Activists, relatives of those killed in the drug war, indigenous peoples, students, church workers at a rally to protest the rise of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. Photo by: AC Dimatatac / / CC BY-NC-SA

MANILA — For decades, international development organizations have considered the Philippines an accommodating and productive place to work. The country has historically attracted a significant and steady flow of foreign assistance from international donors to support its growth and development. And the Philippine government was viewed as a committed partner in delivering projects in critical sectors ranging from health to agriculture; education to economic development.

But since President Rodrigo Duterte was sworn into office in June 2016, the relationship and dynamics between international donors and Philippine government have changed. Duterte has openly slandered the United States, European Union, and United Nations — all three major international development partners — for criticizing his relentless war on drugs which, according to reports, has resulted in the killings of between 6,000 and more than 12,000 drug users and dealers.

The Philippine president’s early reactions made it clear that they would no longer be welcome in the country if public criticism continued. “If you think it's high time for you guys to withdraw your assistance, go ahead. We will not beg for it,” said Duterte shortly after he took office. “Go away. Bring your money to somewhere else."

Since then, the president has doubled down on such vows. In October, the government announced it would not accept new EU grants — worth nearly $300 million — after its attempts to “meddle” in Manila’s affairs. The foreign affairs secretary later clarified that “all” conditional aid would be rejected. Last month, the government withdrew its application for a second Millennium Challenge Corporation grant — the US funding agency that works with local governments to reduce poverty. The government denied the decision was related to criticism over its rights record, but just a year earlier, the MCC delayed its eligibility decision over rule of law concerns.

These moves and Duterte’s divergent view on human rights have put donor nations and international organizations in a difficult position. More than a year on, many donors appear to have made a calculated decision to stay quiet so they can continue their work. Some are adjusting their programming to support drug prevention and rehabilitation and strengthen the criminal justice system — solutions that might help end the government’s campaign and move the country forward.

How did we get here?

Philippine National Police officers and unidentified vigilantes have killed thousands of suspected drug users and dealers since Duterte became president 18 months ago. The government puts the figure at 3,800, though many rights groups believe it is upwards of 12,000. That death toll doesn’t include the drug war victims that the Philippine president calls “collateral damage” — children shot dead in antidrug operations.

The government has resisted calls for an independent inquiry into killings attributed to the police by declaring that it would harm police “morale.” Meanwhile, a survey conducted by Social Weather Stations, the Philippines’ leading independent polling group, showed that 73 percent of the 1,200 respondents were concerned that they, or someone they know, would fall victim to the drug war. But 78 percent of those questioned also expressed satisfaction with the crackdown on drugs.

As more and more suspected drug dealers and users, mostly the urban poor, turned up dead, the government’s violent crackdown began garnering the attention of human rights organizations which appealed for more international condemnation.

“Any and all international entities that interact with the Philippine government should directly and unambiguously convey their dismay at the horrific death toll of President Duterte’s so-called ‘war on drugs,’ which has disproportionately targeted urban slum dwellers,” according to Phelim Kine, a deputy director in Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division.

Former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime condemned the “apparent endorsement of extrajudicial killings, which is illegal and a breach of fundamental rights and freedoms.”

Last March, the EU parliament called on European institutions and EU member states to support the establishment of an independent international investigation at the U.N. Human Rights Council. If created, it would look into “unlawful killings and other violations by the Philippines in the context of President Duterte’s ‘war on drugs.’” The EU has also set aside 1.74 million euros ($2.13 million) that will support human rights activists looking into the extrajudicial killings, among other things. In October, the EU released a damning report highlighting the deterioration of human rights and a “prevailing culture of impunity.”

None of that has sat well with the Duterte administration, which has condemned such criticism as attacks on the country’s sovereignty. Shortly after the EU report release, the government announced that the Philippines would no longer accept new development grants from the bloc, which would mean forgoing roughly 250 million euros ($305.7 million) in assistance. In a televised speech, Duterte said his government refused the aid because it was provided contingent upon “promoting human rights.” Accepting the assistance would give the EU the right to interfere in domestic affairs, he said.

In the wake of such intransigence, some of the largest bilateral donors to the Philippines have changed their strategy. The U.S. Department of State, for instance, has received ample criticism for providing counternarcotic training to Philippine National Police officers, making the U.S. culpable in the drug war. A U.S. State Department official told Devex that such operations have ceased, and the Department of State is now refocusing funds from its Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs to strengthen the Philippines justice sector. In September, the U.S. pledged just over $2 million in funds earmarked for drug reduction programs and community-based interventions.

Meanwhile, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is providing support to the World Health Organization to help the Philippine government in its drug treatment and rehabilitation efforts. “This support builds on ongoing technical assistance from the WHO to the Philippine Department of Health,” a DFAT spokesperson told Devex. The program started in April 2017, and will run until June 2019. The effectiveness of the program will be monitored by DFAT through regular reporting from WHO. Total funding under the grant is 2.41 million Australian dollars ($1.92 million).

Japan’s International Cooperation Agency is taking a similar stance. Last April, JICA signed a grant agreement with the Philippines offering up to 1.85 billion yen ($16.67 million) for the Programme for Consolidated Rehabilitation of Illegal Drug Users, or CARE.  It marks the first time that Japan, the Philippines’ largest bilateral aid donor, is providing drug treatment and rehabilitation as part of its grants. The Philippines’ DOH will implement CARE across the country for 41 months. The project will provide a wide range of services, including supporting the construction of new treatment and rehabilitation centers, and enhancing the quality of rehabilitation programs.

“The international development community is doing a lot to help,” says Philippine Senator Risa Hontiveros. “I appreciate when they shift their help to push the government to a broader approach, including primarily a public health approach.”

Hontiveros, who is a member of the opposition and an outspoken critic of Duterte, would like international development organizations to provide best practices and models of a broader public health approach to addressing the country’s drug problems. “That would help create more space for alternative voices like that represented by our bill,” says Hontiveros, who is currently vice chair of the Senate Committee on Health and Demography.

Last February, the senator filed a bill supporting a village-based rehabilitation program, which is framed in a public health context, and proposes some harm reduction strategies. Initiatives proposed by the bill are in stark contrast to one of the DOH’s original plans to run mega drug rehabilitation centers. In November 2016, a 10,000-bed treatment and rehabilitation center was built in Fort Masaysay, roughly 170 kilometers north of Manila, the Philippine capital. The flagship center, which was fully funded by Chinese businessmen, has since downsized admission to 500 patients. And three other proposed mega treatment centers will be built across the country that will accommodate the same number.

But, according to the Philippine government’s Dangerous Drugs Board, only about 9 percent of more than 1 million drug users who expressed their willingness to access treatment needed to be committed in rehabilitation centers. Hontiveros says that most drug addicts would benefit more from a community-based outpatient program. She hopes that the sharp rise in foreign aid dedicated to the DOH will be used with that in mind. The billions of yen from JICA could be used to ensure that the Philippines has a sufficient number of health service providers, health professionals, specifically mental health professionals, and addiction specialists. Having all these providers present at the community level may not be feasible due to a lack of qualified local personnel. So Hontiveros recommends having a resource system wherein community-based health service providers can refer patients to bigger hospitals — all still within an outpatient rehabilitation context.

Addressing the social problem

Traditionally, people around the world have viewed drugs as a cause of social ills, not as a symptom. And the only way to solve the drug problem is to get people to stop producing, selling, and taking them. Little attention was paid to the fact that drug policies could actually be the culprit, generating more harm to the most vulnerable. That is slowly changing.

When the Sustainable Development Goals were released in January 2016, SDG 3, “Good Health and Well-Being,” made specific mention to drugs, although illicit drug markets and efforts to address them cut across many aspects of the SDGs, such as poverty eradication, and peaceful and inclusive societies. And in the lead up to U.N. General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in April 2016 in New York, there was an increasing debate and evidence of the negative implications of prohibitionist drug policies on sustainable development, according to Javier Sagredo, who co-authored the U.N. Development Program’s position from a sustainable development approach, and has accumulated 18 years of experience in drug policy issues, mainly in Latin America and the Caribbean.

But many mainstream international development organizations active in the Philippines are still staying clear of the topic. Matt McGarry, the Philippine representative for Catholic Relief Services, told Devex last April, “We have left more [of the work regarding the drug war and rehabilitation] to our local partners because they have more expertise and there’s pretty extensive domestic political considerations.” At the moment, CRS is not providing local organizations with additional financial or administrative support to deal with the drug war. CRS is far from alone. McGarry’s sentiment was echoed by several mainstream international development organizations that Devex spoke with in Manila.

But local NGOs say that they have limited resources to deal with the drug war and would welcome additional help. For the past three years, NoBox Transitions Foundation has been advocating for the decriminalization of drug use and a harm reduction approach to drug policy, which most international health and drug policy experts endorse. More recently, NoBox started working with barangays, the local term for townships, to help them formulate their own approach to drug rehabilitation that meets their unique needs. The foundation is currently working with three townships and would like to help more. But it only has a full-time staff of eight people and subsists on private donations and two small grants.

“We’d welcome any kind of support from the international development community, to help us with this issue,” says Inez Feria, founder and executive director of NoBox Transitions Foundation.

Feria is not certain who in the international development community to approach, or even how to go about reaching out. But for those development groups interested in helping, aid could come in the form of funding for local NGOs or channeled directly to the communities. “There are some communities that are already asking for technical support on how to roll out the public health response, but they don’t have the technical capacity. And at the same time, the expanse of those programs would be limited by resources, so if our international development partners could provide support on that aspect that would be of great help,” says Patrick Angeles, a research and policy officer at the foundation.

Moreover, in contexts where many are unconvinced by human rights arguments, it is even more important for the development community to highlight economic arguments. To explain that these hardline drug policies will undermine the socioeconomic structure of their society and thereby worsen issues of poverty and underdevelopment, says John Collins, executive director of the IDEAS International Drug Policy Project at the London School of Economics. Producing a report detailing the economic costs of the drug war is an action international development organizations should take, or fund local groups to do.

Meanwhile, UNICEF, one of the few international NGOs directly addressing the drug war, is urging other international development organizations to help the thousands of children who have been directly or indirectly affected by the bloody campaign. Children as young as four have been shot dead. Thousands of others have lost a parent or guardian and are now orphans. Last year, lawmakers tried — and failed — to introduce a bill lowering the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 9, though Duterte has since urged its amendment to be considered once more.

UNICEF has been actively lobbying the proposed bill by highlighting the scientific evidence and the ground realities of why taking such an action would not improve the drug situation. On the contrary, it would punish children and make them more susceptible to criminality. “Organizations should continue to call on all relevant government agencies to instead focus on implementing the existing laws that address the gaps in communities in terms of child protection mechanisms,” says Lotta Sylwander, UNICEF’s representative in the Philippines.

At the moment, Duterte’s popularity remains high, but small cracks are starting to form in his administration. Eventually, there will be a tipping point in the president’s war on drugs and international development agencies will come out more openly, says Eric Gutierrez, a senior adviser on accountable governance at Christian Aid who has conducted research on the intersection of illicit drug use and development. At the moment most are keeping their silence, he continues. But particularly agencies running programs in urban slums where the killings take place may become more vocal in pressing for human rights protection, and in asking the government to prioritize the war on poverty. “It is not good to be silent,” says Gutierrez, “when mass murders go on.”

“If the international community continues to speak, it also affords, in a way, additional moral support, moral protection, especially for people on the ground.”

About the author

  • Fatima Arkin

    Fatima Arkin is a Devex contributor specializing in climate change, human rights, and sustainable development. She has reported across Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America for Foreign Policy,, Maclean's, and many others. She holds a B.A. in international development and history from McGill University and a graduate diploma in journalism from Concordia University, both located in Montreal, Canada.