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Building A More Solid Evidence Base for Peace and Development in Mindanao

January 14, 2015

By Derkie Alfonso and Celestino Habito

Conflict-affected areas of Mindanao in the southern Philippines form a complex, unpredictable, and highly dynamic environment that makes development programming very challenging against a backdrop of general urgency. Over the last 15 years, The Asia Foundation has been engaged in Mindanao with programs that improve local governance, support the private sector, fight corruption, devise ways to manage community conflicts, particularly clan conflicts (known as rido), and support the peace process with Muslim separatist organizations.

Conflict in Mindanao

Conflict-affected areas of Mindanao in the southern Philippines form a complex, unpredictable, and highly dynamic environment that makes development programming very challenging against a backdrop of general urgency. Photo/Karl Grobl

Our Mindanao team is presently implementing programs that involve a diverse range of participants: the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), civil society organizations, religious leaders, and Philippine government agencies, including local governments, bureaucratic agencies, and the Philippine military and the police. While we have built up a strong, on-the-ground knowledge of what works and what doesn’t work based on our programming experience, this experiential learning is increasingly not enough in a changing landscape that demands further data and analysis to support outcomes.

Almost three years ago, our Mindanao team started using the theory of change approach to come to a better understanding of the coherence of our programs that address conflict and support the peace process. Prior to the introduction of the theory of change as a conceptual tool, it was difficult for our team to show how the many different actions – and the arguments to support these – were leading up to broader goals. Does training religious leaders to handle community affairs improve state-society relations? Will managing community conflicts strengthen peace negotiations with insurgent groups? Working with different civil society groups and government partners in multiple fronts in a fast-changing and difficult operating environment, it was often a challenge to bring staff and partners together and have discussions using a common platform to discuss program strategies and see the “big picture” of our work in peace and security. In our efforts, we were bolstered by efforts of the Justice and Security Research Programme to work with the Foundation in the Philippines and elsewhere to examine how theories of change were actually being used.

As a process, our use of the theory of change created a venue where staff are given time to think, discuss, and make more explicit the different rationale and assumptions – “why we think what we are doing will likely get us there.” It shifted the focus from the traditional activity and output orientation of individual projects to higher-level outcomes. The regular venues and conversations around the theory of change gave us a chance to step back and reflect. By investing time and resources to convene several times a year, the Mindanao team – together with some local partners – has been building in a process for iterative learning to help answer the question: “What lessons are we learning and what are they telling us?

As an output, taking the theory of change approach for Mindanao has given us better clarity of shared outcomes, not just at the project level, but more broadly in the context of the overall program. When talking with donors, the theory of change has helped Foundation staff demonstrate how seemingly disparate interventions being done by the team are linked and complement each other. Foundation staff are mindful that the theory of change must not be a rigid management tool, but one that affords flexibility to analyze and revise strategies and “pathways” in finding better ways to working for peace and stability in Mindanao.

A good illustration of this has been our programs that support the on-going peace process between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Philippine Government. On the surface it would appear that there are only two parties involved in the peace process. In reality, the stakeholders are very diverse with various political and economic interests at stake. On top of this is the existence of various armed groups, such as elements of the discontented Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) which had a previous peace agreement with the government. Local clan conflicts (rido) further muddle the already difficult path to peace. Therefore, careful analysis of the web of relationships needs to be firmly articulated in the design of peace process related programs.

For instance, how does work at the community level (local partners engaging high status individuals to mediate between two feuding clans) relate to work on the peace process between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (technical assistance to institutions implementing the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro)? Or what work at the community level with religious leaders helps the security sector have a stronger capacity for conflict mitigation?

The challenge – and current aspiration – for our Mindanao team is how to become better in 1) building more solid evidence to support our arguments for doing what we do; and 2) evaluating outcomes and measuring the extent to which the Foundation has contributed to results laid out in the theory of change. How can we produce data that supports our conclusions? It is not enough to assess the overall theory f change based only on the front-line program staff and the partners’ perspectives. The TAF-JSRP collaboration has been a good opportunity for us to examine our own theories of change, as the research findings, while still preliminary, have brought a fresh outside perspective to the team’s discussions. Moving forward, our team hopes to bolster our analytic process to include multiple lines of evidence from other sources, more robust research, and specific measurement of quantitative and qualitative indicators. By building a more solid evidence base for our theories, we can then demonstrate that the theory of change can be an effective tool for finding better solutions and getting better results.

Derkie Alfonso is The Asia Foundation’s results monitoring officer on the Mindanao Team, and Celestino Habito is a senior program officer on the Foundation’s partnership (with DFAT) team in the Philippines. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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