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Sunday June 19, 2011

Plodding on in conflict zones

HOW does one do developmental work in conflict areas? Surely it would make more sense to stay away and avoid being kidnapped or killed?

Milet Mendoza, a humanitarian and development worker for 21 years, doesn't think so.

“How do you penetrate the community if you don't deal with the evil that is there for the greater good? If a boat doesn't leave the pier because of the high waves, you will never reach your destination,” says Mendoza, an Abu Sayyaf kidnap survivor.

For Mendoza, it boils down to the “art of engagement”. There is a need to understand and engage the parties involved, including the community, religious leaders, the local government, military, rogue rebel groups and combatants, and see where they are coming from.

While acknowledging that she might not have the answers, Mendoza strongly believes that aid and development organisations need to think things through.

“The art of peace building is really about challenging your own mindset and looking at it from different frames. It is not a one-size-fits-all sort of thing. It is about appreciating all human dimensions, including historical inequalities that have led to the situation today.

“We have young generations inheriting a culture of violence because that is what they are familiar with and nothing new is being presented to them. There are no other options or opportunities available to them.

“Peace is not possible unless you have addressed how you breed the young generation of new leaders.”

Mendoza points out that millions of US dollars from multilateral and bilateral aid institutions have poured into Mindanao, yet there is still conflict and the people remain poor.

She notes that most people in frontline government agencies are political appointees who want money, control and power. Hence, you have clans and immediate families running the executive and legislative offices, and “local governments” are allowed to proliferate because “they deliver the votes for the politicians in power centres”.

As an example, she cites the Ampatuan massacre in Mindanao in 2009 where 58 people, including 32 journalists, accompanying family members of candidate Esmael Mangudadatu to file papers to stand in the Maguindanao gubernatorial election against the son of the incumbent, Andal Ampatuan Sr, were gunned down by hired killers.

For her, a “listening ear and an open heart” is important when it comes to engaging and understanding people and their needs.

“The people in conflict areas can do positive change if they own the situation and believe they can make the change. The best in people come out in the worst of times. I've witnessed that both in situations of natural disasters and in conflict areas.

“When the community is engaged and put in their sweat and labour on something they deem important, they will take pride in what they are doing. At the end of the day, they will realise they made positive change because they did something more than any outsider could ever do,” she says.

Mendoza stresses that intangibles are just as important as the tangibles.

“Development projects are often about tangibles such as infrastructure what can be seen and counted.

“We have become too KPI and target oriented, a tick in the box. But all too often, we find that the spirit to run the programme is not there. So you'll see in some places a daycare or health centre with nothing but goats inside and no programme functioning effectively.

“But a typical aid and development organisation will tick its checklist and say task accomplished'. They forget that there is so much more that can't be seen by the eye.”

Mendoza also speaks of the need for more innovative and creative approaches. Some of the communities she has worked with celebrate violence and their history of conflict is a source of pride because they believe they have successfully defended their homeland.

Five years ago, when the Abu Sayyaf threatened to kidnap her team members who were working on a community-based water and sanitation project in Mindanao, Mendoza approached the community's political and religious leaders.

“I said: Shame on you if any harm falls upon my team. You invited us to your community, and our security problem is your problem.”

As a result, the community guarded her team and no harm came upon them in the four years they were there.

“Make it their responsibility and they'll take pride in it. This is an art which you realise when you are there,” she says.

Mendoza likens development work in conflict areas to “stepping on broken glass”.

“You are walking on sacred ground but need to tread carefully, with much respect and sensitivity. It's always like one step forward and 10 steps back.”

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