Thursday, May 22, 2008

World Bank: from the outside coming in

Stan Grant introduced himself in a voice that reminded me of those gritty CNN reporters doing business in time of war. In fact, Stan was a former CNN reporter who recently joined the World Bank to do communications work. He used to cover the Asia-Pacific and most of the political hot spots in the world. I asked him why he left his exciting career for a less adrenalin-driven one at the Bank. It's because, he said, he wants to see and learn from the inside how the Bank works. “How about you?"

Tough question.

I joined the Bank about two weeks ago, the reason why I'm here in Washington DC. I'm on training. Some friends and colleagues who learned about my decision had mixed feelings. Ping G (my editor in chief) and Leah D (managing editor) at Entrepreneur magazine/Summit Media congratulated me. But there are those who gave a disconcerting, even hostile, reaction. It was as if I'd betrayed some unwritten code or sold my soul to the devil. “I always thought of you as a non-conformist who might get bored working for a rigid and formalistic organizations like the WB,” said another.

I answered Stan: “There are so many opportunities for learning new things; that really excites me. I had a glimpse of how the Bank works when I joined a team of researchers who did the social assessment of Mindanao in 2003 to help families displaced by the war recover their lives. Since then, I was wondering how interesting it would be to become part of a global institution that is doing lots of things in areas like poverty alleviation, governance reforms, infrastructure development, the environment, among other things.”

And indeed, there is so much of such learning opportunities here in Washington DC. There would be much more when I'm back in Manila.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Japan and the English language: a view from Washington DC

Seeing my country Japan from the distance, from here in Washington DC, I could see it as someone who is aging and tired, less aggressive, insular.” That comment came from my friend Nobu Saito, business journalist par excellence, who is based here in Washington DC. That really surprised me because I always knew Japan as a technology advanced country and a leading producer of electronic gadgets, cars, machines, and high tech.

That is just my opinion, anyway,” he said.

Nobu picked me up last week from my hotel, Windsor Inn, at 16th Street Washington DC, so we could have some catching up. Nobu and I became friends during the Jefferson Fellowship where we traveled through the US, China and India together with a dozen other journalists from the Asia-Pacific. This guy has a great sense humor, quick wit, and deep intelligence that could easily reveal through the fog of beer, red wine, and the spirited laughter.

If there's one country to watch, he says, that should be South Korea. It's high tech industries is conquering global markets and the young Koreans are going out into the world, into the United States, Australia, Europe and the Philippines to learn the English language and other things that the globalized world can offer. It's so aggressive, dynamic and innovative, says Nobu. “The Japanese people should do the same, should go out into the world.”

But the Japanese is still the leading producer of cars, photocopiers and leading edge technologies,” I countered.

Yeah, but you should take note that companies like Toyota, Canon and other big firms from Japan are no longer “Japanese,” he said. “They are now global companies,” he said, apparently implying that the identity of these firms are no longer linked to the Japanese flag.

I don't understand why companies or corporations should have definite national flag to look up to. It's the brave new world of globalization and the borders have become meaningless. But certainly, Nobu's take on the need to master the English language is something that resonates with me. Despite all the obvious economic and probably social benefits of learning English, there are still in our midsts those who think that going native, or going “Filipino” for “nationalistic” reasons” at the expense of English is the way to go. That probably explains why we can't seem to muster enough political and public will to bring our knowledge and use of the English language up to a higher level.

Well, that's just my opinion anyway—to use Nobu's words.

Thanks for that meeting, Nobu. I really appreciate our exchange of ideas!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The DC as Obama country?

If it's only Washington DC that determines the fate of America, Barack Obama should be president this coming American presidential elections. I don't know but most people I've met here are all crazy about the audacity of Obama's presidential hope. Obama T-shirts are selling like hotcakes. Or so it seems.

Over brunch, Mara, a DC-based journalist friend asked me how I think an Obama presidency would impact on the Philippines. And how Filipinos perceive him.

"I really think most Filipinos do not really care who sits at the White House," I answered. "Of course, Americans don't care what Filipinos think either. Obama or McCain or Hillary--America will always pursue her own 'national interest' and it would be good it that interest would converge also with our interest, whatever that is. But one thing is certain: Most Filipinos would always be pro-American for historical and many other reasons."

I added: "But in general, many Filipinos seem to like Obama, maybe because he looks cute, talks smoothly, and appears different from the typical American politician. Just like in the Philippines, people who want "change," whatever that means, would always vote for a politician who looks and talks quite differently from the usual, typical politician."

Yeah, we want a duck that doesn't quack like a duck.

Personally, I'm concerned that an Obama presidency would drift towards protectionism. That's would be bad for the trade-oriented Southeast Asia, given his tendency to pander to local protectionist passions. But I could be wrong. His anti-free trade and anti-outsourcing tirades are probably just political marketing, and its something that he cannot enforce anyway given that American businesses are able to maintain global competitiveness because of outsourcing.

But his foreign trade policy statements suggest that an Obama presidency would never be expected to lead the push for a global free trade deal the way Bill Clinton did,or tried, when he was at the White House. That would be bad for developing countries. But then again, neither Hillary nor McCain are probably inclined towards a new and better global trade deal. So let's see.

Hey Mara! Thanks for that really nice chat and brunch. Really love that we were able to catch up. And oh, Busboys and Poets [the restaurant] is really great. I enjoyed being there a lot! See you next year, my friend.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

End of domestication?

So the superstition is not true after all.

No one gave me any travel bag last December so I thought I was in for a life of total domestication in 2008. I really thought so when I won an electric flat iron during the company raffle. Nothing beats a flat iron as a symbol for domesticity, right?

Well, I was probably wrong because I'm now on a journey back to Washington DC to attend the World Bank communicators' forum. (I'm at PAL's Mabuhay Lounge, enjoying the free Wi-fi). I'm excited because it will a great opportunity for learning new things in the field of communications. Also, I'll probably be seeing some relatives and friends: Judith Kliks and David Pitts from the IVP [International Visitors Program, State Department] as well as Mara Lee and Nobuhiro Saito, all DC-based journalists, from the Jefferson Fellowship last Spring 2007.

Of course, I just love DC! I just can't get enough of its historical monuments, museums, huge public buildings, and wide open spaces for the public sphere. In May, the temperature there ranges from 11-21 degrees C, probably just like Baguio City. It's perfect for an occasional visitor like me. I'm not sure though if I would have the chance to go around.

So friends, wish me good luck!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Who's afraid of the "organization of rice exporters"?

Who’s afraid of Orec or the supposed “organization of rice exporting countries”? Well, importers including the Philippines seem to have been rattled by the news but the fact is that Orec is a dumb idea. We should better laugh it off. Why?

First, those countries on the Mekong like Thailand and Vietnam just cannot store rice forever. Unlike oil, rice deteriorates in just a few months of storage in the warehouse. And the Thais and the Vietnamese could eat only so much rice.

In fact, forming Orec is counterproductive for these rice exporters. When they hoard their own rice, local prices decline, thus hurting their own farmers. If they want to benefit from the current situation, it’s in their best interest to sell rice and not hoard it.

Besides their geographical advantage of having the Mekong River and extensive sources of irrigation water, the main incentive why farmers are producing more rice in these countries is the fact that they are able to sell in the global market place. There’s money in rice exports. Once their governments remove that incentive through export restraint, that incentive would be gone and farmers might just shift to other more profitable crops.

Forming that cartel would be tantamount to shooting themselves in the foot. The only real beneficiaries of Orec are the rats and bugs that will have an ample supply of rotting rice in Vietnamese and Thai warehouses.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Could we still achieve rice self-sufficiency?

“Now that the price of rice is increasing and our government is having a hard time securing enough imports, I think you should reconsider your position...” That’s one comment I recently got in reaction to my blog on rice self-sufficiency. My answer: my view hasn’t changed.

But first, allow me to highlight the good news. The news says rice prices are about to drop due the onset of the harvest season. This must be a dampener for those who are conjuring a Malthusian scenario lately. These guys just don’t understand the power of price signals!

Now back to the issue.

Could we really achieve “self-sufficiency” in rice? Could we really produce all the rice that we need? Some experts doubt it given geographical constraints and rapid population growth, but I say why not? If we could only have rapid adoption of high-yielding varieties, especially hybrids, we might yet lick the issue or address a critical part of it. About 60 percent of China’s rice fields are planted to hybrids (that’s according to SL Agritech); no wonder they are not losing sleep about the supposed “rice shortage.” Why can’t we do the same especially in irrigated areas?

But how do you promote hybrids or even just high-yielding open pollinated varieties? It’s not through government seeds subsidy that will only be dissipated in corruption. The money is better spent on irrigation and other rural infrastructure. If there’s one disincentive to agricultural productivity, it’s the lack of adequate farm infra.

The way government is subsidizing certified seeds is one sure way of destroying the seed industry that is crucial in agricultural growth. Why? It’s because when government dangles the money, some unscrupulous rice seeds suppliers who simply want a fast buck come in, many of them selling low quality seeds (low germination). The farmers naturally get burned and wouldn’t use certified or hybrids next cropping season. Result: the market for these high-yielding seeds shrinks. This is actually happening these days.

Solution? No subsidy; just allow the private seeds producers to come directly to the farmers and offer their wares. Surely, any seeds producer trying to develop the seed market for his business would make it a point to provide the best seeds so that he would have repeat orders. That way, farmers would also have a choice on what rice seeds and technology to employ. And there’s no place for fly by night seeds producers under this policy environment.

But hey, we are funny! We want to be “self-sufficient” and yet we want our rice so cheap that farmers are not making money. So actually we want them to remain miserable while we urbanites enjoy the cheap rice they are producing. Crazy!