From Strong Questions To Effective Decentralization in Burma

By Zawtuseng Nanggaw 29 March 2016

Burma is at a crossroads in its decentralization process. The National League for Democracy’s (NLD) election manifesto affirms that it will implement transparent projects for the balanced development of all 14 states and regions of the country. In an effort to reduce centralized financial control, the NLD vows to divide authority and responsibility for financial matters appropriately between Union and regional governments.

Though the capacity of sub-national governments remains unmeasured, their potential is huge. Nascent state and regional parliaments at the beginning of their five-year terms will need hands-on support and extensive resources to help realize the process.

Earlier this month, the economic think tank Renaissance Institute (RI), in collaboration with The Asia Foundation (TAF), organized a two-day workshop for members of the Sagaing regional parliament on public financing and administration. It focused particularly on state and regional budgeting and the roles of local development organizations—such as municipal organizations—at the city level and in the General Administration Department (GAD), which remains under the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Nearly all of the 101 members of Sagaing parliament attended, including representatives from the Tatmadaw (the Burma Army) and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

I supplemented the main presentations with a basic overview of how the government could help its citizens manage social and economic risks with the help of various public policy approaches. Sandar Min, a former Lower House MP and a current member of the Rangoon regional parliament, shared her experience as a lawmaker regarding legislative responsibilities and oversight on government funded projects. It was very encouraging to see the participants’ enthusiasm and commitment to rebuilding the nation.

In Burma’s cultural hierarchy, people within the tightly centralized public sector are often reluctant to put forward even simple inquiries. But these MPs were engaged—most of them asked good questions. An NLD representative inquired why the USDP-approved government budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year had allocated only six percent of funds to agricultural and rural development when more than 60 percent of the country’s population is engaged in the agricultural sector.

Another NLD member of the Sagaing parliament was curious if an increased GDP could actually benefit people under the poverty line, since Burma’s growing GDP had not, over the last five years, changed the lives of the poor within his constituency.

Other questions asked by the MPs concerned procurement, fair taxation, the tender process, implementation of government funded projects and oversight.

While it remains to be seen whether NLD-led sub-national administrations have the capacity to deliver a democracy that meets people’s expectations, asking strong questions from the outset will play an important role in making decentralization work. Because of limited transparency under the successive governments of the past 60 years, such queries were not properly raised when they were most needed; this lack of good questions led to bad policy. Comprehensive data presented in March’s workshop revealed how public financing practices over the last decade had led to the development of poorly made policies.

Yet sub-national parliaments remain underfunded and with limited resources. They need tools for policy analysis, technical assistance and knowledge production to help them play meaningful roles in drafting better policy. Many of Sagaing’s regional MPs, including the Tatmadaw’s representatives, appeared to understand the needs of their constituents. But the challenges facing them are enormous: for most lawmakers, it is the first time that they are engaging in public affairs. They need hands-on assistance from both domestic and international experts in approaching sensitive issues, but the majority of outside attention has been directed to Naypyidaw since 2011. State and regional governments and parliaments will require diverse forms of support and resources for policymakers to be able to deliver democracy by turning good questions into effective and efficient decentralization.

Zawtuseng Nanggaw is a program officer with the Open Society Foundation’s (OSF) Burma/Myanmar Program. He is currently on sabbatical from OSF to pursue research in Mandalay and Monywa. The views in this article are his own, and do not reflect those of OSF, RI, or TAF.