It is customary to describe human economies as “mechanisms,” but “plumbing” would be more apt. The economy, as economists define it, really is just the realm of money; so those who get to design the pipes and valves can determine in large measure where that money flows.
Establish a Federal Reserve to guide the creation of money through commercial banks, for example, and the rest is pretty much details. Arrange the international plumbing so that struggling nations have to go to an International Monetary Fund for financial relief, and you can bring those nations to heel without a rifle being raised.
Sometimes, though, the system springs a leak, which offers a brief opportunity to direct a flow in a new and constructive way. That’s happening now with the money that expatriate workers in the U.S. and elsewhere send to their families back home. There’s an effort underway to turn these payments into the foundation of a new grassroots development fund that bypasses the World Bank and IMF with their built-in agendas. It’s not as far-fetched as it might seem.
Remittances, as this money is called, are not new. What is now the Bank of America began more than a century ago to help Italian immigrants in San Francisco send money home. But recent disruptions of the global economy have sent remittances soaring. No one knows for sure, but the total amount is probably close to $300 billion, which is almost three times more than all official development aid in the world.
These remittances have become a lifeline for families in Third World countries. Entire nations depend on them. In the Philippines, remittances now comprise some ten percent of the formal economy. In Mexico, they are the number two source of foreign exchange, next to oil. But little of this money turns into the kind of local economic development that would make migratory work—legal and otherwise—less necessary.
For one thing, the companies that handle the remittances have been charging exorbitant fees, often ten to twenty percent. Western Union, the biggest, has been reaping a thirty percent return. For another, the plumbing of the global economy is designed to recapture the flow.
Consider the Western-style mega-malls that are arising incongruously amidst the cinderblock and rust of Manila and Phillipine provincial capitals. These largely are outgrowths of the remittance culture. The money makes a brief stop home, and then flows right back to the First World via Nike, Burger King, et. al. Pharmaceutical companies get a big cut, too.
This is why the Transnational Institute for Grassroots Research and Action (TIGRA), based in Oakland, California, is stepping into the breach. TIGRA is organizing remittance senders throughout the U.S. to demand that transfer companies contribute one dollar per transaction to local development funds. (They also are demanding more reasonable fees.)
That could raise some $150 million a year from the U.S. alone. The result would be a kind of global Community Reinvestment Act, says Francis Calpotura, the head of TIGRA and himself a Filipino immigrant. Ultimately it could lead to an “alternative World Bank.” What a novel idea—that the money of ordinary people might flow through institutional plumbing designed with their needs in mind.
Jonathan Rowe wrote this article as part of Liberate Your Space, the Winter 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Jonathan, a YES! contributing editor, is a fellow at the Tomales Bay Institute, which recently published The Commons Rising, a report on the revival of commons-based economics throughout the United States. He is a founder of the West Marin Commons Association and is host of America Offline, a weekly program on KWMR-FM in West Marin County, California.