Why am I writing this article?
Before I joined the Department of Foreign Affairs or DFA over a decade ago, I hardly understood how the DFA worked. Geez… I didn’t even know the difference between an embassy and a consulate. I remember how my mother showed me an advertisement in the newspaper which announced that year’s infamously difficult FSOE, telling me how cool it would be if I pass and I would be an officer in DFA. She said knowing me, I had a chance in passing it. But I had so many questions that scared me senseless.
What did the DFA actually do? Who works at the DFA? How is the DFA related to our embassies overseas? What’s the relation between passports and DFA? How does the DFA exactly talk with other countries?
I was about to take an exam to join the DFA officer corps, but I barely had a clue on what the DFA was really about.
I am writing this article for people who are in the same situation I was in twelve years ago when my mom suggested that I take the exam. This article is meant to take those who know nothing about the Philippine DFA, but want to understand enough about it to stand their ground at least talking about DFA.
This article will be valuable for you if you are going to apply for a job at the DFA. Maybe you are about to apply for a passport and you want to understand DFA more. Perhaps you are a student of International Relations or another related course. Maybe you are someone who has heard the calling to serve the country in DFA. Yep, all of you. Especially you. This article is for you.
Give me the bare basics!
Don’t feel bad if you don’t know the bare basics. As a fresh graduate from college, I considered myself well-read, but I hardly had a clue what the DFA did.
The DFA is our foreign ministry. A foreign ministry is the government agency of a country is in charge of relations with other countries and international organizations, like the United Nations. The fororeign ministries of countries around the world more or less operate in the same manner and have the same basic functions. Of course each country will have slightly different ways of doing things, but there are international practices they stick to.
Fun fact. Before I joined the DFA, I didn’t really know what a “foreign ministry” was so if you don’t, don’t feel bad.
Some examples of the basic functions of a foreign ministry, such as DFA are: providing advice to their country’s leaders (such as their president) on how to deal with foreign countries, representing the country in international conferences with other governments, or helping taking care of its citizens abroad who run into very serious trouble.
Perhaps one of the most well-known functions of a foreign ministry is that it communicates with other countries.
How does the DFA actually communicate with other countries?
As the foreign ministry, DFA is in charge of communicating with foreign governments. For example if the Philippine Government wants to communicate with China, it will ask the DFA to officially (or even unofficially or informally for that manner), communicate with the foreign ministry of China. If China wants to reply, it will send its answer to DFA.
Not all communications are straightforward and written down on paper. There can be a lot of face-to-face meetings with representatives of the country they want to talk to or deal with. Sometimes, it is during face-to-face meetings that most progress takes place. A lot of this country to country communication happens through embassies. A foreign ministry will typically communicate through the embassy.
Okay, let’s get down to the details. Let’s say that the Philippine government wants to communicate with the Brazil government. For example, the Philippines wants to propose a research agreement with Brazil. What’s going to happen is that the DFA will reach out to the Brazilian embassy. It can also happen that the Philippine embassy that will reach out to the Brazilian foreign ministry.
Of course, it could also work the other way around with the Brazilian foreign ministry reaching out to the Philippine Embassy in Brasilia. (Uhmm.. yeah the capital of Brazil is Brasilia not Rio de Janiero, I felt like dummy learning this when I was a DFA newbie.)
As alluded to, sometimes the communications are done in organizations or conferences where lots of countries are present, such as the United Nations or Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Awesome, aye?
What is the relationship of DFA between our embassies and consulates?
Like other foreign ministries around the world, the DFA is the government agency that directly handles our embassies, consulates and other special offices abroad. Most of the people who work in the Philippine embassies and consulates abroad are employees of the DFA. These employees of DFA usually spend their careers in a cycle spending some years in the in DFA in Manila, and some years abroad in a Philippine embassy or consulate.
There will be other people in a Philippine embassy or consulate who are not from DFA, such as people local to the area to help them out in the work (such as our embassy in Tokyo hiring Japanese people there to help them translate), or even officials from other Philippine government agencies, but basically it will be people from DFA.
The Philippine embassies and consulates around the world typically receive instructions from the DFA. The Philippine embassies and consulates are expected to send reports to DFA on what’s happening in their countries.
There are lots of ways governments communicate with each other, but this foreign ministry – embassy chain would be the “bread and butter” of it. Or should I say “pandesal and Star margarine” of it?
How about the DFA offices in other parts of the Philippines?
DFA also has a large number of field offices or “branches” in the Philippines called Consular Offices. As of time of writing it has 34 Consular Offices around the country with several more opening in the coming years. These Consular Offices carry out several of the public services offered by the DFA. In some of theses Consular Offices, for example, you can get an Apostille or Authentication (the former “red ribbon”.) The most popular of DFA’s public services, and perhaps the one you are most familiar with, is the processing of your passport application.
Yep, everyone loves their passport. Passports are awesome sauce! (Read: Your Awesome Guide to the Philippine Passport)
Is issuing passports the main work of DFA?
It is true that the most popular public service of DFA is the issuance of the Philippine passport. Every year the DFA issues well over 4 million passports and there are approximately well over 17 million Philippine passports in circulation. For most people this is the only time they will ever have interaction with the DFA. However, the issuance of passports is just one of the many functions DFA.
Lots of work from different offices within the DFA are needed to run the entire organization and contribute to the issuance of the Philippine passport, such as offices that take care of finances and human resources. And there are a LOT of other offices in DFA, just check out the DFA directory.
The main office which “has the football” when it comes to passports so to speak is the Office of Consular Affairs which has what they call the Passport Division. (I was once head of this division, by the way. Super, huh?)
But again, there are LOTS of offices and other special units and organizations and committees inside DFA. To an outsider, these offices and units might seem like a whole steaming bowl of alphabet soup with scary names like OFMS, HRMO, OUCSCC, DLLU, OSEC, and a lot more.
Who leads the DFA?
The biggest of the big bosses of DFA is the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, who is usually called the SFA or just the “Secretary”. Other countries’ foreign ministries would of course have equivalents which we can describe as foreign ministers. The SFA will of course have very senior officer under him called Undersecretaries and Assistant Secretaries, who supervise other DFA employees.
The DFA’s SFA is typically appointed by the President of the Philippines. The President is country’s Chief Architect of Foreign Policy, which means he is the one who really commands DFA, like how the President is also our military’s Commander-in-Chief. The SFA reports to the President, meaning the SFA’s boss is the President.
And of course, we all know who the President’s boss is.
You the people of the Philippines.
Boom! Betcha’ didn’t see that coming.
The Awesome Conclusion
So far, I’ve spent a decade of some of the best years of my life serving in DFA, including a long six-year stint in China where I served as a Philippine consul (and started out as a vice consul). (Read: Interview on being a Philippine Consul) Still despite the years, I feel that am just starting to fully grasp the reach and complexity of this 140 year old institution.
If I’ve somehow was able to entice you to take a closer look at the DFA, consider joining our ranks. If you have a good heart and nimble mind, you might want to take that first step I did in my path towards working in the DFA twelve years ago. It starts with a step, for me that was taking the DFA Foreign Service Officers exam.
Are you ready to take yours?