Guest Column

More Money, More Problems? Questions for Myanmar’s Aid Industry

By Ramesh Shrestha 2 June 2014

Myanmar, having remained isolated for nearly five decades, had a limited number of national and international NGOs working in the country until only six years ago, but the situation changed dramatically with the onslaught of Cyclone Nargis in May 2008.

Scores of international NGOs entered the country in the months and weeks that followed the disaster, some of whom would later come in for criticism, accused of entering the country with bleeding hearts but no real sense of Myanmar’s political realities.

Many local NGOs were also established to assist the disaster-affected communities. In any country, a well-functioning civil society is essential to complement the works of the government, so these were welcome initiatives.

The economic sanctions placed on Myanmar by Western governments were firmly in place at the time, a scenario that proved to be a jackpot for international NGOs, as all external funds to Myanmar were channeled through these organizations. With the Nargis relief in 2008 and additional external assistance with the inauguration of a quasi-civilian government in 2011, hundreds of millions of dollars have been channeled through these international NGOs, ostensibly for the benefit of Myanmar’s people—and with only a trace of sustainability. Sustainability is lacking because these organizations’ efforts are ignoring national systems and networks, with only a few exceptions.

Many of these NGOs are actually creating a parallel and competing system, weakening the national systems rather than complementing the government’s efforts. Little NGO aid has gone toward strengthening public institutions or building human resources therein, despite much talk on systems building and putting the government in the driver’s seat.

Given the geopolitical position of Myanmar and in the context of current geopolitical dynamics, the most important question one must ask is: Who are these NGOs accountable to? To the Myanmar government? To the community for whom they provide services? Or to the patrons who fund their continued existence? Who dictates the missions, mandates and functions of these organizations? Based upon the performance, allegiance and behavior of these organizations, there are reasons to question the relevance, dependability, authenticity and morality of many of these organizations as we see them today.

With all these organizations, there is very little accountability in terms of their operating costs and performance. In the larger scheme of development agendas, the very existence of these organizations can become counterproductive and threatening to the political environment at a time when the government is looking forward to reconciliation with all armed groups. Given the multiplicity of Myanmar society, these international organizations could also become a conduit in spreading neo-liberal economic principles, wherein everything is measured by its monetary value. This has the potential to destroy societal values and the very fabric of societies, especially in a fragile environment such as in Myanmar.

NGOs should work with the government in strengthening public systems rather than weakening them through competition. The government also must clarify the framework for NGOs’ operations, which would be mutually beneficial. The partnership must be in the common interest of the communities, government and the NGOs, and if such a framework cannot be agreed, the NGOs should not be allowed to operate in Myanmar. This position will be criticized by external agencies, but the framework for NGOs’ operation in any country must be decided by the host government, in its national interest, and not dictated by the funding agency.

The collective work of most NGOs in Myanmar has created an employment industry in itself. The NGOs tell the funding agency what they want to hear, which consists mostly of portrayals of the government in a bad light, to varying degrees. The policies of donor governments are also based on such erroneous feedback from these NGOs, earning the latter kudos and boosting funding for cause X, Y or Z. This is an unethical practice and must be stopped. The government of Myanmar must take a strong stand against this kind of behavior, and bid NGOs guilty of this a farewell from the country.

The most recent drama in Myanmar is the efforts of the central government and ethnic armed rebel groups to achieve peace after decades of civil war. Given the history of mistrust and failures of numerous ceasefire agreements, a genuine peace can be achieved only through honest political dialogue and mutual compromise, mediated through a neutral party.

Many of the foreigners currently involved in peace negotiations are among the self-declared sworn enemies of the former junta government, who suddenly descended on Myanmar to cash in on the “peace business.” In Myanmar, even “peace” has been project-ified by NGOs and UN agencies. No provision of social services or infrastructure development can be sustained or will bring stability unless there is lasting peace and permanent security in these conflict areas, but it seems even peacemaking in Myanmar has become an international business.

Ramesh Shrestha is a former Unicef country representative to Myanmar.