Guest Column

How to Read a WEIRD Evidence-Based Yangon Consultancy Report

By Tony Waters 24 June 2019

Yangon’s INGOs are full of consultancy reports which offer “professional” opinions about conditions in Myanmar. NGOs, INGOS, and UN agencies investigate transitions regarding democracy, environment, federalism, ethnicity and, of course, gender. These are the subjects that donors are interested in—and thus willing to pay consultant companies tens of thousands of dollars to “research.” This is largely because evidence-based research provides a basis for what well-funded development projects promise their home governments, all on the assumption that the Myanmar people have a “will” to transition from what is bad, to what is good. Such reporting thus is in tune with the principles of donors which are always assumed to be noble, measurable, and about “good governance.” After all, who wants to be ignoble, weak-willed, or have bad governance?

The general ideas for Yangon consultancy reports typically start in the capitals of the Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic countries, known by the currently popular acronym, WEIRD. Such countries come to Myanmar with the hope of assisting a transition from what was there before, which is by implication eastern, ignorant, rural, poor, and autocratic, to the heaven-on-earth which is WEIRD.  This is why the word “transition” is so popular in such reports.

This brings me to the most basic question for reading a Yangon consultancy report; something intuitively recognized by a Myanmar colleague who writes successful NGO grant proposals.

My colleague’s question is, “Which WEIRD country paid for the report?

Knowing who paid for the research is critical, because such reports typically are self-fulfilling prophecies. As a result, there is a predictable trajectory reflected in how the “request for proposals” is written, program implementation undertaken, and the final consultancy report’s conclusions. The assumption is that the problem was identified precisely by the funder, the money was spent well, and if it did not work as intended blame is deserved by the local “partner” or maybe local corruption. This way underlying mistakes in project design made in the WEIRD capitals, are “assumed away,” as the economists say.

Thus, the next questions for evaluating a Yangon consultancy report asks first how does the donor view Myanmar? And second, how does the donor view itself? These two sub-questions tell you what policies the donor will fund, and therefore what evidence is needed to justify the pre-determined policy assumptions. Almost irrelevant is an independent assessment of what is most appropriate to Myanmar—the donor assumptions are what counts first in the Yangon consultancy report. And when you scoot around the internet a bit, you will find that, as my Myanmar grant-writing colleague noted, each donor has its own development goals for Myanmar. These goals are rooted in policies assuming that the donor is already good, righteous, and successful, unlike the recipient, in this case Myanmar. Out of such basic assumptions, comes the formula for how “evidence” is collected, analyzed, measured, and then used to drive donor-chosen policy.

The donor’s assessment starts with what the donor believes Myanmar does poorly. This assumption is embedded in that request for proposal (RFP) for the donor-identified problem which asks consultancy company to address that problem. Typically, donors frame problems in terms of terrorism, ethnic conflict, bad governance, broken markets, over-centralized government, poor infrastructure, a fractious body politic, gender inequality, and poor use of the environment. Then comes the prescriptions, which the donors wish to fulfill.

As the Myanmar NGO grant writer emphasized to me, this system of RFPs reflects the foreign policy interests of the donors. Here is how he summarized the donors.

Americans want American-style elections complete with dye to make fingers purple, Rohingya repatriation to Myanmar, and the control of extremist violence. The UK likes good governance and dislikes military dictatorship. Canadians and Swiss like federalism. And, of course, China equals dams and infrastructure benefiting Chinese companies. Norwegians like good governance, too, and also the environment and energy. The EU likes democracy and prosperity. And finally everyone likes peace, the empowerment of women, saving the environment and education. All want to give their own businesses access to new marketsdoing good while making money. Which is really what the well-paid Yangon donors from the embassies and UN assume that they are doing, I guess.

As my Myanmar colleague implied, knowing who made the RFP for the consultancy report tells you the trajectory of what the “research” report will conclude. The report always starts with what the donor thinks is wrong with Myanmar and concludes that their “development program” addressed that shortcoming. Unlike in an academic paper, there are typically many beautiful photographs to illustrate these goals. Thus, an American commissioned report will start with failed corrupt elections, government-controlled markets, the terrorist threat, and end with photos of those people with the Gentian-stained purple fingers of successful voters, and coffee berries of successful social entrepreneurs. At least this is what was on a recent home page of USAID Yangon.

The British report will, without irony, point to something like “deeply rooted cultures of poor governance in Burma,” and recommend British-style governance, without mentioning British colonialism in Myanmar. The Swiss recommend Swiss-style federalism, and the Canadians recommend the Canadian version, on the assumption that federalism never was properly given a go in Myanmar, despite over 70 years of consultancy reports evaluating the problem from that perspective. The Norwegians recommend forestry and environmental protection policies which reflect their expertise.

To ensure that donor goals are met, consultancy reports also do not get “blind peer review” like academic papers, which to be honest is a good thing for the donors.  Imagine if the Norwegians hired a company that recommended federalism instead of sustainable forestry because that is what the evidence pointed to? Or perhaps the opposite: what if the Canadian (or Swiss) report recommended the centralization of government, whether in Yangon, or the semi-independent ethnic states? Or perhaps the German consultancy report recommends dams instead of reforestation? Or what if an American commissioned report on Rohingya pointed out that settling 50,000 Rohingya in the United States would set an important example for regional integration of refugees, contribute to the resolution of the refugee crisis, and provide a good example for other nations. Indeed, the consultancy report would note America’s well-demonstrated capacity for receiving refugees and turning them into outstanding American citizens. But, nope, wouldn’t do, even if it such a conclusion was the logical result of the measurable evidence-based “research.” No more consultancy contracts for such companies!

Just how this works is illustrated by a rumor regarding a cheeky consultancy company that once quietly recommended to the Australian government that given economic, ecological, and transportation infrastructure, the most appropriate crop for highland areas of Kachin was opium.  Thus a particularly effective form of foreign aid for Australia would be to simply to transfer the exclusive monopoly to grow legal opium in Tasmania from Australia, to the Kachin of Myanmar. I guess that finding was not WEIRD enough to make into any final report!

The problem is that the Yangon consultancy report is not really about evidence-based policy, butpolicy-based evidenceconclusions about what should be funded by well-educated international bureaucrats are reached based on the domestic politics (and economies) of donor countries, not those of Myanmar. Such policies may indeed be appropriate to their own countries, which perhaps is why there are so many advocates. But does that mean that all those WEIRD solutions to WEIRD problems will work in Yangon? Does the evidence mean the same thing in Myanmar as it does in Washington, Beijing, London, Brussels or New York?

The context missing typically are understandings of countries that are, well, non-Western, poorly educated, unindustrialized, poor and not-so-democratic. Such countries have domestic political pressures and domestic constituencies that reflect such conditions in illiberal ways. Indeed, such pressures are important in Australia and the United States too. No matter how logical the idea of Australia gifting their opium monopoly to Kachin might be, or for Washington to admit 50,000 Rohingya refugees over the next two years, this is not going to happen. The reason why? In the words of the West, they are “politically impractical.” But also in the words of the West as generally applied to Myanmar, it is a sign that neither the United States nor Australia have the political will to sacrifice for the interest of peace in Myanmar in even a small manner.

Tony Waters is a Lecturer in the Peace Studies Department at Payap University, Chiangmai, Thailand, and Director of the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Peace.  Books he has written that are related to this subject include Max Weber and the Problem of Modern Discipline (Rowman and Littlefield/Hamilton 2018), and Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (Taylor and Francis/Westview 2001).

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