Saturday, March 24, 2007

Pieces of a Man

Anti-Trafficking Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in the Philippines

For background information on human trafficking click here.

Gil Scott-Heron, Pieces of a Man (1971)

I have immersed myself in the subject of human trafficking (trafficking) for the last four months. My goal: develop an overview of anti-trafficking non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the Philippines looking specifically for examples of successful programs dealing with prevention, protection of victims, prosecution of traffickers, or rehabilitation and reintegration of victims.

I’ve spent the bulk of my time conducting interviews with NGO staff and victims of trafficking. Other times I attend conferences on trafficking and related subjects (economic development in the Philippines, migrant rights) or furiously peck at my cell phone sending a flurry of text messages to schedule a week’s worth of meetings.

At this point I have developed a slightly-beyond-beginner understanding of trafficking, its causes in the Philippines, and what is being done to stop it. After four months of research I do not feign any level of expertise, but I have had the fortunate opportunity to speak with many knowledgeable individuals who know the ins and outs of trafficking in the Philippines and have dedicated the last decade or more of their lives to combating this terrible injustice. As a result I have developed a trafficking cheat sheet of sorts by gleaning perspectives, facts, and challenges of the NGO community directly from those working in the trenches.

What I am left with is hours of interviews waiting to be transcribed- hours of digital tape documenting anti-trafficking programs ranging from theater groups that perform musicals on trafficking to raise awareness to young men’s camps that teach gender sensitivity to combat the culture of machismo in the Philippines to drop-in centers where victims of trafficking can receive psychosocial counseling. I have recorded victims describing their trafficking experiences. I have recorded frustrated lawyers lamenting on the state of the Filipino justice system. I have recorded grassroots NGOs that do not have the know-how, contacts, or resources to market their work to an international audience for funding, but do excellent work all the same.

I have my work cut out for me


The goal of my research is to showcase promising anti-trafficking programs and NGOs that are making an impact. I am looking for organizations that have been able to develop effective direct services for victims. I am looking for organizations that have been able to develop, advocate, and push through trafficking-related legislation. I am looking for organizations that track data, follow up with clients post-program to gauge effectiveness, and/or network with government and law enforcement agencies to establish relationships that will speed up the process of rescue, rehabilitation, and reintegration of victims. I am looking for NGOs that perform and achieve in the face of a corrupt system that is often based on payoffs, bribes, and personal connections rather than justice.

Am I searching for the impossible?


Sometimes I ask myself that question. There are dozens of trafficking and migration-related NGOs in the Philippines. Most do incredible work to address a monstrous problem. My admiration only increases when you consider the political and legal context within which they operate. Many of these NGOs are grassroots based operations inconspicuously tucked away on an ordinary street in an ordinary neighborhood, quietly saving the world one victim at a time (ok, maybe I’m being over dramatic, but I like the phrase and it is not entirely untrue).

It is in these often unmarked buildings that these men and women work overtime, get paid a pittance, and face an endless stream of frustrations and challenges interrupted by the rare but significant achievement like the passing of the anti-trafficking law in the Philippines in 2003, the creation of the Interagency Coalition Against Trafficking in 2004 that brings together government agencies and NGOs, or the slow but steady development of productive, collaborative anti-trafficking relationships between NGOs and law enforcement that expedite and improve victim rescues and reintegration.

I want to present the role of anti-trafficking NGOs in the Philippines in relation to other stakeholders: national and international governments, law enforcement, international organizations, and the media. NGOs in the Philippines are in a unique position because, at least concerning trafficking, they have a disproportionate and at times inappropriate level of responsibility due to the government’s inability or unwillingness to implement the country’s comprehensive human trafficking law. In general, the government serves as a referral mechanism to NGOs: instead of having tangible programs and direct services, the government often refers victims of trafficking to NGOs to be rescued, protected, legally represented in court, rehabilitated, and reintegrated. And all this responsibility is dumped on NGOs that are often under funded and understaffed.

I want to raise awareness of trafficking


I want people to know that men, women and children (but mainly women and children in the Philippines) are being recruited from the countryside, deceived into prostitution, domestic servitude, or some other form of forced labor, and from that point on pimped and exploited from every angle, violated physically and mentally, raped, beaten, abused, stripped of their dignity and humanity, and finally, when there is no value left in these human commodities, kicked to the curb to fend for themselves.

It is important to know this, especially for those living in developed countries who have the economic clout to make a difference, because trafficking cannot be effectively addressed unless people are aware of it. It is amazing what the cost of an organic cranberry scone from Whole Foods and a Starbucks grande latte with soy milk and spices (also organic) can get you in the third world. You can do an amazing amount of good or bad in a country like the Philippines for the price of a McDonalds Happy Meal.

The street value of prostitutes in Davao City, Mindanao is $6 a pop, which is split 50/50 with the pimp. Many prostitutes are young girls ages 12 to 24 who have been trafficked from the countryside.


Trafficking is such a powerful, emotionally charged issue that at times it seems mundane. As if my mind has to deceive itself into believing that it is not really that bad, sometimes I think “hey, I’ve seen worse things in Silence of the Lambs.” Hollywood has supplied me with worse terror. I am numb, immune to the horror stories and desperate eyes.

There are other times when I feel Oedipal rage and utter hopelessness. It is often overwhelming, especially if you try and comprehend a system, like the Philippines and its relevant subsystems such as the government, law enforcement, NGOs, the economy, the culture, etc., and the changes that need to be made to effectively address an issue like trafficking.

There are other times when I feel like my eyes have transformed into mini Nile rivers with an endless current that coats a throbbing, heaving chest with the same notes found in Miles Davis’ Green & Blue.

Gil Scott-Heron said the revolution will not be televised

I believe him. I see it every day, but it doesn’t take the form I expected. It doesn’t fulfill my raised-in-the USA ambition, glory, and one-man army-ism expectations at all. It doesn’t even come close.

Instead, I see change like a dripping faucet- small, constant, unending drops. Slow and steady. Drop after drop. Persistent. Dedicated. I see men and women fighting to improve the situation for modern day slaves whether it be through raising awareness, advocating for tougher legislation, pushing the government to live up to its promises, providing temporary shelter for victims, organizing livelihood programs, and so much more.

I see strength and determination that I once relegated to fairytales and idealistic wishful thinking. And all this in the face of obstacles that run so deep, that penetrate the very core of a culture, it’s social rules and organizational behavior that to confront them is like standing in front of a line of hulking tanks armed with nothing but your conviction and stopping them in their tracks- impossible, yet it has been done.

The truth is NGOs in the Philippines are working against widespread systemic corruption and historical cultural biases that promote/influence/encourage trafficking. Despite having the odds stacked against them, NGOs have made progress. It is no coincidence that all women and child rights legislation in the Philippines was created and passed through the grit, determination, and resilience of NGOs. It is no coincidence that the public is beginning to recognize trafficking as a serious issue and that judges and lawyers are learning how to use the trafficking law in their courtrooms while police are being trained to identify victims and collect evidence properly.

At times it seems that change is slow and hard fought, if not impossible, but the truth is things would be so much worse without NGOs: organizations like the Visayan Forum Foundation, Kanlungan Centre Foundation, PREDA, and CATW-AP. Without them, trafficking victims would have no support system and no hope of rescue or rehabilitation while laws protecting their legal rights would not exist. At the very least NGOs are holding the line so that trafficking victims do not slip through the cracks of the system and are given an opportunity, however small, to pick up the pieces and rediscover value in life.

It may take years upon years and lives upon lives to effectively address an issue like trafficking, but even drops of water can eventually cut through a mountain and transform a landscape.

But seriously, beyond the corny metaphors and crafted prose, it is reassuring and inspiring to know that people are plugging away, night and day, whether in the limelight or behind the scenes, in spacious offices or forgotten corners, to end trafficking and abolish slavery once and for all.


Research Project Update

So far I have interviewed staff and observed programs from the following organizations:

Kanlungan Centre Foundation
Scalabrini Migration Center
Coalition Against Trafficking in Women- Asia Pacific
Visayan Forum Foundation
Unlad Kabayan
Women’s Crisis Center
Batis Center
Batis Aware
Lawig Bubai
Department of Education
Child Alert
*Some NGOs do not currently have websites

My interviews have focused on identifying an organization's mission, goals, programs, evaluative mechanisms, achievements, challenges, needs, and hopes among other things.

Thus far I have focused on NGOs, however, the next phase of my project is to interview relevant government and law enforcement agencies.

Here’s to the remaining six months.


Monday, March 12, 2007

20,127 Words

The man, the martyr

B-boy stance

Aeta hut: 100% organic & biodegradeable, not FDA approved

Election time must be upon us

Last night a DJ saved my life

Beautiful Boracay

Quiapo, Manila

Madapdap cerebral palsy clinic for children

Tranquility one hour away from the hustle and grind of Manila

Human commodities

Fire on the beach

Ballroom dancing= old women dressed to the nines + young gay dance instructors

Aeta land illegally fenced-off and settled by nuns

Aetas, University of the Philippines econ students, NGO workers, and me

Mission accomplished

If you look carefully you might come across this flier

Filipinas pay $6 an hour to massage pale foreign legs... wait...

My uncle is a dog breeder

Corona's got nothing on this

Hip-Hop Tagalog

Wish you were here...

Monday, March 05, 2007

Digital Underground

Pirated DVDs in the Philippines


Imagine every James Bond movie ever made on a three-disc DVD set.

Or what about every Six Feet Under episode?

What about live concerts from Eric Clapton to Eminem?

Tarantino box sets? Spielberg classics? Monster movie mash ups?

How about the latest studio releases in good quality? Forget the camcorder-in-theater versions, these films are the real deal, hot-off-the-press versions that are sent to motion picture award committees like the Oscars for evaluation.

Like Catholicism, pirated DVDs are a way of life in the Philippines. They are illegal, yet bustling markets filled with literally thousands upon thousands of DVDs and MP3 cds pepper Metro Manila from Quiapo to Pasig, Makati to Quezon City and beyond.

The Experience

To stumble upon one of these vendors, their stands jam-packed with discs wrapped in shiny plastic sleeves lined up like delicious digital baked goods, is truly something to behold.

Take a moment to imagine. Attempting to make sense of this mass of media, your eyes do a once over of the categories: new movies, televisions shows, kids programs, Korean soap operas, MP3 cds of Asian Pop and American Hip Hop, old movies, and the prerequisite stash of porn that the vendor will inevitably ask you about once you’ve committed to poking through his product. Keep in mind that at these bootleg markets there are literally a hundred stalls, each with a similar plunder of DVDs but with enough unique gems and rare finds among them to keep you interested.

Deciding where to start digging is like approaching an enormous buffet: there are so many options to choose from that sometimes it can be overwhelming. Where to begin? Should I search for the Rocky compilation, parse through the 8 in 1 discs (8 movies on one DVD), or rifle through the HBO series- Rome, Entourage or maybe I feel like Arrested Development?

The best part about these DVDs, and the reason they will always be the go-to option for Filipino consumers, is that they are dirt-cheap. One disc costs anywhere from 20 to 50 pesos (that’s 40 cents to $1 US for all you Yankees). In other words, you can have Lost seasons 1 and 2 for about $1.50 US. Or take home Apocalypto and Children of Men for 80 cents, and they’re good quality versions.

The selection is so enormous that there is truly something for everyone. Like flashy, big- budget Hollywood productions? Titanic, Blood Diamond, XXX, and The Fast & the Furious are readily available. Or what about old school film legends? Pick some Kurosawa flicks- Hidden Fortress, Ikiru, and Seven Samurai among others.

The list goes on… and on and on… and on and on and on…

You can screen the DVDs before buying to make sure the quality is up to snuff and if for some reason a disc doesn’t work at home, you can always exchange it- just remember to keep the vendor’s business card so you can track them down if need be.

Product Design

Leave it to the ingenuity of bootleggers to create a quality product. The covers of these movies are generally improvised, often comedic takes on the movies they represent. The text describing the movies is equally shaky.

And thus we arrive at one of the limitations of this unending fountain of media- the subtitles are often completely useless, if not hilarious, rendering foreign films unwatchable unless you stayed awake for fifth period Spanish in high school. Generally the subtitles grasp the concept of a conversation, but not the details of a sentence. This may appeal to those creative thinkers in the audience because sans functional subtitles, much of the movie will be left to your imagination.

Subtitles range from spot on...
The Warriors (1979)

To not even close...

Children of Men (2006)
Actual line: “Any girls? What about the one we had lunch with, Lauren?”

Another negative bi-product of access to so much media is the immediate decrease in one’s social life. It’s tough to go out when you have entire seasons of shows you’ve always wanted to watch just sitting on your desk waiting to be unwrapped.

But that is a risk people gladly accept.

So the next time you slip a $19.99 DVD into your player, just remember that half way around the world Filipinos are watching the same product for less than 1/20th the cost with funky, reworked covers, sleek packaging, and wacked-out subtitles to boot.

Enjoy suckers.