UK Official Talks Development Aid, Military Ties in Burma

By Samantha Michaels 30 January 2014

NAYPYIDAW — This week top officials of the Burma government met with lawmakers, foreign diplomats, and representatives from civil society groups, UN agencies and other development partners in Naypyidaw to discuss ways of accelerating international development assistance into the country. Among those at the Myanmar Development Cooperation Forum was Gavin McGillivray, head of the UK Department for International Development (DFID) Office in Burma. The DFID, a government department that provides international aid for more than 25 countries, contributed about US$100 million in assistance to Burma in the 2013-14 fiscal year. On the sidelines of the forum, McGillivray explained how those funds are used and what projects are in store for the future, while also sharing more details about a training course held earlier this month for members of Burma’s military.

Question: Can you briefly explain the DFID’s main activities in Burma?

Answer: We’ve been here since 2004, and our largest programs have been to support health care, as well as livelihoods—working with farmers to promote rural livelihoods, including through microfinance. We support humanitarian work—we had a big program after Cyclone Nargis—and then more recently we have worked with internally displaced people in Kachin and Rakhine [Arakan] states, and refugee camps in Thailand. We’ve got a reasonably small program in education.

With the reforms—so after late 2011, when we began to realize the reforms were really sticking and that we should be backing them—we kept that lot going, but we have also backed the peacebuilding. We fund a foundation called InterMediate, and InterMediate has people with experience with the Northern Ireland peace process and people with experiences of peace processes all over the world. They advise both the ethnic armed groups and the government on how to structure the peace process. We’re also supporting the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative.

Q: And the UK is offering a training course on human rights for the Burmese military. Can you tell me about the course that started in January?

A: It’s part of the UK government’s work, and actually it’s completed. There was a course earlier this month, led by the UK Defence Academy, for about 40 Tatmadaw officers and a few civil servants from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was training in how an army operates as the servant of the people, how a modern army fits in—so, talking about human rights, talking about accountability mechanisms, talking about responsibilities of the armed forces in a modern democratic society.

Q: Who funded the course?

A: It wasn’t DFID funded, it was Ministry of Defense funding from the UK. But both the Ambassador [Michael Patrick] and I spoke at it. I went up and gave a session on development, and I spoke to them about what we understand development to be. We understand development to mean that every single person in Myanmar [Burma] has opportunities for health care, for education, to get a job, to be treated equally under the law and to be safe.

Q: Was the course well received, and do you think there will be future trainings?

A: I can’t say about future trainings—as I said, this wasn’t funded by the DFID—but I do think it’s essential for anybody who is aspiring to work for the development of Myanmar to engage with the Tatmadaw. The Tatmadaw have such extensive political interests through the Parliament, through their rights under the Constitution. They have such extensive interests in terms of whether the ceasefires hold, and they have very large commercial interests as well. We need to make them aware of how the armed forces, the security forces, operate in a democratic country.

Q: Other local media have reported that the training course included modules on the “art and science of war.” Can you clarify on that?

A: I can try, but I would prefer if you spoke to our Defense Attaché. The course is called “Managing Defense in the Wider Security Context,” and it’s a course that the Defense Academy has given in many different countries. Here it was customized for the situation in Myanmar, and no element of it had anything to do with combat capability.

Q: Will there be any changes to DFID funding or programs in Burma in the coming year?

A: We have increased funding: It was about 30 million pounds last year, and this current year—our year runs until the 31st of March—it’s 68 million pounds, or about US$100 million. And we’ve doubled our staff. We were 12 people last year, now we’ve got about 26. So there’s a very significant scaling up of our presence. We’ve backed the government quite heavily on something called the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, or EITI. It has a very simple premise, that if the extractive industries publish what they pay to government, and if the government publishes what it receives from extractive industries, that will allow the public to hold both sides to account. Hopefully within the next few months Myanmar will officially submit its application to become a member of the EITI.

We are also working on economic growth and private sector development. The UK program strongly believes private sector led growth is one of the principle ways for people to get out of poverty through getting jobs, through earning an income for themselves, so we’ve been funding advice to the Myanmar Development Resource Institute, which is a sort of think-tank quite close to the president on economic policy. We’ve helped set up the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, which provides advice to businesses and the government on decent standards, so how businesses should treat their workers, how they should treat the environment, and on governance arrangements. We’ve just backed the Business Innovation Facility, which funds advice to companies on how to go about their business in ways that create jobs for poor people.

Something else we’re about to do is public financial management. This isn’t finally approved, but I think it’s likely to happen: We’re going to be working with the World Bank to help the government raise more money—it’s got one of the lowest tax collection rates in the world—to allocate that money better, and then to spend that money more wisely. That includes funding civil society observation of how the government uses money, and holding government to account.

Q: In the past three years or so, the government has undertaken reforms that have encouraged more international development assistance. In the next year, what are some things the DFID will be looking out for that could affect aid, either positively or negatively?

A: I do want to clarify that at the moment we give no direct aid to the Myanmar government. We work through UN agencies, through the international banks like World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, and through NGOs. There are two fantastic challenges and opportunities ahead. One concerns political transformation, and the other concerns economic transformation. The political transformation that is needed is to have a state and a government that serves all its people, not predominately one ethnic group. It’s easily said but it’s going to be tough. In some states, ethnic authorities are often heavily involved in service delivery, and it’s not just a question of the government taking over—it’s a question of coming to arrangements about who’s better placed to serve the people of that state. The right solution is going to be different in different parts of the country.

The second is an economic transformation. The economy of Myanmar is driven by the extractive industries, and the extractive industries tend not to create very many jobs, not to pay very many taxes and not to add very much value—the gas or the jade is exported without being worked. And the extractive industries tend to be pretty opaque—contracts and licenses are allocated in a way that is not transparent. That needs to change, to a growth path that involves a whole range of sectors. We need to have businesses investing in and becoming successful in manufacturing, tourism, construction, agribusiness, and small- and medium-sized enterprises. There needs to be serious reform of the banking and finance sector—businesses here are capital starved. And then you need a huge investment in infrastructure.