THERE ARE VAST economic opportunities that the manufacturing and services sector can take advantage of as soon as the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) hammer out a final peace agreement to end decades of fighting.
This was the message delivered by former Economic Planning Secretary Cielito Habito in a forum on reintegration and post-conflict reconstruction hosted by the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process and the World Bank at the Crowne Plaza Hotel Monday. The forum, attended by representatives from government and non-governmental organizations and various national and international multilateral aid agencies, was meant as a means to imagine a “post-agreement Philippines.” If anything, the forum was also meant to send the signal of just how close the government and the MILF are to forging a final peace agreement that would pave the way for reconstituted autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao.
“So many years ago, we would never have imagined a post-conflict forum,” said Louie Dumlao, chairman of the Economics Department of the Ateneo de Manila University.
In his presentation, Habito said that the traditional impediments that have prevented the country from “unleashing” the potential of Mindanao have been peace and order, inadequate infrastructure, land access, the tight power supply, governance issues, and an unskilled labor force. The peace and order issues may be resolved in part by the peace deal with the MILF, while governance and infrastructure issues are already being addressed, albeit slowly, by the current administration, he said.
“But there is an advantage that Mindanao has over much of the country,” Habito said – “superior agro-climatic conditions.”
By and large, Mindanao is relatively typhoon free, and abundant in primary resources such as minerals, natural resources, and fisheries, he said.
Another plus factor for the region – the relatively low wage rates compared to the rest of the country.
“In Muslim Mindanao in particular, an investor has pointed out that the wage in Metro Manila is two times the wage rate in Muslim Mindanao, and that is a major attraction,” he said.
Habito pointed out that the region is ripe to take advantage of the growing market for processed food products aimed at the majority Muslim population in Southeast Asia. “It is important to now that while Muslims are a minority in the Philippines, Muslims are the majority in Southeast Asia.. The potentials are there for the Islamic markets. Muslim Mindanao s well positioned to cash in on food processing driven by the growing population and rising incomes in the region,” he said.
“If we actually get peace, there is a lot of energy waiting to be unleashed,” Habito added. “All it takes is a leap of faith on the part of investors, not just foreign investors by also Pinoys who feel more comfortable investing in the Luzon and the Visayas.”
However, Amina Rasul, president of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy, said that government must first address other basic concerns in the region if such economic growth is to be truly inclusive. Otherwise, she said, those poised to take advantage of the development would be people other than the residents of Muslim Mindanao.
For example, Rasul said that half of the population ranging from 15 years and higher in the provinces of the Autonomic Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) are, for all intents and purposes, illiterate, or unable to read. If nothing is done to address this problem, Rasul said, most of the residents would be sidelined when jobs and other opportunities come to the ARMM. Then, any economic development in the region would end up again excluding most of the populace, causing even more tensions.
Rasul said that government just has little more than a year to fast-track any solution to this problem before the BangsaMoro is put into place.
“If you do not do something drastic in that one year, when peace comes, the ones who will benefit will be the residents of Davao, Zamboanga, Cagayan de Oro, General Santos and other areas where you have skilled people.” she said.
“If you want to make sure business and investments prosper, there has to be education for the marginalized,” she added.
There are many short and medium term ways of addressing this problem of literacy, she said. In fact, some local NGOs have already shown they can teach people the basics of reading and writing in just a few months time.
“You’ve got a very short window here, you’ve got a year of transition before the BangsaMoro is in place. What do you do so that you have a community that can sustain itself?” Rasul asked.
For her part, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Deles said the government has tried to learn the lessons from its experience with the Moro National Liberation Front.
Deles said that as far back as 2003, many MNLF communities had already been complaining that they had not experienced any change in their lives since the peace pact with the rebel group was signed in 1996.
“The peace dividends have not come down,” she said. “It was a good question, why did the communities not feel any differences?”
Deles said one conclusion they found was that there was an over-reliance on the military structures of the MNLF to implement the structures of peace.
“We understood that most of the programs were conceived to be coursed through the structures of the MNLF, the base commands,” Deles said.
“The programs were coursed through the base commanders, and very little got translated into programs for their communities,” she said.
Interestingly, Deles noted that the the women’s cooperatives in the MNLF communities were better able to manage their livelihood projects, even though “they had not seen any of the money that had been brought down under the conflict peace dividends.”
“We have to do things differently under any peace agreement signed with the MILF,” Deles added. “We cannot assume that the same structure, the male combat structure, would be able to deliver post-conflict dividends.”
“This tells us something, not to do it in the usual way. Not just because the structure of the group is a military structure, this means it should go the way of the military combat structure. We should be thinking of how to make it more sustainable,” Deles said.