In Myanmar, Doing Aid Better

By Nyein Nyein 28 July 2015

Around the world, the way foreign aid works is coming under wider scrutiny. Criticisms of an increasingly privatized international aid “industry” include claims that many of its approaches are too top-down, inflexible and ineffective.

Reformers also question the relationships between large international aid organizations and their local “partners.” Who decides how aid money is spent? With whom does the power lie? Often, the big decisions about local aid are not made by locals.

Magsaysay award-winner Lahpai Seng Raw, one of Myanmar’s leading civil society voices, echoes growing international calls to “do aid differently,” in an email conversation with The Irrawaddy.

Myanmar has received a large influx of aid since 2011. What is your view of the current aid system?

Years of mismanagement by successive authoritarian governments and unabated armed conflicts have paralyzed it.

There is no shortcut to reverse this. But the fact remains: Getting civilians to make their own choices, and getting civilian voices back, are the deciding factors in bringing about lasting peace in our country.

The way we—local NGOs, community-based organizations and international donors—respond to community needs will determine whether or not we can help regenerate them.

Sadly, since 2011, there is less and less room for local agendas to determine eventual programming.

Too often local NGOs and community-based organizations are approached by big donors to implement their own pre-formulated programs according to their own agendas and foreign policies. These practices effectively exclude the local organization and undercut local initiatives.

This means a big gap arises between donor requirements and real development needs. For us, development needs are about people’s lives, and social processes—they are not about a project “market” and its related administrative bureaucracy.

It is ironic that now that the country has become more open and more money is flowing in, civil society is facing more challenges.

I have seen that international agencies have become either very project-focused or sector-oriented, and that talk of strengthening civil society is meaningless.

Why do international agencies support Myanmar civil society? Is it because they need to disburse lots of money and are not allowed to give it to the government? Is it because community organizations have access to places that the UN and INGOs do not?

These reasons for working with community organizations are not helpful. That’s because as soon as circumstances change, their support will revert to others—the government, the UN, international NGOs, etc.

This is already happening right now.

I want to see all our donors continue to support civil society for the right reason. That reason is about recognizing that civil society is a critical actor with a critical role in Myanmar’s future.

Reinforcing and building a strong civil society should be the aim, not using civil society as a transitional instrument to deliver aid.

Also, it still happens that calls go out [for local and international NGOs to apply for] proposals on projects that are not fully funded. In reality, this gives an advantage to international NGOs to be the legal holders of those projects.

The worst part is that funds are given to international NGOs and UN agencies that we are then to partner with.

I strongly believe this is too top-down. Local applicants must be given preference, and we must have a choice about with whom we want to partner.

We definitely need and want to continue working with our international partners. Frankly, as a person from an ethnic minority group, I never thought that we would have to fight for equality with our international donors, when, after all, they are the champions of democracy.

We must find a way to resolve these problems.

Do you have suggestions for improvement in the approaches taken by international organizations?

We would like to urge them to be considerate in the strategic design of their funding mechanisms; to design systems and formats in local languages; and to avoid complex blueprints and mechanisms that preclude supporting the communities’ own efforts.

It is also essential to recognize that local NGOs need core funds for direct or indirect support of their activities. For example, maintaining and enhancing professional standards, including good financial control and accountability, good prioritization of aid, and with the right quality and independence, to name a few aspects of local organizations’ work.

We need to have enough funds to retain our staff … or otherwise, however committed our staff are, they leave for better conditions.

Without core funds, we also lose continuity for strategic planning after a project period ends.

It’s also important to realize that before any proposal is produced, we carry out assessments and discussions with all levels of stakeholders, from the grassroots to policymakers, leading to several planning workshops.

What I am trying to say is that this involves sowing social commitment. We are obliged then to meet the expectations of all involved.

So for example, when the European Commission puts out calls [for applications for large aid projects] it must recognize the above sequence of inputs and communication.

Donor organizations don’t expect to survive themselves without core funding, yet local organizations are expected to do so. Are there any signs the donors are starting to see this problem from the local perspective?

I am afraid it is getting worse as more big donors come in and set up more offices across the nation.

Internal organizational changes in some of our international partners also result in changes in how they work with us. Sometimes these reasons cause them to adjust their costs at the local partners’ expense.

The challenges of not having adequate, reasonable core funding is no small matter for local organizations. Revitalizing communities will be more difficult if the local NGOs themselves have become paralyzed.

There seems to be a reluctance among international agencies to accept local leadership in development programs. What do you think are the reasons for this?

Some international agencies are very close to the UN and donors’ agendas. Others are closer to the reality and are supporting local actors. It is time for the international agencies to acknowledge the local NGOs and work hand in hand with them on joint strategies, and with mutual recognition.

You made a statement in a number of places last year that ‘armies can sign ceasefires, but only the people can create a peace.’ Do you see signs that this is better understood now?

Yes, I have been emphasizing repeatedly the need to recognize the difference between ceasefires and peace.

‘Peace’ is a social state and cannot be developed by military men, and cannot be developed without the leadership and will of the people—they must build it and live it.

That is why I talk about a unified front. All ethnic nationals within the Union must come together to resolve the root causes that led to the present conflict. We need to break the cycle of armed conflict, militarization, human rights violations, displacement, resettlement, poverty, illegal migration, low wages, human trafficking, illicit drugs and corruption—the list could go on—or it will never be broken and continue to drag down the next government, which will be unable to stop exporting its own difficulties and crises to the whole region.

Encouragingly, there are processes taking place now and the civil society network is better than at any time in our country’s history.

The current ceasefire process is looking uncertain. What are your views on this?

The turmoil that Myanmar has witnessed during the last four years could be doubled or even tripled in 2015 if efforts towards peace and reform do not succeed. I am, therefore, gravely concerned about the recent situation and believe in building a robust civil society as the most effective response to the challenges that we are facing.

Whatever happens, even if national institutions in government and politics become weakened, with a strong civil society we can surely overcome this and rebuild. I have been saying all along that, in the Myanmar context, strengthening civil society and building peace are interdependent.

All efforts should be made to ensure that the future to come will be built from today onwards: by providing quality education, dignified sustainable livelihoods, and respect and promotion of the rich cultures that define our identities across the different ethnic nationals that compose the mosaic of the Union of Myanmar.

What is the main focus of your work these days?

The central purpose of my life will always be to support people’s processes to build a strong and sustainable civil society, in peace, and with full entitlement to their rights; that is true justice.

I have been advocating for aid agencies’ need to continually assess their capacity to follow their mandate and to reflect on the current humanitarian system in Myanmar.

I have used the US$50,000 prize money that came with the 2013 Ramon Magsaysay award as a seed fund to launch a new initiative that will ensure that the Ayeyarwaddy River continues to flow far into the future, and that just as the mighty river connects all diverse ethnic nationals, it will inspire us to come together in unity in striving for the peace and prosperity of our nation.

This interview originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.