Lord Jack McConnell with the Philippines team

Former First Minister of Scotland welcomes launch of VSO peacebuilding project in the Philippines

Ten years since he first volunteered as a parliamentary volunteer with VSO, Lord Jack McConnell reflects how his initial experience led to lasting involvement in the peace process in the Philippines as he supports the launch of a new phase of the ACTIVE programme in a former Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) camp.

As part of the ACTIVE project, VSO and our partners have been supporting decommissioned combatants in MILF camps to transform them into peaceful and productive communities. Read Lord Jack McConnell's reflections from his visit.

Lord Jack McConnell talks at the ACTIVE launch
Lord Jack McConnell at the launch of the ACTIVE programme at Camp Badre in the Philippines.

"When I first visited the Philippines with VSO in early 2014, I could have never imagined the ongoing friendships and working relationships that would have developed over the last decade, particularly those at the heart of one of the few successful peace processes in our divided world today.

At that time VSO Bahaginan was the national organisation for the voluntary service oversees network in the Philippines. They had requested a parliamentary volunteer to contribute to training events they were organising with the objective of developing skills to engage effectively with politicians and government.

Although I had been a long-time supporter of VSO, including introducing specific measures to encourage and enable international volunteering when I was First Minister of Scotland, I had never been a VSO parliamentary volunteer, so the opportunity was very intriguing. 

The proposed dates for the volunteering came approximately 3 months after the devastating Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda) which had devastated the central islands of the Philippines in November 2023 and killed several thousand citizens. The visit allowed me to engage with NGOs and volunteers in Manila but also visit the devastation and learn more about the impact of these extreme weather events. 

Lord Jack McConnell with the Philippines team
Lord Jack McConnell with members of the VSO Philippines team.

The lessons I learned on the island of Leyte helped me contribute to the national and international debates on the UN Global Goals in the years to come. But I also made good friends amongst the volunteer community in Manila, and I am still in regular contact with some of those who took part in the training. 

I believe that VSO plays an important role internationally, particularly with the development of their national organisations supporting volunteers in countries outside the UK to volunteer in their own homeland and elsewhere.

There is still an impression amongst some UK parliamentarians that VSO is mainly an organisation for British people to volunteer in the global South, but it is so much more than that.

Volunteering is not just about the rich and fortunate spending their spare time helping those who live in more difficult circumstances, it is about contribution to the community, personal development and mutual respect. For that reason, VSO continues to have my enthusiastic support. 

My visit to the Philippines in early 2014 coincided with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement for the Bangsamoro, an effort to bring to an end a decades of conflict that had claimed many thousands of lives.  

During to my visit as a parliamentary volunteer, the British Embassy in Manilla contacted me to say that the formal combatants in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front were interested in the example of devolved parliament and government in Scotland as their peace agreement was to result in an autonomous, devolved parliament and government in the majority Muslim region of Mindanao.

Lord Jack McConnell
Lord Jack McConnell in Tacloban.

It was suggested that I might help with the implementation of the peace agreement following the formal signing which was due to take place in March 2014. 

As a result, in 2014 and every year since I have been engaged with politicians and community stakeholders in the local capital Cotabato and the wider Bangsamoro Region in Mindanao, and in Manilla with the national government of the Philippines.

There have been many ups and downs along the way, including some opposition in the national Congress of the Philippines and delays in the normalisation of life for the formal combatants who have given up their weapons. But the Peace Agreement of 2014 has been implemented step by step. 

An interim parliament and government in the Bangsamoro region have almost completed the establishment of the relevant codes and laws as they look to gain permanent status and hold the first full elections for the new Bangsamoro MPs in 2025.

I can sense the growing hope and excitement, remembering as I do the atmosphere in Scotland in 1998-1999 as we moved toward the first Scottish Parliament election and the devolution of legislative autonomy on 1 July 1999. 

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The people of the Bangsamoro region have suffered for too long. They can now take responsibility for their own future, autonomous within the national state of the Philippines, and improve educational attainment, develop their economy, enjoy better health and eliminate extreme poverty. 

It has been an honour to work with them as they prepare for this important, historical moment and I am grateful to VSO for the fact that a routine opportunity to support some training seminars in Manila 10 years ago opened the door for me to support this peace process in one of my most interesting and productive experiences since 2007."

Learn more about our work in the Philippines

Rt Hon Lord Jack McConnell was First Minister of Scotland 2001-2007. He is Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the UN Global Goals and an Adviser to the Bangsamoro Peace Process in the Philippines.

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