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Development Theory v Practice: Visiting Oxfam’s Work in Mindanao

Duncan Green's picture

For me, one of the most fruitful aspects of ‘field trips’ such as last week’s visit to see Oxfam’s work in the Philippines is the exchange it sets up in my head between the academic literature and debates I’ve been ploughing through in the UK, and the reality of our work on the ground. A good trip confirms, improves or adds to your thinking, and occasionally shows you that you have got it all wrong. This was particularly true on this occasion as our staff and partners in the Philippines are both real thinkers (one guy passed a long car ride by listening to a lecture on Hegel on his laptop ‘for fun’) and activists (more on that tomorrow). The quality of discussions in a Manila seminar on active citizenship and food justice was truly impressive – nuanced and open minded, with no sign of the dogmatic, fissiparous Left I saw on my last visit in 1998 (when I had to give the same lecture twice because different fractions refused to sit in the same room). First some (relatively minor) new insights from all these interactions:

What role for INGOs in peripheral regions? This is a frequent situation – we work in remote areas, where a substantial part of the problem is neglect by central government and others. Per capita public spending in Mindanao is significantly less than in Luzon, home to the capital, Manila, as is aid spending. The same pattern is repeated in pastoralist areas in Africa, and indigenous areas everywhere. One thing we’ve never really got involved with much (as far as I know) is trying to shift national attitudes and beliefs (‘pastoralists are lazy – there’s no point in helping them’; ‘indigenous groups are backwards and need to be assimilated’). We do some work in the capital, typically raising specific issues like human rights or conflict, but what about applying our skills at framing, brand-building etc, and all those offers of pro bono work from ad companies, to shifting attitudes in capital (‘Marvellous Mindanao’)?

But local advocacy may well be more useful than national: Complaints about the state of the roads are universal (and well justified, if ourexperience is representative). They are an obvious advocacy target – do something about the illegal loggers (right) that are destroying the roads, spend more on fixing them, and get the local community to chip in some free labour if necessary. Another potential candidate is finance – the rubber farmers get into debt to the buyers, and then can’t negotiate better prices, (‘if we can break out of debt, maybe we can try new things’) partly because state banks won’t lend to long-gestating crops like rubber. So why not do some advocacy on local bank lending? More generally, who gets elected mayor at the municipal level is hugely influential on the level of priority the local government gives to small farmers – yet up to now we haven’t seen working around elections as a relevant ‘critical juncture’ for our model of change. Often, we seem a bit trapped in a combo of national advocacy + local programming, maybe because of the friend v critic tension (see next point).

We struggle to be partner and critic of the same institution: eg we work with local government on agricultural production, and that somehow prevents us challenging it on dismal road maintenance. Ditto the private sector – it takes a relatively sophisticated approach from both sides to both work with private companies and simultaneously to criticise them in public. One option is to get better at differentiating within institutions – we work with the agriculture ministry, but give public works a hard time on roads. Ditto leaders and laggard companies within industries. But often, we find this tension quite disabling – more for emotional reasons than practical ones, I suspect – it’s very hard to criticise someone in public and then have a meeting with them where you want to establish a rapport.

And some familiar issues and quandaries

Our secular blindspot: The Philippines is a very Catholic country (opening prayers before meetings etc); in addition there are the citadels of the homegrown variant ‘Iglesia ni Cristo’ (estimated 3m congregation) and the mushrooming churches of evangelical sects. Yet staff laughingly concede that we only engage with Islam (on women’s rights in Mindanao). They say it’s because of the Church’s opposition to the Reproductive Health bill currently before Congress, but that doesn’t really convince (the Imams aren’t exactly pro-reproductive health either).

Working with local government: The role of local government units (LGUs) has been central ever since the decentralization process began some 20 years ago. LGUs are authorised to lend money, hire extension workers, take out infrastructure loans and supply inputs (often subsidised). Yet many fail to raise local income and are heavily dependent on revenues from central govt. The level of underspend in Mindanao is currently running at around 25% (another target for local advocacy). What’s more important, supporting local government with finance and capacity building, or lobbying it to do a better job?

Is climate change adaptation just good development? Not entirely, but a high degree of overlap. New elements include climate-based weather insurance, getting farmers to use weather forecasting rather than traditional predictions, developing drought-resistant strains and new cropping techniques on things like water retention, and prior site suitability assessment. But it also includes more traditional good practices like income diversification and producer organization.

How well do we, or our partners, understand the local economy? I was struck by our partners’ insistence that farmers don’t save anything. This is in flat contradiction to the rich savings ecosystem discovered by Portfolios of the Poor. I suspect a more rigorous study would find both local savings systems, and a much higher level of income diversification, especially through non farm income, than we currently recognize.

Are we thinking widely enough? Apart from Imelda’s shoes and a national karaoke obsession, Filipinos are famous for two things – text messaging and migration. Yet we don’t work on either in any systematic way (eg partnering with Diaspora Filipinos, or building in mobile comms to our livelihoods work). Maybe that’s because what looks distinctive from outside doesn’t feel so important from the inside, but if we want to make the most of our global spread, shouldn’t our programming partly reflect such national specificities?

What about the youth? The Philippines is a young society – median age 23. How do we connect with it, if young people don’t relate to formal politics or NGOs and social media only deliver shallow links? Answers on a postcard please.

But this doesn’t really do justice to the warm bath of intelligent debate in which I was immersed – Filipino staff, feel free to put me straight! And if you want to read more about their work, take a look at their blog.


This post was originally published on From Poverty to Power

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