Beyond humanitarian aid: Working together for social cohesion

Story by Arianne Gijsenbergh, photo by Pandeli Pani

On May 23, 2017, the Philippine army clashed with Islamic State-inspired militants in the city of Marawi, in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. The five-month battle that followed led to the displacement of 98% of Marawi’s population and of residents from nearby municipalities. All in all, more than 350,000 people (77,000 families) fled their homes to escape the violence, the severe food shortages, and the dire economic situation.

Most of the displaced people moved in with relatives or friends in other cities across Mindanao, including Butuan, where 300 families found refuge in the weeks after the fighting broke out. This sudden arrival of internally displaced people (IDPs) posed challenges for local government actors tasked with accommodating them. “I was really worried,” recalls Wilbert Ejos, Punong Barangay (village chief) of Barangay Ong Yiu, the neighborhood that received the largest influx of displaced families. “I didn’t know what to do, how to act, or even how to communicate with them, as they speak Maranaw.”

Although predominantly Christian, Ong Yiu is also home to a Muslim minority, comprising around 5% of the barangay’s population. Interaction between the two groups has always been limited. “They were not fighting, but there was discrimination,” explains Ejos. “Whenever the barangay council would organize a community event, the Muslim population would not participate.” As the Muslim IDPs started arriving in Ong Yiu, mostly without any source of income, fears rose that this could lead to an increase in crime rates and exacerbate the existing social tensions.

Strengthening livelihood skills together

Initially, government actors in Butuan focused on providing humanitarian aid to the IDPs, distributing rice, clothes, hygiene kits, medicines, and other goods to meet their basic needs. But it soon became clear that more sustainable support was needed to address the structural issues faced by the IDP families, notably the lack of livelihood opportunities.The carpentry graduates learned skills to build houses

Committed to improving the well-being of the IDPs, GIZ partnered with the SMILES Foundation, the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF), the City Social Welfare and Development (CSWD) office, and the local government units of barangays Ong Yiu, Limaha, and Sag Ignacio to establish the ‘Work with SMILES’ project. This 11-month project aims to strengthen trust and social cohesion between IDPs and their host communities in Butuan through skills trainings for shared livelihood activities. The project was supported by the BMZ-funded program ‘Strengthening capacities for dealing with conflict-induced forced displacement in Mindanao' (CAPID).

Through the Work with SMILES project, 223 individuals from 150 displaced and host families were trained in one or more marketable livelihood skills: food processing, carpentry, cellphone repair, garment making, and urban gardening. Muslims and Christians were trained side by side to encourage them to talk to each other, work together, and overcome their cultural barriers. 

But the training participants were not the only ones encouraged to work together. The planning and implementation of the project also required strengthening the collaboration between the different government and NGO actors involved. The regional NCMF office played an instrumental role in facilitating access to, and coordination with, the Muslim communities. They accompanied the other project partners to the field and helped identify and mobilize beneficiaries. “This project really helped to strengthen our relationship with other agencies,” attests Lingco Cabugatan, NCMF Development Management Officer. “They now trust us and know the functions of our office.”

The project also attracted support from other government actors. The Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) committed to provide follow-up trainings to the garment graduates, as well as free skills assessments to enable the participants to obtain national certificates. The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) pledged to support the graduates of the food processing trainings in packaging, marketing, and selling their products.

Building friendships, rebuilding lives

Although the Work with SMILES project was completed only in September 2019, some of the training graduates are already using their newly gained skills to earn income and rebuild their lives.

The graduates of the food processing trainings continue to meet in groups to produce mango jams, pickled vegetables, dried fish, and other products, which they sell through their networks and on the market. Some of the cellphone repair graduates have established their own shops, while others are employed in repair shops or work from home. The vegetables harvested in the urban gardens are mainly used for personal consumption, but some of the graduates have found ways to market their products. Ashima Ampatua, a Marawi IDP, started a small business selling tomato, okra, and cabbage seedlings to other families, earning up to 3,000 pesos (~55 euros) per month. The carpentry and garment making graduates are just starting out, but are ready to implement their business plans over the coming months. 

Besides equipping the training participants with marketable livelihood skills, the project also succeeded in bringing the home and host communities closer together. During a lessons learned workshop to evaluate the project, all five training groups indicated that they made friends through the trainings. According to Ejos, the impact of these improved relationships can clearly be felt in the neighborhood:

“The atmosphere in the barangay has become so lively, because everybody is in the barangay center working together. Christians and Muslims are now talking and laughing together, which was not a common sight before. When we organize a community event, both Christians and Muslims come, even the Muslim leaders. They are now very supportive.”


Johanna Sztucki