In Township Development, Civil Society Seeks a Voice

By Yen Saning 26 December 2013

RANGOON — Community-based organizations in Burma are trying to get a greater say in how lawmakers use the US$100,000 in funds they have been allotted for development projects in each township.

A total of 33 billion kyats ($33 million) was allotted for the first time earlier this year time for annual development work in 330 townships, for projects to improve health care, education, transportation, water and electricity. Townships each receive $100,000 but can spend no more than $5,000 on any one project.

Lawmakers have said that $5,000 is not enough to accomplish most projects and have reportedly asked communities to also contribute their own private funds.

Hoping to ensure that limited funds are most efficiently spent, community-based organizations (CBOs) in Bassein, Irrawaddy Division, have sought a greater role in the process of designing projects by forming a special committee focused on regional development.

“CBOs will implement the projects managed by the MPs,” Zaw Win, a member of the CBO committee, told The Irrawaddy. He said the committee would focus on issues that were most important to the public when collaborating with lawmakers. “They [MPs] accept what we present in terms of the needs of the community, and they tell us to implement it.”

In other townships around the country, individual CBOs say they have had a smaller voice in the process of proposing development projects. They say lawmakers work almost exclusively with Township Development Supporting Committees, which were formed by the government in 2011 to foster greater collaboration between townships and state or divisional governments. These committees are made up of elected members of the community—sometimes including CBO leaders, but more often dominated by village heads.

“We have discussed with Development Supporting Committees, city development committees and township administrative committees to prioritize and confirm the needs requested by the villages and townships,” said Aung Naing Oo, a lawmaker in the Mon State Parliament.

Tun Myint Kyaw, chairman of the city development committee in Thanbyuzayat, Mon State, said the process of development would unfold differently in each township.

“How it works in one township and how it works in another will not be the same,” he said. “It will depend on cooperation, and how closely the MPs are to the civil society organizations.”

In Arakan State, lawmakers say collaboration is limited with civil society because few CBOs have formed. Burma’s civil society sector is reviving after decades of being stifled by a repressive military junta law. “If the CBOs can assist us, it would be helpful to us,” Khin Saw Wai, a lawmaker in Union Parliament representing the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), told The Irrawaddy.

Among proposed development efforts are projects to pave or repave roads, or to build bridges, allowing greater transportation for farmers in remote areas. Some townships are asking for more wells to be constructed.

The plan to establish a separate budget for lawmakers to spend on development in their constituencies was approved by Parliament in April this year. Funding for the development projects was reportedly taken out of the government’s annual budget.