By Nelly Favis-Villafuerte
For seven years since July 8, 1998, I was the Undersecretary of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). For more than two years since July 8, 1998 (up to May 29, 2000), I was the Undersecretary in-charge of the International Sector. The commercial attachés known in the DTI family as the Foreign Trade Service Corps (FTSC) was one of the bureaus and agencies under my supervision then. As for the remaining five years of my stay at DTI (up to 2005), I was the Undersecretary in-charge of the Regional Operations Group (ROG) then – composed of the Regional and Provincial Directors of DTI all over the country.
We know that for the past four years or more, the performance of our exports is not something to be proud of. Question. Has this something to do with the quality of performance of our commercial attachés?
Today, we have a corps of 30 DTI commercial attaches who are assigned in different parts of the world in the Americas, the European countries and the Asian countries as well. During my time, there were 35 commercial attaches and I was strongly recommending then that we should have more commercial attaches posted in more countries abroad. Especially during trying times of our economy. Nobody beats our commercial attachés in enhancing the trade and investment prospects of our country. This was my assessment during my stint as the DTI Usec in-charge of the DTI commercial attaches. It has always been my stand (then and now) that to reduce our corps of commercial attachés or to close some of our foreign commercial posts abroad especially during trying times of our economy will be disastrous. As we all know, the fruits of the labor of our commercial attachés, except in special cases cannot be visible immediately. Some cases take a few weeks, a few months, while others take years before the trade and investment results surface. If we close some of the posts, definitely we will lose big trade and investment opportunities.
Up to this date, people are talking how Thailand successfully stepped up its trade and promotion efforts at the time its economy was down way back in 1997. Thai’s corp of international attachés were beefed up and given all the government support to give their best performance for the country. Even CNN was mobilized by Thailand to promote its sagging international trade image. History will show that this marketing strategy of Thailand paid off handsomely. Even trade and investment negotiators of Thailand are given due recognition. Trade and investment negotiators are requested to serve as such despite their age. Thailand avails of the services of their trade and investment negotiators up to the time that the negotiators have the health and stamina to serve the country. No wonder, there is stability, maturity, and continuity in Thai participation in international negotiations.
We could learn from the experience of Thailand. Commercial attachés’ service to the country should be maximized. At ages 60 to 65, commercial attachés have acquired a rich and fulfilling reservoir of experiences that cannot be learned in books. What I am saying is that unless the commercial attachés cannot extend their tour of duty due to health or other reasons – their services should be extended to the maximum period allowed by law so our county can fully benefit from their invaluable exposure in all aspects of international trade and investment including skill in negotiations. Even retired commercial attachés can be tapped to enhance the capability and aggressiveness of the new ones. No book can substitute for the wealth of experience of our retired commercial attachés.
Before I joined DTI as an Undersecretary, I was in the exporting business and I had ample opportunities to test the quality of service of our commercial attaches. Fantastic – this is too mild a word to describe how our DTI commercial attachés helped exporters and other businessmen as well then. For one, the commercial attachés then responded to my queries accurately, with speed, and with so much tact and encouragement. I was flattered, of course, considering that the commercial attachés spent time to respond to my queries despite the fact that they have awesome tasks that they have to do everyday – and despite the fact that they do not know me personally; nor have I met them face to face. Considering too that probably there were a hundred other businessmen requesting for information from the commercial attachés on a hundred different matters relating to international trade and investment.
Because of my satisfying and pleasant experience with the commercial attachés before my entry at the DTI, I enjoyed working with the commercial attachés for almost two and one half years while at the International Sector of DTI. Simply because I am aware of the multiplicity of the tasks of the commercial attachés; simply because I am overwhelmed by their commitment to public service; simply because I realize the awesome responsibilities that the commercial attachés have to do for our economy; simply because I believe that they are doing a wonderful job for the country despite the very low budget that are given to them to perform their tasks; simply because I am one in spirit with the commercial attachés in visioning that their number should be increased to cover more foreign posts rather than to decrease their numbers. And finally because I believe that our commercial attaches should be given more recognition, commendation, and tribute for the great service they are doing for our country. Definitely shortening the term of duty of a commercial attaché in his present foreign assignment from the regular two years to six (6) months or one year is one of the worst disincentives. Meaning, a commercial attaché should not be sent home and assigned to home office except for emergency reasons. Putting the commercial attachés in a “freezer” is to me a very bad practice of management. Management should not use this “freezer” policy to get back at a commercial attaché because of past unpleasant incidents between management and the commercial attaché. This is one way of stifling brilliant ideas and worse, it will demoralize the other commercial attachés.
Today, it is getting more difficult to attract new recruits than in the past. For one, the pay in the private sector is very much higher. I have seen (during my stint as Usec for the International Sector) – our commercial attachés in action in their posts – how they deal with prospective investors and importers. Their aggressiveness, persistence, and innovativeness continue to amaze me up to this time.
Finally, based on my experience at DTI, the quality of the performance of the commercial attachés depends on the fairness, confidence and enthusiasm shown by the DTI Secretary, the Usec in-charge of the FTSC, and the FTSC Coordinator. This is a time when our commercial attachés need to be commended and motivated. Like other human beings. A tap at the back is needed once in a while. After all commercial attachés have sensitivities and emotional needs too.
Yes, our commercial attachés can be the lifeblood of our international trade and promotion if properly motivated, fairly compensated and wholeheartedly supported by management – and to discard the so-called “freezer” policy if we expect our commercial attachés to give their best.
Have a joyful day! (For comments/reactions please send to Ms. Villafuerte’s email: email@example.com).