x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Stuck at the Philippine border

The Philippine president is to hear allegations that officials at Ninoy Aquino International Airport have been extorting guest workers who wish to travel to the Gulf.

Ask a westerner for his list of modern bêtes noires and you won't wait long before he gets to the "computer says no" effect. The steady displacement of human judgement by inflexible rules, often mechanically administered, is a bane that cuts across political boundaries; it isn't only conservatives who fume over red tape. Last month the left-leaning biologist Richard Dawkins was moved to journalism by the sight of a "nice young mother" who was prevented from bringing her daughter's tub of eczema cream onto a plane. "If I ruled the world," he announced in Prospect magazine, "I would downgrade rulebooks and replace them, wherever possible, with humane, intelligent discretion."

It is strange to find oneself doubting the existence of a benignly intervening intelligence whose reality is asserted by Professor Dawkins. Nevertheless, circumstances in the Philippines seem to demand it. As The National reported on Sunday, the Philippine president is to hear allegations that officials at Ninoy Aquino International Airport have been extorting guest workers who wish to travel to the Gulf.

Since August, immigration officers have been ordered to watch out for possible victims of human trafficking. In practice this amounts to a license to shake down travellers with tourist visas. Passengers claim they have been taken for as much as Dh1,700 just to make it onto their planes. Never let it be said that discretionary powers corrupt discreetly.

It is easy to sympathise with the legislators, of course. Dismal job prospects in the Philippines have led citizens to gamble on murky invitations from the UAE and elsewhere. A series of overseas abuse scandals required some sort of government response. In the absence of any foolproof test for covert economic intentions, what were the options? One could hardly ban tourist travel to the region outright.

This would seem to leave the discretionary approach. Certainly, the scope it provides for corruption is depressing. Bribery is usually regarded as an absolute economic drain, the most destructive form of rent-seeking there is. Even so, where non-economic values are involved, perhaps a case could be made for it. (And if this line of thought seems intolerably facetious, bear in mind that we are discussing the policy which is actually in place; as Stafford Beer said: "The purpose of a system is what it does.")

So let's see. Imposing extra fees on travelers would tend to filter out those who can't pay. If those are the same travelers who are susceptible to illicit offers of work, the bribery system may be said to have certain desirable consequences. It would, in effect, set a financial barrier over places where the poorest are vulnerable.

It would also make the well-off poorer, the corrupt richer, and everyone less able to get to where they want to go. One might, furthermore, expect to find guards waving the very worst-off through unchecked (why try to extort the broke?). To invert a saying of Adam Smith's, trusting the welfare of travellers to a corrupt official's regard for his own self-interest seems as half-baked as trusting it to his benevolence. Turning the bribes into full-fledged taxes would relieve only a few of these problems.

What would really help? Well, in order of effectiveness and declining order of likelihood, the ideal would be such a turn-around in the economic fortunes of the Philippines that the human traffic dries up of its own accord. While we're waiting for that, one could wish for more reliable enforcement of labour laws in host countries. Alas, the black labour economy is notoriously difficult to police. And so we are left hoping for some sort of fully mechanical criterion by which aspiring tourist workers can be identified at the border. The best thing, if it could be achieved, would be a computer which says "no".