As the world celebrates the International Day of Peace on September 21, we come face to face with an old realization: that war and violent conflict are powerful forces that hold back development. Whatever heights are achieved in making life better for the poor and disadvantaged can quickly crumble and lose meaning when a bullet escapes its barrel and causes violence to erupt. This is a cruel trap we have known for too long, and yet have time and again fallen into.
Peace is essential to attain lasting development. Indeed it is essential to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the set of objectives intended to better the lives of people worldwide, which leaders of 189 nations including the Philippines pledged to achieve by 2015 when they signed the Millennium Declaration in 2000.
In the Philippines, the status of the MDGs - which address poverty, education, gender equality, child mortality, maternal health, HIV and AIDS, environmental sustainability - presents a rather mixed picture. Disparities exist among different parts of the country in their progress towards meeting the MDGs. And while there are various reasons behind the slow movement towards achievement of the MDGs in some areas, the incidence of armed conflict appears to be one key factor. Take the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), where a cycle of conflict, armed violence and civilian displacements has come to define the lives of many for decades now. Information from the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) reveals that the ARMM trails behind other regions in making the MDGs a reality. As of 2006, ARMM posted the highest poverty incidence at an overwhelming 62 percent, beating the national average of 33 percent by 29 percentage points. That, on top of its meager regional performance in completion rate in elementary education (31 percent), households unable to meet the required food energy per capita (64 percent), infant mortality rate (33 percent), and proportion of births performed by skilled health personnel (49 percent).
The same story goes for other regions that have experienced armed conflict: in Caraga and Bicol, where insurgency by the National People’s Army (NPA) is a long-standing predicament, NSCB figures establish poverty incidence at more than 50 percent of the population, while the Cordillera Administrative Region has a poverty incidence of 35 percent. In Bicol, 38 percent of the children die before reaching the age of five, and 62 percent of the households do not meet the required food energy per capita.
For how can children manage to finish school, a farmer’s family augment its income, an expectant mother receive enough medical attention, or rural people have access to safe water, in a setting chronically disturbed by violence and armed conflict?
It is hard to forget that over a year ago, in August 2008, violence broke out in Central Mindanao between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and elements of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Triggered by the Supreme Court’s issuance of a temporary restraining order on the signing of the MOA on Ancestral Domain, that sudden burst of fighting gave rise to a spate of community displacements. Reports from the National Disaster Coordinating Council indicate that as of end-August, there remained 66,028 families (or 330,240 individuals), still waiting to return home. Those displaced by the fighting over the past year have gone through this experience time and again in a cycle of displacement and return, only to flee again when violence uproots them once more. As we only know too well, this cycle can be broken only by addressing the conditions that allow armed conflict to take root and grow. This must be coupled with a keen determination to pursue the peaceful settlement of conflict, and to uphold the fundamental respect for life.
There may be reason to hope that peace could be in sight in Central Mindanao. The government’s Suspension of Offensive Military Operations (SOMO), the Suspension of Offensive Military Actions (SOMA) by the MILF, and the restoration of dialogue between the two parties, are crucial steps forward. Most recently, both parties signed a framework agreement to establish an International Contact Group (ICG) to help advance the peace process. These developments bring about hope, but must be doggedly pursued towards bringing about a durable peace and sustainable development for Mindanao and the entire country.
Now that the world is six years away from the 2015 deadline to meet the MDGs, the need for mutually reinforcing initiatives to achieve MDG targets and a sustainable peace is urgent. Now more than ever, tolerance, human security, respect for human rights and a culture of peace must exist to serve as building blocks of development gains.
When the Philippines signed the UN Millennium Declaration in 2000 pledging to fulfill the MDGs, it was not only a commitment to halve the number of people living on less than $1 a day, or reduce by three-fourths the country’s maternal mortality ratio. It was a commitment to protect, sustain and bring about the peace so essential to lasting development.
The observance on September 21 of the International Day of Peace coincides with Eid al-Fitr, the conclusion of the Holy Month of Ramadhan. It brings about a season of renewed hope in our quest for peace and the MDGs. For all that desire lasting peace and development, today is an auspicious time.