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Building Roads in Mindanao, Philippines, to Build Peace and Prosperity

Road upgrades in Mindanao will help less accessible areas leverage their agricultural and fishery resources.

Manila, Philippines – Emil Sadain knows only too well how building a road can benefit remote communities.

“In Mindanao, where the good roads end, the problems begin,” he says. “There’s poverty, insurgency, and lack of basic services.”

Sadain, an undersecretary at the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), served as regional cabinet secretary for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in the southern Philippines from 2012 to 2015.

An engineer by training and a native of Sulu province, where a decades-old insurgency has kept the entire southwestern ARMM region underdeveloped, Sadain says economic opportunities opened for fisherfolk and farmers after the government built arterial and provincial roads, bridges, and flood management systems.

“There was easier access from the main towns to the villages to offer basic services such as education, health, and sanitation,” Sadain says, referring to remote areas in the country’s poorest region.

Filling infrastructure gaps

Some of Mindanao’s northern and central regions have started to show stronger economic growth in recent years following investments in better infrastructure that have ushered in more private businesses and higher tourist arrivals.

But Mindanao’s western and southernmost provinces such as those in Zamboanga Peninsula and ARMM regions have lagged their neighbors.

The government and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) are seeking to address infrastructure gaps in these two regions through the Improving Growth Corridors in Mindanao Road Sector Project. ADB is supporting the project through a $380-million loan to complement $123 million of government financing.

The project will improve about 280 kilometers (km) of national roads and bridges in Mindanao. This will support the government’s goals to accelerate infrastructure investment, promote regional development, reduce people’s vulnerability, and advance human capital development under the 2017-2022 Philippine Development Plan.

Developing agricultural and fishery resources  

The project is also aligned with the government’s “Build, Build Build” infrastructure development program that aims to increase spending on much-needed roads, bridges, airports, and seaports to 7.4% of GDP in 2022 from 5.3% in 2017.

“This project will help less accessible areas in Mindanao to reach their potential as significant contributors to the region’s and the country’s economic development, especially with their abundant agricultural and fishery resources,” says Richard Bolt, ADB Country Director for the Philippines.

“The government can rely on ADB to assist in this crucial undertaking which will help promote peace in the region and ensure the country’s strong growth includes the poor and reaches the underserved,” he says.

A strong partnership for infrastructure investment

The latest project builds on a strong partnership for infrastructure investments in Mindanao. Since the 1970s, ADB has been assisting the government in building major ports, roads, power, and irrigation projects across the region. This new project is ADB’s first Mindanao-specific loan in 16 years.

“One good trait of ADB that I appreciate is that it is a risk taker,” says Sadain. “ADB plays a very significant role in uplifting the socio-economic conditions of communities. ADB’s approach really caters to this type of assistance—rural development, agricultural productivity, and projects targeting low-income groups.”

“It was ADB that was the first to develop areas in southern and western Mindanao,” he says.

Building regional connections

Sadain said the latest project will cover all current gaps in the road network of Zamboanga Peninsula at a faster pace than if the project was pursued by the national or local government alone. To ensure there will be no disruption in project implementation, the government will be hiring engineers with knowledge of the local language and culture and physical layout of the project areas.

As part of the project, DPWH staff will receive training on procurement, multi-year planning, and operation of a new online budget and fiscal monitoring system to ensure the agency is well-equipped to manage Mindanao’s transport sector. The project will finance the detailed design for improvement of additional highways in the future in the region.

“It is important to invest in critical infrastructure in Mindanao, an important gateway for trade and business in the Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA) Greater Sulu Sulawesi Corridor,” says Jeffrey Miller, a principal transport specialist at ADB.

“This project supports regional cooperation and integration, and will assist in developing key industries including agribusiness and ecotourism and enhance the logistics potential of Mindanao,” he says.

This article was first published by the Asian Development Bank (