By Jason Gutierrez
Sunday, June 14, 2009
MARAWI: When American consumers dial a toll-free hotline for customer service support, they may not be aware they are helping bring an end to a long-running insurgency half way across the world.
Some of the calls are routed to a call center in the Philippines’ southern Muslim heartland, the Southeast Asian theatre of the US-led war on terror where part of a new strategy is to smother the insurgency with job empowerment. The US Agency for International Development through its Growth with Equity in Mindanao (GEM) program has teamed up with a business process outsourcing firm, known as a business process outsourcing (BPO), in a novel venture to train and employ youths in this Muslim stronghold.
The rationale is to teach them English and hire them for backroom jobs outsourced by American firms seeking to cut operational costs at home.
Those behind the scheme hope that with more money and improved living standards, many will be weaned away from violence and contribute to developing a region racked by 40 years of insurgency.
"We are hoping to give them stable, long-term employment," said Rene Subido, a GEM official who helped devise the plan.
"By giving them a stake in the development here, they will have more to lose if the war continues."
Subido said the Nevada-based BPO firm, the Hubport Group, had initially been apprehensive about setting up in the Muslim Mindanao, but was won over by the talent and eagerness of the region’s youth.
They set up a 24-hour back-room operation at Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology (MSU-IIT) where 42 employees churn out web designs, software programs and medical transcriptions for American clients.
Others specialize in technical support, guiding clients thousands of miles away as they trouble-shoot web pages. No one had ever thought of setting up in the southern Philippines because of the violence, said Hubport Chief Operating Officer Eric Manalastas during a recent tour of the facility by visiting diplomats.
He said the firm—which also has offices in Singapore, Canada, Britain, Japan and Saudi Arabia—believes the south has enough manpower “who if given the room to grow, can be harnessed into a highly efficient and competitive force that can match global standards.”
A large part of the manpower will come from MSU’s main campus in Marawi, an impoverished city on the shore of the picturesque Lanao Lake where Arabic is widely taught and spoken. It also is the heart of Islam in Mindanao, the Philippines’ main southern island where Muslim separatists have been waging a decades-long rebellion to carve out an independent state.
Militants with links to al-Qaeda and the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) are also known to operate in the area, which intelligence experts consider fertile ground for recruitment. A small room inside a brick building has been transformed into a speech and computer laboratory, where local tutors teach English.
For computer programmer Muhammad Husshan, 20, working for Hubport means he will be able to send money to his parents and seven siblings living elsewhere in the south. "I hope more young people will be given jobs and will be trained in companies like this," he said. Like many here, Husshan believes that Muslims have been unjustly sidelined by the Manila government, but he added: "I think people would not pick up guns if they are busy with jobs."
Small numbers of US troops have been rotating in the southern Philippines since 2003, when President Gloria Arroyo sought help to crush Abu Sayyaf militants blamed for high profile kid¬nappings and bombings. Remnants of Abu Sayyaf still roam the south, while tens and thousands remain displaced by 10 months of fighting between troops and the main insurgent group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The US government meanwhile has given millions in development aid, with promises of more funds if insurgents signed a peace accord. "I think that shift in policy is helping more in the anti-terror war than the fighting," says Virgilio Leyretana, chairman of the Mindanao Economic Development Council.
"Of course, nothing can be solved overnight. And for as long as Mindanao is pictured as a troublesome place, businesses will shy away."