro is my third choice. As we all know, Montenegro is expected to be admitted to the EU by 2022. Montenegro is the fastest growing economy in Europe with terrific prospects in real estate and tourism. Permanent residency is granted upon application and investment of 350,000 euros (100,000 euros donation and 250,000 euros in real estate) or 450,000 euros in real estate. Citizenship is granted in as short as three months and this extends to children and dependents. Physical presence is not necessary. Citizens of Montenegro have visa-free entry to 77 countries and visa-on-arrival in 41 countries.
Note that aside from the investment required by each country, applicants must still pay for government permits and fees that range from 40,000 to 50,000 euros. Professional fees for facilitating agencies range from 10,000 to 65,000 euros, depending on the country and how fast you would like your citizenship processed.
Obviously, these options are suitable only for those with investable financial resources. The rest must rely on the DFA for their visa-free privileges.
It’s unfortunate that Filipinos have to apply for second citizenship just to enjoy visa-free entry to certain countries. The DFA has been remiss in serving the populace in this manner, among many others aspects. Perhaps if the Secretaries appointed to the DFA spent more time fulfilling their mandate and less time playing Malacañang’s politics and drinking its proverbial cool aide, maybe the DFA can serve the Filipino people better.
Andrew J. Masigan is an economist.