By Joaquin Jay Gonzalez III

This article is about the praxis of Philippine-style public diplomacy, or what I refer to as “diaspora diplomacy.” It discusses the growing public diplomacy trend in which diasporas are contributing more actively to the recasting of real-world cross-cultural exchanges and relations.

The global perception of the Philippines is heavily influenced by major television news networks. Watching coverage from Western Europe and North America for the last 20 years has been frustrating for the domestic and international Filipino communities. The BBC, CNN, and FOX seem to downplay much of the good news and often play up the bad news: violent volcano eruptions, massive flooding after typhoons, overloaded ferries sinking, political scandals, terrorist bombings, al-Qaeda cells, and insurgent kidnappings. The latter three eventually moved the U.S. State Department to issue strongly worded travel warnings to American citizens about the personal risk of doing business or tourism to the Philippines.

Countering this negative publicity is a daunting, often frustrating, task for Philippine government officials, especially those who work at diplomatic postings abroad. With the media and State Department warnings, who in their right mind would risk traveling to Manila or Cebu or Davao as an investor, not to mention as a tourist?

The Need for More Aggressive Diplomacy for Developing States

Why should diplomacy through diaspora be a concern for scholars and practitioners of international relations? The answer is simple: According to the World Bank, there are over 200 million migrants worldwide, and mainstream theories of international relations have not adequately explained their role and influence in global ties, particularly in terms of their soft power influences. Very few international relations textbooks take this phenomenon seriously.

Eight months after the June 2006 State Department travel warning against travel to the Philippines, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and a 140-member delegation went on a goodwill and business mission to Manila, San Francisco’s sister city. All were U.S. citizens; more than half were Filipino-Americans. Despite official and unofficial warnings, Newsom chose to heed the credible assessment of the Filipino-American chair of the San Francisco-Manila Sister City Commission. The chair reassured the mayor that travel to the Philippines was safe, a view echoed by the FilAm (Filipino-American) community in San Francisco.[1]

The mayor and his San Francisco-Manila Sister City delegation brought with them 180 wheelchairs for distribution to Manila’s physically challenged and a U.S.$10,000 check for the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra. There was little coordination with the U.S. Embassy in Manila or the State Department in Washington, DC. The San Francisco-Manila Sister City Commission communicated directly with the Philippine Departments of Tourism and Foreign Affairs, as well as the Manila Mayor’s Office.

Moving away from the norm, Mayor Gavin Newsom relied on what he viewed as more accurate and realistic advice from his city’s Filipino migrants to travel to Manila, discounting mainstream media exaggerations and State Department warnings. International relations theory and practice continue to point to the supposed pragmatism of hard power—large military presence, high Gross National Product (GNPs), and so forth—which developing diaspora states, such as the Philippines, do not have. What the Philippines offers, however, is on-the-ground, culturally sensitive knowledge from its millions of emigrants in diaspora.

What I am exposing, and consequently espousing, is not just public diplomacy but diaspora diplomacy, a more aggressive foreign policy path for developing states. This path could supersede the dominant and America-centered ideas that Harvard professor Joseph S. Nye, Jr. promotes in his influential work, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.[2] Nye and many other western scholars[3] already provide excellent policy guidance for President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on how America currently utilizes soft power and the continuing relevance of multilateralism—I am proposing an alternative to such America-centered work.

The Philippine Diaspora and its Role in International Relations

Why is the Philippine diaspora important to the study of contemporary international relations and public diplomacy? As alluded to earlier, it is one of the fastest growing soft power movements in the world today. In the last century alone, the Philippine diaspora nation has grown to more than 10 million strong in 200 countries, while over a quarter of a million seafarers (one-quarter of the world’s total) are plying the planet’s oceans and seas. Filipinos live, work, socialize, and worship in more than a thousand cities and ships. The aggregated diaspora population is twice the size of New Zealand’s and is equivalent to the total population of Switzerland.

Diaspora diplomacy’s economic influence is quite significant. In 2013, Filipino migrants remitted more than U.S.$ 26 billion, which is more than Nepal’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and more than the national income of 60 developing economies.[4] That same year, overseas Filipinos also shipped more than two million balikbayan boxes (care packages) all over the archipelago. The U.S. accounts for one quarter of the migrant stock and half the total remittance and balikbayan box volume. There are more than one million Filipino workers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. From the high seas, Filipino officers and engineers, deck and engine crew, on all kinds of commercial cargo ships, tankers, cruise liners, and some U.S. military vessels sent back to their families in 200 hometowns more than U.S.$2.5 billion in 2012. Their remittances have insulated the country from the global economic crisis, devastation from natural disasters, and have contributed to the surge in economic growth in the last years—one of the strongest in the Asia-Pacific. In essence, diaspora diplomacy has become the Philippines’ WMD, or Wealth from Mass Dispersion. 

A Changed Outlook

Prior to the mass dispersion of its nationals, the basic function of Philippine diplomacy was to promote the economic, political, cultural, and consular interests of the Republic. Foreign Service Officers (FSOs), Foreign Service Staff Officers (FSSOs), and Foreign Service Staff Employees (FSSEs) comprised a very elite corps that associated only with an elite Filipino expatriate community, the powerful local politicians, and the wealthy socialites in their country of posting. In conversations with me, a number of FSOs stated that eating with Filipina domestic helpers at a park in Singapore or Hong Kong was not the reason why they joined the diplomatic corps. Some felt they had earned this elite diplomatic stature by virtue of a highly selective examination and interview process.

When posted overseas, government diplomats received all the diplomatic courtesies, plenipotentiaries, and immunities accorded by the host country, and earned 10 times more than their civil service counterparts in the Philippines. They traveled on diplomatic passports which automatically got visas and paid no taxes to the host government, based on reciprocity agreements and treaties. They were detached from the bulk of the diaspora except through routine consular work—passport renewals, repatriation requests, and visits to the jailed.

But the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995 (or Republic Act 8042) changed the nature of their ritzy, glitzy lifestyle. The catalyst for this law was a tragic event: Flor Contemplacion, a Filipina domestic helper in Singapore, was hanged for the alleged double murder of a fellow Filipina care worker and the Singaporean child she was caring for. Doubts about Contemplacion’s culpability led to a serious diplomatic row between the Philippines and Singapore, two regional partners.

There were allegations from the Filipino public that the government, particularly the highly paid, highly trained foreign service officials, did not do enough to defend and protect Contemplacion because she was “just a maid.” Contemplacion symbolized the plight of the millions of Filipino diaspora diplomats that needed better care, protection, and social safety nets. She was viewed by her fellow Filipinos as a martyr. In the wake of the controversy, the Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs resigned. The Philippine Congress responded with long overdue legislation benefitting the multitudes in diaspora.

From then on, a series of diaspora-friendly laws were enacted. In 1997, a Comprehensive Tax Reform Law was passed exempting the income earned by overseas Filipinos from Philippine taxation. Overseas Filipinos gained an elected representative in the Philippine Congress. Overseas absentee voting, retirement incentives, and dual citizenship laws were also legislated, formalizing a legal regime for a Filipino global nation. Consequently, the Philippines has become the largest labor, faith, and cultural exporter among the ten Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states.

Diaspora Diplomacy, Philippine-Style 

Unlike other public diplomacy strategies, Philippine diaspora diplomacy is people-propelled rather than product- or propaganda-driven. It is the collective action of Filipinas and Filipinos emanating from various geographic locations. There are globally recognizable Filipino personalities, such as boxer Manny Pacquiao, but Filipinos are also visible just by their sheer numbers in international public and private spaces.

Diaspora diplomacy enables the Philippines and other diaspora states to influence another country’s culture, politics, and economics. Dual citizenship legislation which allows dual loyalties, in effect, institutionalized dual influencing. Public policies nurturing diaspora diplomacy allow the Philippines to be smart and aggressive without being hegemonic and arrogant. Realists write about the exercise of hard power such as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Diaspora diplomacy, on the other hand, is the launch of Weapons of Mass Dispersion and achieving a different form of MAD, More Acceptable Diplomacy.

The primary drivers of diaspora diplomacy are the basic needs of home and family, as opposed to economy and security. For Filipino migrants, the structure of home and family is often large and complex. A typical household may include, aside from the basic family unit of spouses and children, siblings, in-laws, uncles, aunts, grandparents, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. It can also extend outwards to friends, strangers, churches, charities, hometown associations, and other organizations. Household income generation is based on this extended kinship structure; each family member of legal age is expected to contribute to household expenses, which may include education, medical expenses, and mortgage.

Beyond the home, extra disposable income often goes to help rehabilitate or construct schools, chapels, and roads in the Philippines. Most migrants meet their family obligations while at the same time contributing to the betterment of their homeland. Given these extended meanings of household and extended uses of income, it is not surprising to see Filipino migrants consider their churches as part of their families. Many feel that they are being sent out to the world as church members who need to spread the word of God, so they assume such roles as pastors, lay workers, bible readers, and choir singers, among others.

Governments of developing countries with limited budgets for bilateral relations are able to outsource their diplomatic functions to migrants who share their culture with the societies where they live and work. Although the Philippines has 87 diplomatic missions and opened seven more in 2009, these missions do not begin to cover and serve the more than 2,000 cities globally where Filipinos reside. Thus, Filipino migrants have adapted the traditionally governmental role of serving as ambassadors of Filipino culture and traditions. Through their many organizations, they assist in diplomacy by working independently or alongside efforts by the Philippine diplomatic corps. Since migrant workers use time outside of work and church to socialize and interact with the “locals” in their adopted countries, they contribute to the cultural sophistication and diversity of their locality through their religious events, musical groups, sports tournaments, and the like.

Philippine Diaspora Diplomacy and the “Filipinization” of Global Cities

The power of Philippine diaspora diplomacy comes from its capacity to influence, charm, persuade, and assert, in order to solidify ties. It is not meant to dominate, but is instead creating two-way, open, consensual, and respectful relations.

In my two decades of living in the U.S., I have been studying and documenting how this evolving “Filipinization” process facilitates transnational integration, adaptive spirit, and inter-generational cohesion.[5] If Americanization is the output of U.S. public diplomacy internationally, then varying degrees of Filipinization results from Philippine diaspora diplomacy in global cities. Our ethnic visibility through our local businesses, media, arts, pop culture, and other public spheres are some of the manifestations of success.

Filipinization is the process by which temporary and permanent Philippine migrants worship, get together, and earn money in their adopted country (kasamahan) and how they help each other, contribute to their new communities, and assist their families and hometowns in the Philippines (bayanihan).

Filipinization by kasamahan involves mostly inward-focused fellowship and togetherness. This includes formal and informal groups, such as a Filipino church choir, prayer or bible study group, bingo socials, mahjong sessions, and regional societies which may foster communal feelings of togetherness, companionship, fraternity, sisterhood, solidarity, pride, and competitiveness.

Filipinization by bayanihan includes predominantly outward-oriented linkages, associations, bridges, and connections. These involve transforming kasamahan to encompass volunteer activities, civic involvement, community partnerships, political advocacy, protest marches, clean-up drives, money remittance, disaster relief work, donating, and fundraising. Filipinization may be more pervasive in some countries than others depending on many factors, including number of migrants, their status and standing, and homeland or home base context.

Filipino migrant communities bring varying forms of bayanihan and kasamahan into their new host societies or homelands, and many eventually weave them into meaningful religious, economic, and political contributions or influences. I categorize Filipinization further into three types: (1) religious Filipinization, or the bayanihan and kasamahan influences emanating from churches or places of worship, as well as spiritual energy, passion, action, and advocacy; (2) occupational Filipinization, or the bayanihan and kasamahan influences associated with their work, labor, English proficiency, inter-personal communication skills, formal education, informal training as well as the sending care boxes or remitting money; and (3) associational Filipinization or the bayanihan and kasamahan influences that come from their participation in cultural shows, organizations, Philippine independence day commemorations, and informal gatherings.

What I have observed in my global sojourns is that migrants’ lives are consciously or subconsciously guided by a complex web of religious, occupational, and associational relationships based on utang na loob (debt of gratitude) to church (simbahan), hometown/province (bayan/probinsiya), and families (pamilya).

These are reflected in the many sayings that Filipino migrants have internalized and repeated to me during our conversations. Many Filipino migrants emphasized to me that faith and prayers helped in every step of the migration process, and they show their gratitude to God by going to and supporting their churches in their adopted countries and back home. Their religious behavior is guided by the saying “Nasa Dios ang awa, nasa tao ang gawa” (God sympathizes, but it is up to people to do the work).

Others told me that they work hard to be able to pay a debt of gratitude to the place where they come from and the country they now live or work in. Some added that their occupational drive is founded on the idea that “Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makakarating sa paroroonan” (A person who forgets where he comes from will not get to where he wants to go).

Many of them said that they are very open to adapting to a new culture and language, but also like to share with non-Filipinos the love they have for their family traditions and native language: “Ang hindi marunong magmahal sa sariling wika ay higit pa ang amoy sa mabahong isda” (He who doesn’t know how to love his own language smells worse than a pungent fish).

Conclusion and Call to Action

Over the past decades, the Filipino diaspora has increased the soft power of the Philippines. This influence is drawn from the thousands of temporary migrants that leave the country daily and the millions of permanent migrants and their descendants in close to 200 countries and more than 2000 cities globally. Filipino diaspora diplomats far outnumber Philippine foreign service officers in formal diplomatic missions. They Filipinize international cities, towns, provinces, and municipalities in three ways: religiously, occupationally, and associationally. Thus, policy-makers, business, and civil societies in both host and home countries should continue to formulate ways and means to cultivate their rich contributions. Social safety nets that protect their welfare, health, and old-age security should be reinforced at both fronts.


[1] Sister Cities, a common form of public diplomacy, are an agreement between government officials, business, and non-governmental actors between two cities, from two countries, to nurture cultural, sports, arts, and business dialogue and understanding.

[2]Nye, Joseph S. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. New York: Public Affairs (2004). Print.

[3] See Fraser, (2005). Rugh (2005), Kiehl (2006), Matsuda, (2007), Karns, (2008), among others.

[4]”Migrants from Developing Countries to Send Home $414 Billion in Earnings in 2013.” World Bank, October 2, 2013. Web. April 2, 2014.

[5] Empirical data, analysis, and elaboration are available in Gonzalez, Joaquin L. Diaspora Diplomacy: Philippine Migration and Its Soft Power Influences. Minneapolis, MN: Mill City (2012). —. Filipino American Faith in Action: Immigration, Religion, and Civic Engagement. New York: New York UP (2009).

Joaquin Jay Gonzalez III

Joaquin Jay Gonzalez III, Ph.D. is Mayor George Christopher Professor of Government and Society and Chair of the Public Administration Department at the Edward S. Ageno School of Business of Golden Gate University in San Francisco, California. For close to a decade, Dr. Gonzalez served as San Francisco Commissioner for Immigrant Rights. A more in-depth discussion on this topic can be found in Gonzalez’s book Diaspora Diplomacy: Philippine Migration and its Soft Power Influences (De La Salle University Publishing House and Mill City Press, 2011).