Interview with Diana Moraleda and Maureen Lacuesta

International Alert Philippines
Interview with Diana Moraleda and Maureen Lacuesta

TS: Could you tell me a little about yourself and the work you do as part of International Alert Philippines? 

My name is Diana Moraleda. I am the Senior Program Manager for Communications at International Alert Philippines. Before Alert, I worked as a communications officer for various NGOs. My background is in political science and multimedia journalism. I got involved in International Alert Philippines because I was interested in peacebuilding and I wanted to enhance my skills in communications work. I have been with Alert since 2017. 

My name is Maureen Lacuesta or Mau for short.  I am the Senior Communications Officer. I have been with Alert since 2017 and I started right after graduating university. I produce communications materials such as videos and infographics, manage our social media accounts, and do a bit of research as well. 

TS: Where is International Alert based?

DM: International Alert’s home office is in London, but there are offices in several countries in Africa, Asia, and Europe. In 1988, International Alert did some work for the peace process between the Philippine government and the communist rebels. However, our country office was established here in 2009. We have been involved in peace processes between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), and the national government before and after the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro (CAB) in 2014. 

 We were mostly involved with various research initiatives with the goal of determining the root cause of conflict in the Philippines. Our main question was: Why is there still so much conflict, mainly in the southern Philippines, in a post-conflict moment? 

In 2009, our then country manager Francisco Lara, Jr. spearheaded research towards that question and found out that there are several drivers of conflict in the area. 

-There are various rival groups in the area who possess the means of coercion. These are rebel groups, paramilitary groups, and later, violent extremists who have in their arsenal illegal guns, explosives, and other weapons. 

– There are rival systems of property rights including informal land markets that often run unregulated. These have caused enduring conflicts over land and resources which have been aggravated by development and investment practices and policies that are not sensitive to the context.

-There are rival claimants to the revenues from the shadow economies in illegal drugs and guns.

-Emerging complex emergencies, for example: COVID-19.     

The report: “Inclusive Peace in Muslim Mindanao: Revisiting the dynamics of conflict and exclusion,” was the basis of our work for the past 10 years. We examined the existing nuances and connections between these drivers of conflict. Subsequently, we tried to address these issues through multi-stakeholder processes with people on the ground. We also advocated for various policy changes at the local, regional, and national levels. 

The way we examined the root causes of conflict was through social scientific research because our senior management and various consultants are well-trained in the social sciences. We also run Conflict Alert, a conflict monitoring system that covers the five Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) provinces of Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi. It is our flagship program and the only one of its kind in the Philippines. 

We gather all the police and media reports and validate them in the communities. From these reports, we analyze incidents of violent conflict and their causes, actors, human costs, and manifestations. Every year we publish an annual report which contains data and analysis of that particular year and the years prior. Due to Covid, we just published the 2020 report, covering 2011-2019. There was a virtual launch on 25 January. 

Conflict Alert has evolved into other programs too. We have a Critical Events Monitoring System (CEMS), a real time gathering of data through SMS and high frequency radio. Our goal is to receive real-time data so that our Early Response Network (ERN), which consists of people in various locations in the Bangsamoro, can respond to the tensions and violent conflict appropriately. Alert uses data and analysis from Conflict Alert and CEMS in collaborating with local governments, key agencies, the security sector, and religious and traditional leaders to come up with nuanced and context-specific solutions to conflict. 

We also run the Resource Use Management Planning (RUMP) program. People are able to use GIS technology to plot the location of existing resources and conflict dynamics in a given area. This helps them plan how they want their resources to be used. The main purpose is to craft the Peoples’ Resource Use Agenda which gets presented to the local government so that plans for investment and development are conflict sensitive. It is crucial that development initiatives do not exacerbate existing conflict in the area and that it will not lead to new conflicts.      

So you can see the organic way our programs have evolved. It started with the main why question: Why is there still so much conflict despite the signing of peace agreements? Then we tried to address these other issues and took on new projects as well. We have obtained data on violent extremism too. That work mostly began in 2016 and peaked in 2017 with the Marawi War. After that we have taken on some PVE projects mostly involving leadership programmes for the youth and women sector in parallel with technical and financial support for their community change projects and advocacies. These programmes helped to ensure their meaningful participation in socio-economic and political processes in their communities and local governments. Many went on to become local government leaders who carry with them foundational peacebuilding frameworks and strategies they have learned in our programmes, most notably asking the why questions, using data, studying institutional multiplicity and endowments of stakeholders, leveraging social networks and influence, and building and sustaining multi-stakeholder processes for the desired outcomes.

TS: It is interesting that you mentioned the idea of being conflict-sensitive. 

We call it conflict-sensitivity and it is central to our efforts. We also work with organizations in the private sector to further promote conflict-sensitive economic governance. We get different stakeholders involved to help make operations of the private sector conflict-sensitive. 

TS: Would you elaborate on how International Alert Philippines works with different stakeholders?

Aside from national government agencies and legislators from both houses of Congress, we work with local communities and local governments because they are very important in the lives of people in the Philippines. It is not just the central government that has a say, usually the local governments do too. We also work with traditional leaders in the communities because they are extremely influential, especially when there are clan feuds. We also work with youth and women as well. 

ML: Especially during the pandemic, we have been working closely with the local governments.  We like to think that they are frontliners themselves, in the way that they are the people who are closest to the local communities. They can provide immediate relief and respond to tensions that may escalate to conflict in their areas. They are involved with CEMS. Most of the members of ERN are disaster risk reduction management officers, and they are integrated in the local government. When tensions or conflict arises,  the ERNs coordinate with relevant stakeholders immediately so they can respond quickly. 

For example, at the onset of the pandemic last year, we started getting CEMS reports of incidents of cultural insensitivity, especially towards Muslims. In the Islamic faith, it is important that the deceased should be buried within 12 hours. However, at the beginning of the pandemic, when there was not much available information about Covid, there was a national policy that required the dead to be cremated. This applied to everyone, even if someone did not pass away from Covid. Cremation is against the Muslims’ practice, so there was a lot of tension. Once we got these reports, we immediately coordinated with the national government, and the Department of Interior and Local Government sent out a memorandum mandating all local governments in the country to respect the cultural and religious practices of the Muslim community.  

TS: How has International Alert Philippines’ work been impacted by COVID-19? 

DL: In terms of our practices, like everyone, we have had to adjust. March 2020 was really the beginning of the hard lockdown in the Philippines, which of course limited mobility among our staff. We are usually in the field, but we had to stop traveling for many months, especially in the first part of 2020. Some of our staff also returned to their home provinces. 

But we couldn’t not do anything. 

We turned to Zoom calls and various other communication channels. Since we already established our regular programs with the local communities and governments, it was sort of easy for us to side step and adjust because of these strong relationships. I am happy to report that our work in terms of building all these social networks and multi stakeholder bodies has been put into use in this new situation.  Immediately, we contacted them to find out what they needed, in terms of conflict-sensitizing any COVID response. We are not a humanitarian organization so it is not in our mandate to provide relief or supplies. However, we wanted to position ourselves in such a way that all of our work in terms of conflict monitoring and resource use and management planning would be put into use. As I mentioned earlier, we had the RUMP. We applied the mapping technology that we were already using and created and deployed printed large format general reference maps to six local government partners in Lanao del Sur, Sulu, and Maguindanao.  

These maps contain the topography of the area, road networks and service areas. We had some people and partners on the ground working so we were able to deploy these resources to our ERN and the disaster risk reduction management offices of the provinces. They were then able to use these maps to plot out where to distribute relief. At the time people weren’t working and many were hungry, so they used these maps for their relief operations. They also used the maps to lay out areas for contact tracing, and to determine which zones had COVID-19 cases. Aside from the printed large format maps, we also gave out digital maps with different geospatial data. For example, we had geo-hazard maps and conflict maps that contain our Conflict Alert data, so these teams could determine which areas are vulnerable in terms of natural hazards and in terms of conflict (for example, which areas have more clan feuds or which areas are hotspots for violent extremist activity). This directly informed their planning process. These maps were important as they gave a visual foundation and made communication easier among the local frontliners who have been augmented at that time too by non-local security personnel who were not as familiar with the areas. 

We also continued our other work. In the last year, we have actually been able to expand the geographical coverage of the CEMS into Metro Manila and other provinces outside the Bangsamoro region. We have also started to increase the number of data harvesters. Within our office, we have put in place some pretty clear and safe protocols, so that people have been able to go to the office once in a while. Luckily, we have been able to host hybrid RUMP trainings. We have already managed trainings in three more municipalities. 

ML: Over the course of 2 months, around 300 people participated in our hybrid workshops in the latter part of 2020. There was a mix of face to face/on-site participants, but also people who connected via Zoom. We adhered to strict COVID-19 protocols where we existed in a social bubble. COVID RT-PCR testing before and after the multi-day workshops were required. 

As we mentioned earlier, we really have strong relationships with the local government partners, so throughout the course of the pandemic, it was really important to maintain this level of trust. We were transparent, made sure there was no misinformation, and really adhered to protocols to ensure the safety of both the participants and our staff. 

DL: Initially, some participants were wary of joining, but we worked hard to be transparent about our protocols and processes and people were happy to join. Pre-COVID, they would join us in a heartbeat. Now they were careful but joined us nonetheless because of that level of trust. As a result there were three municipalities that were able to produce their Peoples’ Resource Use Agenda.  That’s what we’re working on next, helping them advocate for themselves. 

We also did the hybrid setup for the publication and launch of our annual Conflict Alert report. Normally, we hold it in the World Bank office in Manila, which is usually very well attended by representatives from the national government, the diplomatic community, the security sector, the military, the police, civil society organizations (CSO), and the local governments. Our online launch this year was attended by about 300 people, which was more than our targeted number of attendees. Our panel of presenters were together, but our audience was in their respective homes and offices.

We also launched another publication in December 2020. The case study titled: “Power, Peace, and Place: Why firms account for their actions” focused on the story of the Davao-Multi-Stakeholder Group for Energy Concerns (DMGENCO) a group composed of  community members, members of civil society, the private sector, and the local government. It discusses how this engaged in problem solving and processes that ensured the operations of a coal-fired power plant would not cause conflict in their area. We are trying to roll this model out, which goes well beyond corporate social responsibility or the do-no-harm approach, and present it to different companies operating in communities so they can adopt it in policy and practice.   

We continued work with the Marawi Reconstruction Conflict Watch (MRCW) a body that Alert convened which monitors the effects of the reconstruction process in Marawi. It is composed of a number of local experts in the city. They have an immense understanding of what’s happened/is currently happening so they can advocate for things during the reconstruction process and flag issues that could potentially cause conflict in the area. Discontent and grievance can be a driver of violence extremism. There are still remnants of the Maute group in the area and they can harness lasting or new grievances to regroup and launch attacks. MRCW has been active in Congress. We have been able to help them converse with legislators and go door to door to gain support, especially when the Marawi Compensation Bill was being discussed. They were able to sit in on different public and private meetings and hearings about the topic.

Policymaking is a long process, so we are still not quite there in terms of results, but we have had some victories. We were able to present our draft bill to one legislator and he then submitted it to Congress. That means it will now be deliberated on the floor. 

I think the pandemic really made us more creative in terms of asking ourselves, “What we can do given our current situation?” For some, work may have been slow during the pandemic, but at International Alert, the pandemic has made us busier. The new communication challenges have been more stressful. But I like to think that we have been using our time well.

TS: Earlier you mentioned tensions with the Muslim community because of the cremation policy. Are there other groups in the Philippines that have been affected by the pandemic in similar ways? Are there other communities that have been disproportionately impacted by Covid? 

ML: In Alert, we really work closely with Muslim groups because they are a minority in the country. In Metro Manila, the capital and a predominantly Christian area, Muslims are usually pushed into urban enclaves. Last year when the hard lockdown began, people were forced to stop working, and were relying on relief from the government. We were getting reports from the Muslim enclaves that they were experiencing discrimination in terms of the relief. They kept receiving canned foods that were not halal. We contacted some national legislators and local government officials and coordinated with them to conflict sensitize the relief process so it was more culturally sensitive. There were also reports about unequal distribution. The relief packages were being delivered by tribe, so tribes that were more powerful or closer to the local government would get more goods. We also assisted in making those practices more equitable. 

DL: Another vulnerable group during the pandemic, is (pre-pandemic too, but more so during the pandemic), the Teduray (Tirurai). They are an indigenous group in the Maguindanao province. They own ancestral lands in the area that are supposed to be protected by the Indigenous Peoples Act. However, these lands are near MILF camps. The MILF consist of former rebels, and many of them make up the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA), the interim government in the region. As part of the peace agreement, these camps are supposed to be turned into peaceful, productive, civilian communities.

Since these areas are so close to each other with some overlaps, a lot of land issues have arisen. The Teuduray peoples don’t have land titles because they live on ancestral lands. However, you have people in the other communities who through the years have acquired both formal and informal land titles. So you have overlapping land claims. Since the rebels are still armed, and want to protect their interests, the Teduray are being violently driven away from their homes by clans from the MILF and other violent extremist groups, like the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). When there are clashes, the Teduray often get displaced and flee from their homes to evacuation sites. Since these sites are often crammed, the Teduray there has been more prone to getting COVID-19 and other illnesses. We have explained this situation in our Conflict Alert 2020 report. It is the main highlight; the land issues and the resulting clan feuding that has emerged in the area. Our argument is that if the BTA does not focus on this problem, it will be very challenging, if not impossible to make the necessary transition from conflict to peace.

Right now, the BTA is in a three year interim period where they are in charge. Currently, they are very much focused on “housekeeping work,” putting in administrative codes, budget codes. Basically, putting all the administrative foundations in place. So at this point it is very difficult for them to adequately address all the political problems at hand, in terms of making sure these community level conflicts do not worsen, or that violent extremism does not take root again. 

However, these land conflicts must be mediated in a manner that is cognizant and sensitive of the current and historical conflict dynamics in order to put a stop to the clashes. The interim regional government must also address these issues in order to fully secure their legitimacy to rule. We also called for the creation of a Technical Working Group composed of representatives from the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples and the Ministry of Indigenous People’s Affairs to promote, protect, and fulfill the rights of indigenous peoples in the BARMM (Conflict Alert 2020 report).  

TS: What motivates you in your work? 

ML: What motivates me is knowing that we can help marginalized groups and minorities, who are being discriminated upon. For me, personally, the opportunity to help share or voice out their issues is extremely impactful. As a communicator as well, our ability to amplify these voices to the relevant stakeholders is what really drives me in this peacebuilding and development work. It is really meaningful to go to the field, talk with people, and learn about their situation. It gives you a new perspective on how you can contribute to peace and development in the country. 

DM: What I really appreciate, and what keeps me going in the work that I do here, is the belief that when you give people enough opportunities and when you help remove impediments to personal growth and development, such as the reality and the threat of violent conflict, then everyone can achieve their full potential and we would be in a better place. What we are trying to do here is address the fragilities that people have. Especially marginalized groups, those who have not been given attention, and people in conflict affected areas most of all.

If you take away all those factors that keep them from being the best people they can be. If you take away the factors that impede their education, professional growth, and contribute to this atmosphere of fear, things will not only be better for them but for everyone in the country.

I see what we are doing in Alert as helping that process. It is not parachuting into communities. It is not assigning our own norms and our own values, but really working with people and reflecting with them on how they want their communities to run and then working together towards those goals. We can do this by using the processes that we know work and using our social networks, particularly tapping into our connections with influential people and policymakers who can push for change. 

To segue to Alert more broadly, I think what has really helped us through Covid, is that even before the pandemic we were prepared for this type of emergency. We have been monitoring  causal dynamics of conflict for more than a decade. We know how conflict can string from one type to another, how it can morph. We know what would likely create tension and erupt into conflict. 

Secondly, our interoperable platforms like Conflict Alert and CEMS give us granular data so our work is always evidence based. We are not just guessing what is best, we have evidence to back up our decisions. 

Thirdly, we have established social networks in all levels of government and in the communities and business sector too. They have really helped move us forward despite the pandemic. 

TS: How does gender play a role in your work? 

DM: We have monitored gender-based violence (GBV) through our Conflict Monitoring system. It is a very important part of that. Over the past ten years, we have seen spikes in GBV at different times, including right now during the pandemic. Our main focus now is figuring out how to get better data on GBV.

We have a law in the Philippines called: The Anti-Violence against Women and their Children Act of 2004, which prohibits obtaining GBV data from government agencies because of confidentiality clauses. With that in place, you don’t get the whole picture. Aside from that institutional barrier, there are other factors at play. For example, there is a stigma associated with GBV, especially in rural areas. Usually families or groups of families try to resolve these types of conflicts among themselves because they don’t want it to escalate into something bigger like a clan war. So that limits the information that we have. Therefore, without longitudinal data, it is challenging to accurately inform government and CSO programs and processes. We are currently exploring creative methodologies to get more data. That is part of our conflict monitoring work because we want to encourage more plans and programs that better protect women and their rights. It is ironic that the law that should protect women, and make conditions better for them, sort of impedes this process.

e also work really closely with different groups of women surrounding issues of agency. For example, in the Muslim enclaves in Manila, women really band together in groups. Usually their main concerns are about welfare services. They have community groups where they set up community-based businesses, so we help them with that process, linking them with institutes that train small- and medium-scale social enterprises. We assist them with organizational capacity building too so their groups become sustainable. We also show women how to access social protection services because so many people are unfamiliar with the processes. There are many rules and regulations, and forms to fill out to get health services or social protections.

Since we are working with data and people, and we have the macro view and the micro view,  many women are able to provide a concrete picture of what is happening in their communities, so that the data is not stale. For example, if there is a clan feud, they can articulate how they are being affected and what they need and what their aspirations are for their families. This information allows us to better move forward with program and policy recommendations and it also nuances our data. 

ML: Women are very vulnerable. Muslim women especially face a double burden, that of being a woman and being Muslim. We really want to involve them in our work, empower them, and provide them with more sustainable opportunities. Last year, we pioneered a Restorative Justice (RJ) course that ran for 12 weeks. In Marawi, the people who were part of the violent extremist groups were put behind bars in accordance with the standard justice system. We created this course to focus on restorative justice, which involves constructive alternatives to the typical retributive ways of responding to violence and wrongdoing. It centers on restoring relationships, reconciliation, repairing the harm done, and helping people peacefully reintegrate into their communities.

Based on our Conflict Alert data, we have seen that people often join extremist groups because of increased vulnerability due to socioeconomic status and poverty. People feel that they have no choice but to join these groups. Now, that the Marawi War is over, and violent extremism seems to be slowly on the decline, we really want these people to go back into their communities. We hope this can be done by providing them with new livelihood opportunities and mending the relationships of the affected families.

In our course last year, our participants were women leaders, development and peacebuilding professionals, and young civil servants from Lanao del Sur, the SPMS Box, (Salibo, Pagatin, Mamasapano, and Shariff Aguak), Zambasulta, and Metro Manila. Our hope was that the participants would apply the restorative justice approach in their own respective work. 

DL: Women have been a part of all that we do, always. From conflict monitoring, the community groups where we validate the data, our PVE work, to our joint advocacy efforts, serving as an important voice in our campaigns. Many women have joined our RUMP trainings, so they are given a voice in their Peoples’ Resource Use Agenda. All of our multi stakeholder groups include women too. We cannot think of doing something without factoring in and considering the important role women play in society. 

It is not smooth sailing all of the time though. You still have to contend with gender relations on the ground. You still have to contend with this often very macho world, especially when you talk to traditional leaders and local government officials who are mostly male. You have to understand the dynamics and work your way around them. You cannot necessarily push your agenda in a very straightforward manner sometimes, because that is not always well-received. It takes a lot of creative positioning, so to speak, making sure to identify and work towards the narrowest agenda that you and key stakeholders can work on together.

ML: I agree with Diana. Between our longstanding data and our social networks, we are able to understand what is happening on the ground, e.g. the different traditional and cultural practices. There is this important notion that when you work with a community you do not impose yourself. Rather, you should be adaptable and be able to adjust to your surroundings. As a woman, I have found that that is an effective way to engage with the local governments and traditional leaders. Additionally, our understanding of conflict, the context we are working in, and our studies really plays a big role in how we position ourselves as women in these different communities.

TS: What is one piece of advice you have for Philippine society? What are your hopes for the future?

DM: For me, it is to listen. Listen to each other. We do not have a monopoly on knowledge and we never will. It is important to be able to learn about what another person is experiencing and to understand what another group’s situation is because we all are embedded in our own communities. While there are different institutions that shape us and we have different interests, our interests do not need to clash or clash forever. There is a way to work through varying aspirations. One point towards peace and harmony is actually listening to each other and talking to each other, so that the conflicts that we experience do not result in violence. I think this applies everywhere in the world.

This is also my aspiration. Just for people to sit down, work through things, and have the respect to listen to each other and learn from our mistakes. Learn from what has been done and what works. Look at the data, look at the evidence. Life gets messed up when people think that they know everything. 

ML: I agree with Diana on that. It is really important to listen and understand where someone else is coming from. 

My work with Alert was the first time I really interacted with the Muslim community. Prior to my involvement here, I had a very outsider point of view of what Muslims were like, in part based on what the media usually feeds us.  When I joined Alert, my whole point of view changed. Your perspective can really shift when you get to listen to peoples’ stories and understand where they are coming from.

Through development work, I have always carried this understanding that we have different realities. My reality is different from other people. I come from a particular background which is vastly different from others. It is important that you don’t impose your beliefs or knowledge on other people, because they may live a very different reality. It is important to be able to listen and understand other people. I hope that more Filipinos can do this. If you get to know others’ point of views, then we can be more understanding of one another in the future.