how the world sees america

USAID's Promise to the Philippines

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CARMEN, Philippines - Amalia Datukan worried that if America didn’t follow through on its pledge to provide farming assistance here, she’d have to pay with her life.

That was back in 1997 when the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)'s Growth with Equity in Mindanao (GEM) project hired her, a Filipina local, to help them distribute aid to Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels. The MNLF, a Muslim insurgency here in the southern Philippines, signed a peace agreement with the government in 1996. USAID wanted to make sure that peace held by giving former fighters a stake in it.

But Amalia's tough childhood memories complicated her new job. When she was fourteen-years-old, MNLF combatants blasted Amalia's hometown, forcing her family to evacuate. Amalia grew up a refugee, thinking all MNLF rebels were “violent, irrational, unreasonable people.”

So how did she feel distributing aid to these former combatants on behalf of the U.S. government?

In August, 1997, Amalia boarded a rented car with local women and USAID personnel and ventured to places she’d avoided her whole life. Off the main highway, she turned up a dilapidated dirt road, traveling over rickety bridges toward the hills of rural Mindanao.

Buildings were strewn with bullet holes. Farms were overrun with weeds. Stray children eyed her strangely.

Amalia became one of the first non-combatant civilians to visit the MNLF headquarters of rebel leader Datu Dima Ambel, also known as Commander Aladin. He was taciturn. She was terrified. Men with long hair and beards ambled by beside veiled women in camouflage fatigues. They all carried AK-47s, M-16s, and what looked like rocket-launchers.

A Bangsa Moro woman and former MNLF combatant named Adel Ditucalan introduced Amalia. “They are here with the U.S. to bring you aid,” she told the commander. Amalia hardly spoke, worried she might upset the rebels. One thought kept replaying in her mind: America had better come through with the aid it promised. “Otherwise, I was afraid they’d kill me."

Even Commander Datu Dima was skeptical. He'd seen other do-gooders come his way, promising lots, delivering nothing. Anyway, aid workers might be spies.

But exactly one decade ago, Amalia and America kept their promise. On her fourth visit back to the MNLF headquarters, she brought seeds of corn and fertilizer to the former combatants. “You could see their look of surprise,” she remembers, “Tears on their faces…the combatant’s wives brought their guns and laid them down,” taking her seeds instead.

Both Amalia and Datu were convinced: this was for real. It was the beginning of a deep friendship.

Since 1997, USAID has provided direct aid to former combatants in the form of "livelihood projects." Unlike other international donors that help the Philippines government build infrastructure for the war-torn areas, America is visible at the personal level. Aid packages come with letters to commanders. New farming projects have American flags plastered on their ready-made signs. These are things the former rebels appreciate, Amalia says.

USAID has helped turn run-down farms into fruitful cooperatives. Former combatants grow mangos and corn to feed themselves, and GEM project helps them sell produce for profit.

One former combatant’s wife, Gianida Lumanggal, now leads the Moro United Multi-Purpose Cooperative farm, supported by GEM. Speaking purposefully, she sounds like an USAID spokeswoman: “Because of livelihood projects of the government of America…the peace has been kept,” she says confidently, touring me through a banana grove.

Datu Dima agrees, adding, “If America had been here in 1972, perhaps we would never have taken up arms.”

Amalia says America made a big difference to her too. After a decade of working with these MNLF combatants, Amalia’s view of the Muslim insurgency here has changed. “I thought it was a religious fight,” she says. But since the U.S. pulled her from her old job with the Philippines Department of Agriculture into her new job helping former rebels face-to-face, she’s sees that the "violence was about poverty."

USAID's media shop shows me a parade of beneficiaries from their work. But I have a few lingering questions. First, why help these combatants who led to the deaths of hundreds of Filipino soldiers and citizens? Second, aren't there impoverished Christians living nearby who do not receive USAID? Third, is this advancing U.S. interests? Will these former combatants stop kissing America’s hand when America stops buttering their bread?

Corn on the concrete.

Amalia says she’s well aware of these concerns. She responds by saying that local Christians were once upset, but now see that pacifying their Muslim neighbors enables prosperity all around. Next, USAID makes sure its projects are sustainable, phasing out aid slowly and wisely. And finally, she says America's image wasn't on USAID's mind, nor on the minds of the rebels, either before or after the assistance.

Datu Dima affirms that he didn’t think the U.S. had anything to do with their decades-long fight with the Philippines government for political and economic rights. As a side note, he says, the U.S. just manufactured some of the weapons that both sides used. Nothing more.

He adamantly supports U.S. troop presence in the area, even though they are attacking some of his former comrades who didn't sign onto the peace accords in 1996. "We love the Americans [military presence] here," he says, "they will make the others seek peace too."

Gianida agrees. She doesn't think America is at war with Muslims; she never has. This is about local stability, she says. No newspapers come this way. There's no internet either. News for her is, and has always been, entirely local.

Then one last question. The cooperatives still have weapons, guards, and an undisclosed stockpile of ammunition. “Why don’t you give it up?” I ask Datu Dima's aide, Fred Edillor.

“It is for protection. We all have it,” he replies. Amalia explains that the arms are meant to help protect these former combatants from loose commands and renegade factions that haven't yet acknowledged the peace accords.

I ask Gianida, whose husband works at one of these warehouses, “If aid suddenly stops, is there a risk of you taking up arms again?”

“No, I don't think so,” she says, then adds, “I don't know. But we have come very far. And America has promised to stay with us... They have promised.”

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Comments (13)


USAID's work in Southern Philippines is a challenge to build bridges, not of steel, but of hope. While the rest of the world "branded" the muslims as "terrorists", it is refreshing to note that there's a band of ex-rebels who "converted" from arms to farms.

We were involved in the GEM project as trainors for these ex-rebels. As we were training them to do business, one female participant whispered to me - "if my son goes to college, will he be able to be as dashing as this young CPA(certified public accountant - who taught them basic accounting)

It is truly not a religious war that they are fighting. They just want to make their dreams come true not for themselves but for their families.


Thank for posting this story. I hope our friends in America are happy to learn that they have contributed well in the transformation of former rebels become productive and better citizens of the country.


Ties with the US, huh. A couple of weeks or so ago, there were reports about the US and the World Bank stopping military aid and money lending, respectively, unless the Philippine government does something about the killings. Well, the killings continue, but the threats were rescinded.

Also, about a year or two ago, the National Security Adviser hired an American firm to study (or lobby for?) Charter Change, which was a big issue during that time.

There have also been reports about the US military (who are here to supposedly train their Filipino counterparts) engaging in combat with Muslim separatists.

Of course, there's the Subic rape case, in which the convicted serviceman was moved from police detention to the US Embassy in the middle of the night. Almost a year since then, the convicted rapist still isn't in jail.

Amar C. Bakshi:

Hi Benjamin,

Thanks for the note. I still might do a piece on Glenda Gloria later on (after finishing up the series proper), because her story is an interesting one. I have to tie each entry to the U.S., but human rights and the role of the military are both interesting topics. Would be interested in your experience in the Philippines and thanks for this comment.


I am disappointed that you ended your series of articles on the Philippines without even mentioning the murders of journalists, lawyers, activists and even priests. Just last Christmas Eve, another broadcast journalist was gunned down in Davao City - the fifth this year.

Almost 100 journalists have been murdered since 2001, when President Arroyo came to power. In May 2005, the Philippines briefly surpassed Iraq as the most dangerous country in the world to practice journalism - a fact the government denounced as unfair, despite its being undeniable. Also, more than 800 government critics have been murdered, with eyewitnesses pointing to the military in most cases.

Considering that the government likes to reward military generals with juicy government posts after retirement, it becomes clear that this country is slowly becoming a police state, with Arroyo no better (or even worse) than Pervez Musharraf.

Amar C. Bakshi:

Hi Berne,

Interesting point. Do you think aid is just for leverage? The Philippines could always decide to renounce it were that leverage to become too burdensome, do you agree? As in the case with bases in 1992. Also, can you provide links to the rape case in Subic. The case with Nicole in the south is of course legendary but I'm not sure which Subic rape case you refer to.


Is it difficult to question the intent or motive of anyone whose acts directly benefit those from the grassroots? Be as it may, such foments a continuing dependence upon the United States, and serves as a bargaining chip for the United States to satisfy the ends of its interference in domestic affairs. I hope some would be reminded, as an example, by US Ambassador Kenney's pronouncements months ago, that U.S. mercy medical and relief missions to typhoon victims might suffer if the Philippines does not hand over a US marine accused (and later convicted) of rape in Subic. Way to go!

Amar C. Bakshi:

Hi Westerner thanks for catching that. I didn't see it on firefox, but on IE it showed the fact that an html tag was left open.

Lam Ang, I'd love to hear the thoughts of some of your friends in Jolo too! Where are you based?


Nice to know that there is at least one group of muslims who don't hate the US and actually see us in a good light. Why don't we help the muslims who like us, more than the muslims who hate us? I mean at least these muslims are looking to help themselves by working their farms with the seeds and fertilizer that they get instead of promoting themselves as victims and getting aid that way.


Why is there a lot of underlining in the posts above?


Another case where the U.S. is bending over backward for Islamic terrorists and getting no thanks for it from Muslims around the world.

If poverty were to cause people to turn homicidal terrorists, I would believe there would be fair share of Christian, Hindus, Jewish, Atheist terrorists as well.


this kind of U.S. involvement certainly makes much more sense than supplying weapons, such a policy should be more commonly used. poverty is usually the cause of violence

Lam Ang:

I have some friends in Jolo who are so happy with the new broadband internet that USAID is providing.

I think the Marshall Plan for the Muslims in the south is almost 100 years overdue. Here's one of the massacres similar to modern day Fallujah:

Sadly, the Marshall Plan for Iraq is worth $1.5T and it is a thankless plan for the Philippines where a little less than 1M Filipnos died.

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