Will aid help or undermine Mindanao’s new start? Scott Guggenheim is worried.

April 24, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

Scott Guggenheim
Scott Guggenheim

Community Development guru Scott Guggenheim emailed some provocative thoughts on my piece last week on Mindanao, with much wider relevance to the localization debate, so I asked him to turn it into a blog.

I like your piece but I’m a bit longer in the tooth than you and so slightly less optimistic. You are entirely right that the MILF leadership has been quite good on social issues like gender equality, religious tolerance, and ethnic inclusion and it is great that the administrative autonomy from the agreement is also underwritten with a pretty credible annual budget.

But a lot of the underlying drivers are still there — deep corruption, land conflict, Christian expansionism — and if Indonesia is any guide, those Saudi charities that have been supporting Islamic education end up operating like long-term time bombs. And I am sure that the fighters and their leadership now expect to reap the rewards of peace. Those rewards will largely not be coming about by former combatants inventing the next generation iPhone.
Mindanao will also have to deal with post conflict aid distortions. An Indonesian feminist activist friend has a theory to explain why, in part, we now have such a corrupt and repressive fundamentalist regime in Aceh after all that international assistance. It’s not a coincidence, she says.  Her view is that up until the tsunami, there had been a fairly stable equilibrium between the conservative mullahs and the more secular student and NGO activists, mediated by their shared opposition to Jakarta. Once the big aid guns — UN, Oxfam, Care, ICRC and so on —  came rushing in, they of course all wanted to hire top quality, English speaking or willing-to-learn-it young people. Aceh’s own NGOs vanished in a puff of smoke. And, once they became staff in an international organisation, any freedom to push back on the resurgent conservative domestic political front disappeared. Mullahs triumphant.

Mindanao won’t be as flooded with money and people as Aceh was, but one little side chat we can have in a year will be about how many of those really lovely Filipinos you interviewed are still working in fully Filipino grassroots organisations. The Philippines NGO community is in many ways considerably more established than the local NGOs in Aceh, Timor L’este, or Afghanistan were when I worked in those places during their early reconstruction, thank goodness, but even so I would be pushing hard, now, for both wage caps for all foreign aid, and for an international NGO and aid agency consensus to work through local organisations but to not hire away their leadership and staff.

Donor funding to contractors should similarly include conditions about not hiring people away with distortionary salary offers, and audits to provide a check that they aren’t doing this under the table – the absurd “consultancy” wages that donors and contractors pay in these situations are an unfortunate side effect of all those bright Washington and London ideas about performance bonuses to contractors.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front

This problem of gutting local capacities is another case where each individual agency may have the best of intentions to get the most qualified, most capable staff to help on their very important mission, but the net effect is to not only undercut the local groups that had been operating on shoestring budgets before (and will have to do so again later), but it also instantly creates local property and food price inflation that ends up screwing the poor people you’re supposedly there to help. By contrast, twinning with local NGOs or working through them has all sorts of advantages.

I’d also encourage a lot of formal and informal consultation with the MILF and local authorities, not just with the UN or parent NGO groups. These guys seem to be starting off on the right foot,  but they are going to quickly be overwhelmed as they try to deal with Manila-based spoilers, their internal corruption and problems, and then of course the tremendously high expectations of the people. They will drown if the international aid community is also doing its usual gig of heavily fragmented programming and one-off projects that the new administration is expected to maintain later but actually knows nothing about.

Here there are some really good lessons to learn from Aceh, where the strong and well-managed BRA (Aceh Reconstruction Board) did a pretty good job setting up consultation structures and technical standards that all international donors, including the NGOs, had to follow. Before they were issued,  you’d be amazed at how many cases we had of well-intentioned housing that had to be torn down because a lack of proper drainage led to malaria outbreaks, or rebuilt wells that stopped working because nobody could fix the really nice piping that unfortunately wasn’t for sale in Acehnese villages. The point here is that the aid community should be pressing for a strong MILF role and setup, even if it ends up causing some hassle for people who would really rather just get on with it.

lot also depends on how strong a Mindanao-based governance structure can emerge from the peace agreement and

Reconstructing houses
Reconstruction of houses in Banda Aceh

how much control it can maintain over its former soldiers as they begin to demobilise. This is a very, very hard balance to strike, especially in an area so loosely integrated like most of Mindanao still is, since you don’t want to keep a large guerrilla force under arms for very long, but if you demobilise them before the new government can assert “real” control, you can quickly end up with a lot of banditry and predation.  CSOs have a key role to play in this discussion because the new government will simply not have the ability to monitor human rights violations, sponsored provocations, and crappy development delivery. Without better feedback from the field, it won’t take long for the MILF reformer’s good intentions to dissolve into lost credibility.

Finally, I think some thought and comparative dialogue should go into how those wonderfully hopeful and articulate Muslim women’s voices get sustained. Again, in both Aceh and Afghanistan the rush to do projects and for both donors and NGOs to hire away local NGO leaders was just devastating. To this day, it literally boggles the mind to watch grassroots Muslim womens’ networks like  KUPI, Musawa, Alimat, and so on here in Indonesia struggle  for even basic core support while international agencies, including international NGOs, pick off their most articulate leadership. I hope a lot of effort is going into understanding that the political and advocacy role of such groups is a valuable end in itself in these situations

Still, the start does seem hopeful and with people like you, TAF, and others able to warn people about following smarter “do no harm” principles in this sort of environment, maybe they can pull it off. Indonesia seems to have done so, albeit with some worrying backsliding of late, but it is still by and large doing well, and with Istanbul, Sudan and Tunisia all showing signs of people’s power revivals, it’s entirely possible that the Filipinos lucked out on their timing.