Economic Development, Security, and Conflict Prevention in Muslim Mindanao

Tina Cuyugan

Economic growth in the developing world is increasingly viewed as more than a rise in GDP or a healthy balance of payments. Since the early 1990s, international donor agencies have made efforts to ensure not just the sustainability of economic development, but a more equitable distribution of the benefits of growth. A wide range of indicators – from infant mortality to school dropout rates – are factored into the process for evaluating the effectiveness of economic assistance programs.

Other indicators, perhaps not so easily quantified, are also drawing greater attention. To what extent do better incomes arising from a livelihood assistance project encourage participation in local governance? To what extent does trade encourage the movement of people and ideas, promoting diversity and tolerance?

Economic activity is more than numbers; it depends upon and fosters trust. Trade and investment depend on a system of transactions based on trust. A villager seeking a bigger market for his produce must deal with people from another village with perhaps a different culture, perhaps a different ethnic identity. To create economies of scale and attract investors, local businessmen must band together and observe common standards of business behavior – from the simple use of calling cards to the observance of international banking laws – that are increasingly applied from Beijing to Bucharest. This kind of interaction, driven at its most basic level by the desire to make a better living, reinforces both tolerance for diversity and a recognition of commonalities among peoples. These are attitudes essential for global survival and for the global market system, which despite its flaws and current inequities, holds the potential of shared prosperity.

Current global security concerns also call for greater focus on the symbiotic relationship between economic development and security. It can be most clearly discerned in areas recovering from prolonged violent conflict, simply because the choices are so stark and stability is so fragile. A peace agreement may be put in place, but what does the future hold for an ex-rebel who returns to his village with no abilities other than combat skills? Bitter memories of war, combined with poverty and social marginalization (particularly in the case of internal conflict), stoke resentment and can lead to renewed hostilities. Societies are rarely so vulnerable as in the aftermath of war.

Multilateral and donor agencies engaging in livelihood programs in post-conflict communities do more than merely alleviate poverty; their assistance plays an important role in rebuilding social systems destroyed by war by bringing ex-combatants and their communities out of isolation and reintegrating them into the economic and social mainstream, thus helping to prevent renewed violence. If economic development can effect such transformations, then fostering a healthy economy may be a strong guarantee for maintaining peace and security in areas that have not yet degenerated into zones of conflict.

Unfortunately, current monitoring systems for overseas aid do not adequately cover the relationship between economic assistance and conflict prevention or resolution. Reporting systems still focus on the meeting of quantitative targets, such as the number of jobs created. Little or no attention is given to the radiating effects of economic development on the perceptions of communities formerly in conflict, to how this kind of development helps restore and strengthen the delicate fabric of social capital.

And while there is no dearth of groups, both within government agencies and among NGOs, who monitor and analyze situations with the potential for armed conflict, there is a need for a similarly systematic and thorough monitoring of peace initiatives and their effects.

The Case of Muslim Mindanao

The Mindanao group whose activities have received the most widespread media coverage in recent years is the Abu Sayyaf (approximately 200-300 active members), which commits kidnap-for-ransom and publicity-seeking atrocities and is said to have ties with al-Qaeda. Another is the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (approximately 15,000 members), with which the Philippine government has been conducting peace negotiations.

Little public account is taken at this time of the Moro National Liberation Front (from which the MILF split in 1984). The MNLF, numbering 45,000 to 65,000 regulars, signed a peace pact with the Philippine government in 1996 after more than two decades of intensely bitter fighting, with violence reaching a peak during the Marcos regime. There remained, however, the problem of post-conflict transition: the MNLF regulars retained their arms and following the peace pact were jobless and unskilled. Eventually some 7,500 would be absorbed into the police force, but that still left several tens of thousand men and their families, most of them living in communities without basic services.

The Mindanao economy was just beginning to recover then, with international donors playing a major role in the ongoing development. One USAID-funded economic development program in operation since that time is worth considering for its link to the prevention of conflict. In 1997, then President Fidel Ramos appealed to the international community to give special attention to Mindanao’s post-conflict reconstruction. USAID set up a bilateral emergency livelihood assistance program that provided more than 13,500 former guerrillas of the MNLF with a sustainable means to earn a living and re-enter the mainstream through agricultural activity. Each program participant was directly handed sacks of seed and other agricultural inputs sufficient for two harvests (in contrast to other donor programs, which generally coursed funding through government agencies or cooperatives). The participants were monitored and provided with training in growing corn, seaweed, and other crops. This program was up and running within one month of Ramos’ appeal.

Surveys showed that, aside from reaping harvests above the national average, the majority of program participants were still farming two years after the livelihood program had ended. There is strong evidence that the assistance had a ripple effect that went beyond ensuring simple sustenance for the participants and their families. With earnings from their initial harvests, the former combatants were able to buy simple farm machinery, rebuild their homes and communities, provide their children with more education, and set up microenterprises that employed neighbors.

There were also less tangible benefits, more difficult to assess, perhaps, but crucial to the issue of security and conflict transformation: the concrete realization by MNLF fighters of the “peace dividend” promised by the Philippine government; the regular contact and building of trust between Muslim Filipinos and the mostly non-Muslim Filipinos who ventured into the former conflict zones to assist program participants in planting; the regular interaction with commodity traders and officials; the access to information, consumer choices, and cities, which few had previously experienced; the ability to work alongside former comrades who were now also productive farmers; and the confidence that comes from secure livelihood coupled with pride of accomplishment.

Since 1996, the overwhelming majority of the MNLF has kept to the peace agreement, even as the government remained in conflict with the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf. In 2001, Nur Misuari, a disaffected MNLF leader who was losing support among other commanders, attempted an armed rebellion. Only a handful of members joined him, mostly younger recruits, and the uprising was swiftly quelled.

As in many other post-conflict situations worldwide, the transition to peace in Mindanao has not been easy and many problems remain. Some of the MNLF could not make the adjustment from war commanders to effective community leaders and officials. The predominantly Muslim provinces are the poorest in the Philippines, with the highest dropout rate at all levels of education. The government continues its military operations against the other Islamic rebel groups, leading to internal refugee flows and loss of investor confidence. One should also consider the current tension in the greater Muslim world following the Iraq war, as well as the prospect of new waves of extremism spreading to Mindanao from other parts of Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, a foundation has been set in place for peace and security in the region, and that deserves attention.

Today the MNLF is engaged in running the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and USAID, along with other donors, provides assistance to the region in governance, education reform, and economic development, working with local chambers of commerce and commodity associations – a number of which are headed by former MNLF commanders. MNLF leaders meet regularly with USAID and other U.S. government officials and have acknowledged the United States for its support and for being the first to respond to Ramos’ request.

The relationship between USAID and the MNLF, one marked by trust and mutual understanding built up over time, is worth considering in its historical context.Mindanao is the site of the first U.S. military intervention against a predominantly Muslim population, during the Philippine-American war. Muslim casualties in 1903-06 alone numbered 3000, including women and children. The U.S. maintained a colonial government in Mindanao until Philippine Independence in 1946. While the military campaign in Mindanao is a largely forgotten historical footnote in America, it remains in the collective memory of Muslims in the region.

Since the 1990s, the Philippine government has stressed that the long-running conflict in Mindanao cannot be solved by military and political means alone and that economic development is a key to preventing future instability which could foster extremist movements. On her state visit to Washington, D.C., in May 2003, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo affirmed the Philippines’ commitment to the global war on terrorism within the following context: “We consider the U.S. a strategic partner not only in security matters but also in the economy, in the fight against poverty.” During the visit, it was reported that Washington had promised more than $95 million in aid for the predominantly Muslim region of Mindanao, including military assistance, support for the ongoing peace process, and economic development.

In light of current events, the case of Mindanao and other instances in which development assistance has been provided to post-conflict societies deserve closer attention. Their progress should be reviewed from a broader perspective than the relatively narrow considerations employed by international development agencies to date. A rigorous study across regions showing the correlation between economic wellbeing and the ability of specific groups previously engaged in violence to make the crucial transition into peaceful, healthy societies could lead to a more solid development/security paradigm and to new global strategies for ensuring peace and prosperity.

Tina Cuyugan
Tina Cuyugan was a Humphrey Fellow in 2002-03 at the University of Maryland and most recently head of communications at GEM, the Growth of Equity in Mindanao Program, funded by USAID. The analyses and opinions expressed in this essay are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of USAID or the GEM Program.

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 5 (March 2004). Islam in Southeast Asia