Technology has been the highlight of the new normal in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost everything was deemed as better if it were ‘digital’ that even karma was jokingly seen as such. But as yin is inseparable from yang, I would even go as far as saying that hope has also turned digital.
The whole world has been forcibly thrusted by the COVID-19 pandemic into lockdowns that now contactless transactions are the norm. Everyone is forced to negotiate through digital messaging and meetings have become like seances where everyone would be staring into shiny glass screens, often saying ‘can you see me?’, or ‘can’t hear you, you’re breaking up’, or ‘next slide please.’ The global pandemic has kept the world away from its social self because everything was considered safe from the obstinate virus if there were zero contact with another human being. It was right in the middle of this new surreal world that I packed my bags and moved to Cotabato City to lead the lean team of UNDP’s Localizing e-Government for Accelerated Provision of Services (LeAPS) Project.
Simply put, LeAPS is the digitalization of the basic services and providing support to the BARMM government using ICT solutions. But nothing is simple in BARMM. For one, BARMM used to be ARMM. And adding the letter B to ARMM is actually the culmination of decades of negotiations between the Philippine government and groups that rejected the validity of ARMM, triggering the bloodiest armed conflicts in the archipelago. This is over and above the rido (family feuds), community disputes and political bickering commonplace in the region. Thus, the phrase ‘fragile state’ is the mantlepiece of Muslim Mindanao.
When the BOL or Bangsamoro Organic Law was passed, the ‘new’ BARMM was granted three years to transition to governance that is responsive and efficient. This also meant uniting the 13 ethno-linguistic groups that make up Muslim Mindanao which includes the Iranun, Jama Mapun, Palawani, Molbog, Kalagan, Kalibugan, Maguindanao, Maranao, Sama, Sangil, Tausug, Badjao, and Yakan. As for me, it was not only Bisaya that I could not comprehend or speak; I did not even know that there were more than two Muslim local dialects.
Yet, digitalization was like my second skin, and proudly so! For 17 years, my career was about developing ways to utilize technology and creating the best social opportunities. In 2000, I developed the first e-commerce site for the pre-need industry in the Philippines. In 2006 I looked at greener pastures and for 13 years I found myself managing projects on digitalization and innovations in different countries within the Asia-Pacific region. The most memorable of these posts would be in Timor-Leste because I arrived just before the unrest and factional fighting forced some of the population to flee their homes, including myself and my colleagues from various UN offices. Suffice to say, I knew I was wearing the right shoes when I landed at, what others warned me as, the volatile Bangsamoro region.
At the heart of this gargantuan task of digitalization is BARMM’s Ministry of Interior and Local Government (MILG), headed by Atty Naguib Sinarimbo. Through masks, face shields and the constant smell of disinfecting alcohol, Minister Naguib enthusiastically welcomed the lean team of UNDP-LeAPS and so did the whole MILG team who immediately formed the Technical Working Group (TWG) of the LeAPS project.
Minister Naguib was not only supportive of LeAPS but saw digitalization as, in his favorite term, the ‘pole vault’ that BARMM needed to leapfrog into the fourth industrial revolution. The MILG has long perceived that ICT solutions would not only provide faster access to public services in BARMM but would also blue-pencil the red tape that has haunted Muslim Mindanao for ages.
It was the A2i (Access to Information) program of Bangladesh that provided the perfect inspiration for BARMM’s digital dream. In 2010, as a chief executive secretary of what was then ARMM, Minister Naguib hied off to Bangladesh at the insistence of the former Resident Representative of UNDP Philippines. Minister Naguib’s mission was then to find ways to improve the delivery of education in Muslim Mindanao. In the ramshackle houses in the slums of Bangladesh, Minister Naguib and the team from ARMM was shocked to how modern technology was used continuously bust the then Millennium Development Goals (MDG) indicators set by the United Nations. This was despite the fact that Bangladesh then ranked high as one of the poorest nations in the world.
Eventually, I learned that Minister Naguib held on to this vision until he became the Minister of BARMM’s MILG where he found the right opportunity to pursue the vision.
In 2020, with most cities under General Community Quarantine, the LeAPS team travelled to Butig and Piagapo in Lanao del Sur to call on their municipal mayors who expressed eagerness to be chosen as pilot sites. This eased the initial feeling of trepidation knowing that both sites, Butig specially, were notorious for being the playing field of the ISIS-inspired Maute brothers. And though Butig was almost a dead spot for all mobile carriers, Butig Mayor Dimnatang B. L. Pansar was committed to dispense resources to find ways to solve the issue.
By November 2020, employees from the two municipalities travelled to Davao City to participate in several trainings to prepare them for digitalization. Though new to the concept of blended trainings--- of main facilitators instructing them through Zoom with guidance from assistant facilitators on site---the participants were able to design prototypes of services that may be part of the LeAPS and how to use DevLIVE+ to enhance their plans for the municipality. The Piagapo group even brought with them their office’s new desktop units and existing laptops for the trainings. That kind of participation from the group that travelled for six arduous hours to reach Davao still impresses me until now.
Butig analyzed the processes involved in acquiring a birth certificate. In tears, one of them recounted seeing an elderly Muslim leaving his muddied slippers outside of the municipal hall while transacting business. Why? Because bapa (muslim term for elder male) thought of the municipal hall as a revered space.
Piagapo traced the application for business permits and realized that there were requirements that could be hastened if the offices were near each other, similar to the concept of a one-stop shop found in other cities.
Rapport between the LeAPS team and the participants was easy and fun. Sixty percent (60%) of the participants in all these trainings were women who, at one point in their lives, knew how taxing it would be for a new mother to register for a birth certificate while a newborn is wailing to be fed. Though the Muslim culture is still predominantly patriarchal, the number of female participants shows that more and more Muslim women are entering the realm of civil society.
January 2021 greeted the world with the roll out of the COVID-19 vaccines.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, American physician-scientist and immunologist and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) of USA, has declared that the cavalry is finally coming with the release of the vaccines in the US and other first world countries. But this yet to reach the shores of Mindanao, and while BARMM waits, LeAPS pins a better future through the improved delivery of basic services towards the #DigitalBangsamoro roadmap from 2021 and beyond.