This year, the Philippine Development Forum (PDF) was held in Davao City on Feb. 4 and 5, a significant move after the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro. The PDF, organized by the national government and its development partners, has a special focus on Mindanao in anticipation of the peace to come. The Mindanao Development Authority, chaired by Secretary Luwalhati "Lu" Antonino, organized the first Mindanao Development Forum on Feb. 1 to provide Mindanao’s leaders an opportunity to come together and present a common agenda to be presented at the PDF. 


I was invited to speak at both fora, an opportunity I gladly seized to ensure that the needs of "other Mindanao" were not forgotten. The "other Mindanao" refers to the communities of the Bangsamoro and the Indigenous Peoples, who are often overlooked. Allow me to share with you my reactions to the development plan, from the perspective of Muslim Mindanao.


Sixteen long years after the signing of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement between government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the journey to peace has been on a rough and tumultuous path. Allow me to thank the friends and partners of Mindanao who have continued to support us through the years of uncertainty. Finally, under President Benigno Simeon Aquino III, the negotiations between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have yielded the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB). To us, the agreement signed on Oct. 15 last year, is a harbinger of hope. We all await the details of the agreement -- on power sharing, revenue and wealth sharing, modalities and the transitional mechanism.


Building on the achievements of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement with the MNLF, the FAB will recreate the existing ARMM to make Muslim Mindanao truly autonomous. A transition commission will draft the basic law that will replace the Autonomy Act (RA 9054), which has been criticized by many Moro leaders as flawed and deliberately designed to make the ARMM fail.


This historic FAB is the closest we have come in 16 years to ensuring lasting and just peace as well as equitable development in Mindanao. However, we at the PCID caution: "The greater challenge is the transition period. It would be make or break for Muslim Mindanao. MILF and all stakeholders of the Bangsamoro must be able to quickly but effectively respond to the new peace and development formation, or risk permanent failure on top of the flawed ARMM experiment." Some of the concerns:


• Economic sustainability. As the concept of the Bangsamoro political entity is being developed, we need to address the long-overlooked lack of fiscal autonomy of the ARMM. To date, there are no significant businesses and investments, no revenues to be collected. At this point, we must prepare for the establishment of a business and investment climate conducive to the development of an efficient and robust private sector, both formal and informal. Economic growth remains elusive in Muslim Mindanao, the least served region of the Philippines. Instead, the ARMM is one of the three poorest regions, has the highest under-employment rate physical capital, the worst human development indicators. For decades, the dismal security, unstable peace and order conditions in ARMM have driven away private investments and commerce, while providing fertile ground for remunerative criminal activities such as the Aman ponzi scam, kidnap for ransom, drugs and arms dealing, smuggling and human trafficking.


With the FAB, there is now widespread hope that the vicious cycle of conflict and poverty can finally be broken. But it will take time, and will require the Bangsamoro authorities to create an environment that encourages private investment and employment. Without this groundwork, the Aquino "Inclusive Growth" development strategy and opportunities such as the BIMP-EAGA will continue to pass over Muslim Mindanao. But are the Bangsamoro prepared?


• Coordination among government institutions. Since the creation of the autonomous region, governance and delivery of services have been hampered by the unclear relationships among the regional government, national government agencies, and local government units. For instance, the ARMM regional government is supposed to be autonomous but its budget is decided by the national government agencies. Another example: even if the ARMM has the regional agencies under the regional governor, the provincial agencies such as Health are under the local government unit. In preparation for the Bangsamoro new political entity, these relationship issues must be addressed.


• Reforms for a transparent and accountable government. ARMM Regional Governor Mujiv Hataman has taken pride in the reforms initiated by his administration, from implementation of the full disclosure policy to "ghost-busting" of ghost students, ghost teachers and ghost schools.


• Capacity building of the bureaucracy. A major prerequisite for effective governance: we must fast track the capacity building of the leaders and civil servants who are running and who will run the Bangsamoro government. Development partners have cited this lack of capacity, time and again, as a factor hindering delivery of services.


• Education, productivity, and participation. The national government’s priority on school children and youth is truly commendable. The annual budget was increased, strategies and programs for greater access and inclusiveness in education implemented, while convergence initiatives with other agencies were forged to improve access and expand coverage to formal education. Formal education will undoubtedly improve in Muslim Mindanao, but what of over 600,000 adult illiterates in the ARMM? While government and development partners focus on children and youth, there is scant attention afforded adults. Public investment in adult literacy is hardly felt.


In ARMM, the focal point of the FAB, how can these 600,000 plus adult illiterates participate in "Inclusive Growth" and gain employment (outside of low-skilled manual labor) or seize the opportunities or peace dividends to come? If the benefits of the FAB are to be immediately felt by the marginalized Bangsamoro families and communities, shouldn’t there be a specific strategy to provide literacy skills to the over 600,000 adults who cannot read or write? This is a low-hanging fruit with tremendous positive impact.


Further, Muslim women in ARMM are the most vulnerable. The Magbassa Kita Foundation, Inc. is in the third year of implementing its Literacy for Peace and Development (LIPAD) project for adults and will graduate a total of at least 62,500 neo-literates or some 10% of the total adult illiterates of ARMM. The MKFI-LIPAD adult literacy classes showed that 87% of the total illiterate learners enrolled at the barangay level are women. Many of the women learners are beneficiaries of the conditional cash transfer program, which is tied to the performance of children in school. Shouldn’t we invest in literacy program for these mothers so that they can actually help their children do well in school?


Shouldn’t there be a higher investment in adult literacy to increase workers’ productivity and improve industry competitiveness in Muslim Mindanao? Or shall we see migration of literate and skilled labor force into Muslim Mindanao, once peace comes?


Isn’t it important for this significant number of adults -- over 600,000 constituents -- to be given the skill they need in order to be able to understand the issues -- including the complicated issues about the FAB -- and participate in governance?


• Greater coverage and better-coordinated social protection programs. The MDF and the PDF highlighted food security and nutrition, protection of vulnerable women and other marginalized groups, among others. However, the reach of government and donors in Muslim Mindanao is still limited, with government and civil society organizations unable to deliver public service to the inaccessible and out of the way areas. How do we achieve this, given the weakness of the present delivery mechanism?


• Improve the delivery system for services. For the past decade, we at the PCID have been recommending an alternative delivery mechanism for services in Muslim Mindanao: tap the Muslim religious leaders. First, the Muslim religious are influential at the community level through the mosque and the madrasah. Second, every Muslim village has a mosque and a madrasah (though most are informal). Thus, it seemed obvious to us that capacitating the religious to serve as community outreach would ensure wider coverage of Muslim Mindanao. We have been developing a community model, centered on the madrasah. We call this Action for Madrasah-Based Advocacy and Learning project or AMAL. Significantly, amal is also an Arabic word that means both "hope" and "action."


Imagine, if you will, a madrasah teaching mothers about maternal and child health care after teaching children about Islam and Arabic language. Or teaching literacy to parents after the children are taught how to read the Quran. Or holding a discussion about the FAB. This is possible with AMAL.


The AMAL approach will strengthen the resilience of the communities as it provides a "community center" to be part of the implementation of national social development programs. Specifically, it can step in the gap and improve coordination in the implementation of national programs among and across agencies and institutions. It can help enhance governance that will ensure effective delivery of social services. It can also contribute to an effective generation of timely and accurate data that are crucial in the formulation of policies.


The above seven points were my reactions to the government’s development strategy for inclusive growth, particularly for Muslim Mindanao when peace comes. As a parting comment, let me remind: growth is not inclusive, particularly in Muslim Mindanao, if we do not have a strategy for over 600,000 Bangsamoro adults who cannot read, cannot write and are isolated from the larger community. The Philippines has been declared by the World Bank as East Asia’s Rising Tiger. Let not the problems of Muslim Mindanao trip up the Philippines and change the title to East Asia’s Limping Tiger. 


Blog AminaAmina Rasul is the President of Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy.

Surviel is her column in BusinessWorld.

Follow her on Twitter @aminarasul.