MANILA: It is inaccurate and misleading to say, as some senators have put it, that the administration's plan to send a 500-man humanitarian mission to Iraq would make this country a “gatecrasher” because we have not been invited by anyone.
The purpose of the mission, as it has been explained to us, is to create goodwill among the Iraqi people while we compete with 50 other countries for sub-contracts for civil works projects in the reconstruction of Iraq.
Twenty nations have pledged, without invitation, humanitarian contributions for the reconstruction of Iraq. The countries include China, Canada, the European Commission, France, Germany, India, Japan, Ireland, South Korea, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Taiwan, Russia, Spain, South Korea, Kuwait and the Netherlands.
The donations are in the form of cash, food, medicine, NGOs and supplies.
Note that France, Russia and Germany, which blocked US moves to get Security Council authorisation to invade Iraq, volunteered humanitarian aid. This fact disposes of the argument of gate-crashing.
The Philippine Government's plan takes another form – a mission composed of civil sector, non-military personnel. This form has a familiar ring. It probably derives from our civic action and engineering teams in Vietnam or from our peacekeeping forces under United Nations auspices, as in East Timor.
Three questions are raised:
z Do we have money to finance the mission?
z Will the mission be exposed to risks in Iraq where up until now there is no transitional government and public order has not been restored?
z Will the mission enhance our opportunities to obtain civil works contracts?
To the first, the answer is, we don't know. No one really has the figures. Figures coming out of the Senate are no more than guesswork.
To the second, there will be risks but no more than that facing UN or international humanitarian teams distributing food and medicine in Iraq or engineers repairing the burnt-out oil wells.
Roberto Romulo, head of the presidential task force responsible for seeking opportunities for Filipino workers and contractors to participate in the rebuilding of Iraq, says the humanitarian mission could be a goodwill-building effort with the Iraqi people.
He added, however, that the mission is not tied to securing contracts.
To put it differently, the mission is the human face that is hoped to dispel the impression that the Philippines is one of the many members of the “coalition of the willing” that are rushing into the reconstruction boom like carpetbaggers.
This “human face” approach should not, however, distract us from the fact that the Romulo task force represents an early effort to establish a presence in the reconstruction effort at a time when every bidder is assessing the field and is uncertain about what happens next.
In a highly competitive environment, where other countries seek employment opportunities for their workers and businesses, it pays to be on the spot early.
What is certain at this stage is that USAID has awarded huge contracts to American contractors, among which are Bechtel Corp and Halliburton of Texas, for capital construction projects to repair roads, bridges, ports, public buildings, electrical supply, water, irrigation and sanitation systems.
The minor partners of the US-led coalition will have to deal with these American giants, which will dole out sub-contracts.
From the projects outlined above, it is clear where opportunities lie for Filipino contractors to mobilise local skills to supply the expected demand for services.
It is premature at this stage to estimate how many Filipino workers would be recruited for the projects. It is foolish to entertain high expectations of an employment and contract boom.
What is sure is that competition will be stiff, and the Philippines would make a huge mistake if it thinks that because of the administration's support of US President George W. Bush's war policy, we will be given undue advantage.
Our bids will be subjected to tough assessment. And it's best to remember that we don't have a monopoly of IT technicians, engineers, tradesmen, health workers, and the like. - The Inquirer, a member of the Asia News Network .
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