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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

International aid groups and AFP discuss humanitarian efforts in Mindanao

Petty Officer 1st Class Fletcher Gibson
Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines Public Affairs

DAVAO, Philippines -- Representatives from more than a dozen humanitarian aid organizations and civil-military operations experts from the Philippine and United States armed forces met here July 27-29 to discuss how they could work together more effectively together in Mindanao.

At the request of Lt. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer, the commander of Eastern Mindanao Command, members of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines worked alongside their counterparts in the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to help facilitate the conference. The general said the goal of the conference was to promote cooperation and understanding between the military and the non-government organizations (NGOs), which will ultimately enhance the effectiveness of their collective efforts while helping prevent misunderstandings.

“More often than not, we didn’t know what the other was doing,” he said. “It’s time to get to know each other.”

Collectively, the attending groups represented some of the largest international humanitarian organizations operating in Mindanao. They included the United Nations’ World Food Program, the Japanese International Corporation Agency, Australia’s overseas aid organization, AusAID, as well as The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

For many of the participants it was the first time they’d met their counterparts in the other aid organizations. As each group discussed its mission, ideas began flowing about how much the groups could accomplish through tighter coordination. “Synergy” was the key word that came out during the discussions.

“We’re not here only about Australian programs in Mindanao, but the broader community,” said Patricia Domingo of AusAID. “We used to keep information to ourselves, but we’ve learned that’s not a good way to do things.”

“We found this forum very useful,” added Alghassim Wurie, the deputy country director of the UN World Food Program Philippines. “We’re forging partnerships that will lead to peace.”

One challenge of the meeting was ensuring the neutrality of the attending groups who depend on that reputation for continuing their works.

“A lot of the people who provide humanitarian aid have to remain neutral or it could be detrimental to their mission,” said U.S. Army Capt. Janette Kautzman, team leader for JSOTF-P’s Civil Affairs Team 735. “They need to meet with both sides of a conflict to paint a better picture.”

Humanitarian aid groups have a lot to gain from working with the AFP, according to General Ferrer. With the AFP’s help, they can better focus their efforts on where they’ll do the most good.

“We can recommend to these agencies where they can put up these projects because it’s the military who knows where these things are needed,” said Ferrer.

Even with the strides that were made during this meeting, it was just the first step of what the participants hope will be a continuing effort.

“This was an eye-opener,” Wurie said. “I hope to see more of these.”

In addition to AFP and JSOTF-P civil-military planners, the attending organizations were AusAID, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Organization for Migration, JICA, Oblates of Mary Immaculate Inter-Religious Dialogue, the Mindanao Economic Development Council, the Office of the Presidential Advisor for the Peace Process, the Philippine Department of Agriculture, the UN World Food Program, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the UN Department of Security Services and USAID.

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