US study shows nonviolent path to solving insurgency in PH
MANILA, Philippines—A new US study on governance in conflict-ridden areas could help light up a path toward solving the communist insurgency in the Philippines as the current violent, take-no-prisoner tactic to the rebellion, now a higher priority for the Duterte administration, has only proven worse for wear over the years.
In a new study published in the American Political Science Review, professors Nico Ravanilla, Dotan Haim and Renard Sexton showed that consistent, robust government engagement with community leaders in conflict areas help make people less skeptical and more likely to cooperate with the state during times of crisis.
This effect, they found, was particularly strongest among villages that were previously neutral or sympathetic to New Peoples’ Army (NPA) rebels, and which have been disenfranchised from social services.
The findings of the study, “Sustained Government Engagement Improves Subsequent Pandemic Risk Reporting in Conflict Zones,” were based on the implementation of a social services program called “Usap Tayo” in some 200 villages in insurgency hotspot Bicol since 2019.
The program was designed by the researchers, the Philippine National Police (PNP), the Department of Social Welfare and Development, and participated in by eight other civilian line agencies, according to the researchers, who spoke with the Inquirer last week.
It’s essentially a series of meetings between village chiefs and the program’s officials to connect residents with social programs like job training and agricultural assistance.
Ravanilla, a Filipino, said the project was actually inspired by a similar idea from former regional chief of staff Col. Ronaldo Cabral, who had wanted to test a different, more grassroots approach to the communist rebellion seething in Bicol.
“(Cabral said he thought) this was a hard sell to present this (idea) to the national government because there’s no evidence,” Ravanilla said. “So he thought it would be great if he could work with us, implement the program scientifically in a way that we can learn from it. If it works, he has the evidence to present to the PNP.”
The program objective, Haim said, was to see how government leaders “can win the trust of barangay leaders,” who are crucial mediators in conflict-ridden areas, and “to (get them to) cooperate in government programs that are really needed in their barangays.”
This was because, for several decades, NPA rebels have peddled the narrative that the government “is incapable of meeting their needs and that it’s not worth interfacing with the government,” Sexton said.
“Many of the village leaders that were pro-rebel genuinely didn’t believe that the government was capable or cared about helping them,” he added. “We think that Usap Tayo really changed that attitude, and it was in those places that were hardest to reach that we saw the biggest changes.”
The Usap Tayo meetings began in July 2019 until the lockdowns started in March 2020, Haim said. During those meetings, the village leaders had a chance to air their grievances and to relay their needs to government officials.
The COVID-19 pandemic later presented an opportunity to measure the confidence-building effects of the program on the leaders, who would then have to cooperate with the COVID-19 task force headed by their local police.
The study found that village captains who participated in the program were 20 percent more likely than leaders in control villages to respond to the COVID-19 task force with timely risk information. That effect is even stronger among pro-NPA village captains who were ambivalent toward government before the Usap Tayo program was implemented.
“These captains come from rural areas that are, for all intents and purposes, ‘neglected and forgotten’ by the government,” Ravanilla said. “So even though it’s only been a short amount of time that the government was interfacing with them, that made a huge [impact] on the leaders’ impressions.”
Echoed Sexton: “Usap Tayo itself was very simple but the relationships it facilitated and the programs that people got access to, for these places that have gotten so little, these resources are real.”
In all, the study showed that consistent efforts to deliver services and build relationships in conflict zones can improve outcomes during times of emergencies. But it also showed clear alternatives to the aggressive military approach that has been the cornerstone of our counterinsurgency efforts over the years.
If anything, the police’s role in the study proved that state agents “only needed a little bit of guidance and training,” Ravanilla said. “As soon as they saw the bigger vision of what they’re doing they just began to internalize its importance.”
Sexton said he and the other researchers planned to continue the Usap Tayo meetings in the future in hopes of gaining more longer-term results. But “we really encourage these kinds of programs [that have] a more significant, long-run whole-of-government approach to providing services to people in conflict-affected areas,” he said.
“What they really want is to live lives where they have economic opportunities,” echoed Haim. “Focusing on improving good governance shouldn’t be thought of as a small aspect of that strategy, it needs to be front and center and it’s something that needs to be sustained.”