This was published in the Yellow Pad column of the BusinessWorld on June 9, 2008, page S1/4. Robert Hoyer, a graduate student at the University of York, England, spent two months in Southern Mindanao for academic studies on culture in development.

Mindanao, especially in areas of conflict, has become the focus of bilateral and multilateral donor agencies. Private or non-governmental donor agencies have followed suit.  A bulk of their development assistance goes to war-torn Mindanao, hoping that aid will alleviate poverty and contribute to lasting peace.

A cursory glance at the evaluation reports, working papers, program visions and mission statements of development agencies shows numerous references connecting conflict with economic development.  This bias is particularly relevant in Mindanao where the development apparatus has continually assumed that economic improvement is a key factor in the attainment and maintenance of peace.

Consequently, much of the international assistance in Mindanao is based upon this economic interpretation of conflict where the targeted recipients of aid have been predominantly those related to the prolonged fighting.

By providing resources predominantly to former combatants, development agencies have unintentionally created an incentive for individuals to ally themselves with those groups in order to receive benefits.  Then, by disbursing aid through government institutions or “partner” NGOs that operate or collaborate with government entities, donor institutions are providing tacit support for state positions. The donors’ perspective that the conflict in Mindanao is largely based upon economic imperatives, in concert with responses that reinforce governmental mechanisms of control, invents and reinforces social antagonisms in ways that undermine the initial socio-political grievances felt by many of the target populations. These misdiagnoses, based upon faulty, biased or one-dimensional categorizations, are common to the development experience in Mindanao where local partnership organizations often perpetuate this positioning of recipient communities through funding applications to international donors. In turn, such donors insist on programming that speaks to Western perspectives, rather than local cultural understanding.

International donors have consistently pursued agenda that are foreign to the cultural understanding of the recipient populations.  Current funding imperatives impose gender-related, culture-related, capitalistic, and environmentally-based projects that are alien to the largely patriarchic and subsistence-based traditional livelihoods of the Muslim and indigenous populations of Mindanao.  Rather than addressing the socio-historical causes of conflict, or involving themselves in the existing social structures for resolution, development agencies have imported and applied certain concepts and constructions to the pre-existing tensions that are far more locally relevant than foreign interpretations would indicate. This translates to institutional intrusions into cultural and gender identities, reproductive control and economic functioning of local communities.

While these international interpretations of the conflict in Mindanao may not be entirely wrong, their simplistic characterization of the actors involved betrays the complexity of the situation and undermines their own efforts at peace.

Perhaps it is time for international development efforts to address conflict to adopt an approach that is historically, culturally and anthropologically sensitive in order to achieve better results, especially over the long term.  The impasse in the peace talks and the threat of resumed hostilities should impel the development planners and implementers—government and private, foreign and local—to reexamine their aid orientation and practices in Mindanao.