Notes from the Field

Research Effectiveness: The Case of the Mindanao Conflict

December 18, 2013

Research is most useful for development practitioners when it is embedded in the entire endeavor, directing and directed by actions and reflections throughout implementation, rather than being something done initially to design a project and at the end to evaluate it.

The root of The Asia Foundation’s conflict management initiatives in the Philippines was a decision in 2001 to undertake a probability sample survey of households in Mindanao. A strategic planning session had suggested that beyond work on governance and economic reform, we needed to focus on Mindanao conflicts since unrest in the country’s south was holding back nationwide development by deterring investment and destroying livelihoods.

Rido training in Mindanao

A conflict management workshop and orientation on rido, held in Mindanao last year. When asked about their household’s experience with conflict, the most frequently mentioned sources were not conflict between the government and Muslim separatist fronts but conflict between families or clans. Photo/Karl Grobl

Perhaps the prime element in what Hans-Georg Gadamer calls “fore-knowledge” was the conviction that the experience of average citizens should be the starting point – and that in the Philippines we had the resource of a high-quality, non-government academic survey institution capable of scientifically rigorous surveys. The Foundation had worked with Social Weather Stations (SWS) since its founding in 1985, partnering with SWS to design and implement surveys. Asking individuals about a range of topics produces a perspective that is often very different from those of policy or governmental elites, and development practice benefits when it takes that perspective into account.

When asked about their household’s experience with conflict, to our surprise, the most frequently mentioned sources were not conflict between the government and Muslim separatist fronts (or with communist guerillas, or class-based conflict) but conflict between families or clans. Of course observers were aware of such conflict (that is, after all, why the option made it onto a questionnaire), but this was the first empirical statement of its prevalence. To follow up on this new insight, the Foundation worked with 17 local institutions and researchers on a multi-method research into what we dubbed “rido” (Maranao term for such clan conflict), which resulted in a published volume of studies in 2007.

The studies themselves became an element of development practice, as the Foundation actively briefed all stakeholders on the findings:  media were introduced to the concept so that they could better understand conflict incidents in the region, and briefings for the International Monitoring Team for a cessation of hostilities between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) helped the IMT distinguish between rido and incidents of separatist violence. The result was a better public understanding of when violence was localized and when it was part of a broader insurgency, and a decrease in the frequency of a phenomenon dubbed “Big Wars, Small Wars” where conflict between a clan with ties to the government and one with ties to a separatist front is mistaken for a separatist incident and escalated by reinforcements from the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Moro armed forces.

The research effort itself turned into conflict management, when one of the families in a major rido being studied requested the researchers to help broker a settlement. The NGO, serving as a “go between,” recruited a high-status individual equally related to both sides, and helped arrange a ceremonial kanduli at the settlement of the long-running conflict between the Tayuan and Manansakan clans. Since 2007, Foundation partners have used these and a variety of other methods to settle over 200 clan conflicts throughout the region.

After a decade of work, the Foundation has developed a large network of partners in Mindanao, working with more than 160 organizations, institutions, and government units not only to manage conflicts but also to improve local governance and economic reform. This network, along with a reputation for even-handed knowledge, no doubt contributed to the Foundation being appointed in 2009 to the International Contact Group for negotiations between the government and the MILF in Kuala Lumpur. Observation at the negotiations and the Foundation’s discussions with both negotiating parties led to a more detailed understanding of what questions could be asked in surveys to gauge citizen attitudes toward possible peace deals. Running the surveys then allowed the Foundation to brief both sides on the parameters of public opinion – not as a mechanical guide to particular details to be agreed upon – but rather as a way of being aware of possible reactions to agreements. In this manner, the survey research itself is the development practice.

So, research is embedded in a program arc covering over a decade, where certain presuppositions or “fore-knowledge” are tested empirically and new understandings developed. Having development practitioners actually involved in the research helps shorten the cycle time between knowledge and improved practice, but runs the danger of a too-narrow focus on immediate problems and not strategic enough view of possibilities. Here is where academics, with their insistence on theory building (and a willingness to discuss with development professionals a theory of change that ensures that theories are not too abstract) can be crucial to the knowledge-building process. For instance, Jeroen Adam has raised the question of the relationship between the community-level work and the more macro work on the peace process. In discussions leading to a forthcoming JRSP paper he has proposed a focus on “state-building” at the local level to help understand possible connections.

And, given that the peace process is meant to result in a new government unit within the Philippines, the Bangsamoro, a focus on building state institutions at the local level is welcome. This insight from an academic, along with the evidence being gathered to fill in the details, can be useful to development practitioners concerned with the implementation of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro by 2016.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines. He can be reached at srood@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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