IT is good to hear that the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (Jica) is preparing an “islandwide” development plan for Mindanao. The aim is supposedly to “narrow the gap between the Philippine baseline indicators and those areas affected by the decades-long conflict in Mindanao.”
That is good because for far too long, many provinces in Mindanao have been suffering from the absence of basic social infrastructure like drinking water, health and sanitation, education, good roads and bridges. If the supposed plan could really achieve its objective, it would make a lot of difference.
But if we are interested in long-term solutions to the “Mindanao problem,” Jica and the government should go beyond filling the gaps in economic indicators. It should move toward ensuring connectivity with the rest of the world. By connectivity here, we mean two things—physical and economic, as well as social.
By physical and economic connectivity, we mean the functional integration of Mindanao with the mainstream Philippine economy and the rest of the world. We often hear people from Mindanao complain of “imperial Manila” and policymakers based here in the metropolis simply view it with amusement. But these complaints about “internal colonialism” do have some historical and empirical basis.
If one stays long enough in Mindanao, one could easily notice that the cities or centers of economic activity on the island don’t seem to be linked functionally with each other.
For instance, there seems to be less economic interaction between General Santos and Davao City, or Davao City with Butuan, or Butuan with Cagayan de Oro or Cagayan de Oro with Zamboanga City.
Instead, these cities—all of them port cities—have ports where raw materials (rubber, gold, copper, tuna, seaweeds, pineapples, asparagus, timber, milkfish, rattan, among many others) are shipped away via Cebu toward Manila from which they are either processed or shipped to Japan, Europe and America. A classic colonial setup.
This problem arises from three factors. First, there are no world-class or decent road infrastructure between and among Mindanao cities and regions, thus discouraging intraregional trade and commerce. Second, road infrastructure within Mindanao cities and regions are themselves miserable, thus discouraging productivity. And third, government policy that tends to encourage monopoly and oligopoly in port operations and interisland shipping have been penalizing the Mindanao economy, thus preventing it from economically levelling up with the national economy.
The solution, therefore, is obvious: connectivity, connectivity, connectivity. The government actually tried to address it by coming with the Mindanao 2000 Framework Plan and had started implementing this earnestly with some funding from different donors like the United States Agency for International Development. Implementation of this plan, however, immediately bogged down when hostilities between government forces and the members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front erupted. The firefights lasted for months, displacing more than a million “internally displaced persons” or refugees.
The government scrambled to rehabilitate the towns and provinces (specifically North Cotabato, Lanao del Sur, Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao) affected by these hostilities. But in 2003, the military’s efforts to take Buliok Complex (the new MILF headquarters after the fall of Camp Abubakar in 2000) again disrupted the fragile peace. All these events simply highlight the need for a social connectivity that should complement economic solutions.
By social connectivity here we mean the need to build what social scientist Robert Putnam calls “social capital” or that aspect of our sociopolitical lives that promotes trusts, reciprocity and social cohesion.
According to the World Bank, social capital refers “to the institutions, relationships, and norms that shape the quality and quantity of a society’s social interactions. Social capital is not just the sum of the institutions which underpin a society—it is the glue that holds them together.”
Building social capital should be done at two levels. First, there is a need to build greater trust and understanding across the different ethnicities in Mindanao. Obviously, the century-long conflict may have bred hatred and biases among groups, ethnicities and cultures. This problem can only be addressed through greater dialogue and tangible reforms, including what Jica is contemplating.
And second, there is also a need to build “vertical social capital” of the relationship between the Mindanao communities and cultures and the State. Somehow, the government may have to address the Mindanaoan’s perception of being neglected. Mindanao accounts for 40 percent of the country’s total food trade and yet receives a small share of the government budget.
About 60 percent of the country’s indigenous peoples are in Mindanao. Hence, any long-term solution should include an effective or credible implementation of the Indigenous People’s Rights Act that aims to restore indigenous people’s control over their ancestral domains. The government may really have to engage communities through participatory planning, ensuring that economic or infrastructure projects being implemented are not disruptive or have the risk of creating more displacement and alienation.
Doing all these things would require greater investments from both the government and the international community. But it’s an investment worth doing because planners could never isolate Mindanao from the larger context of development.
The Philippines has a very good human and natural resources, strategic location, and excellent telecommunications infrastructure. And yet we wonder why we are not getting all those investments that are flowing into the economies of our neighbors.
The reason here is Mindanao. Unless we come up with a long-term solution, the troubles that continuously brew and occasionally erupt on the island would always paint the entire Philippines as a politically unstable country. It’s so easy to dismiss this as a perception problem but it’s exactly this perception problem that weighs us down every time we attempt an economic takeoff.
The Jica project is great but we should broaden our ambition to include a long-term solution to the “Mindanao problem.” (Originally written as editorial for the BusinessMirror, April 5-7, 2007).