Both politically and economically, 2015 could be a transformative year for Myanmar. All eyes are on the build-up to the general election and the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community, which will reduce economic barriers within the region. A lesser-discussed event – but one that could have a significant long-term impact – is the announcement of the United Nations’ post-2015 development agenda. This is expected following the UN General Assembly in September.
This post-2015 agenda will replace the current framework, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which was agreed on in 2000 by all of the then-183 UN member states. The landmark agreement was made to facilitate cooperation toward eight universal development goals, which were divided into 21 specific targets, and ranged from the eradication of poverty to gender equality. This began with the dropping of vast “third world” debts and the allocation of larger and better-coordinated aid commitments from richer countries to developing ones.
Progress toward the MDG targets, which have an end-of-2015 deadline, has been mixed. While there has been general progress in most areas, some countries are yet to meet a single target. With many success stories skewed by statistics from populous countries like India, China and Brazil, it is also sometimes hard to differentiate the effects of international aid from those of particular domestic policies. Furthermore, while successes have been measured through meeting certain statistics by certain dates, critics will rightly point to the many social, human rights and environmental issues in developing countries that have not been adequately addressed even where traditional development indicators have improved.
Nonetheless, the MDGs galvanised a new level of commitment to development globally and have led to many undoubted improvements, particularly in regard to access to clean water and improved health. There is hope, moreover, that building on lessons since 2000 the post-2015 agenda will take a more holistic approach, based on the realisation that successful, inclusive development depends on much more than cash commitments and technical programs. Rather, the new agenda looks set to incorporate a wide range of targets linked to messier problems related to equality, good governance, civil empowerment and peace.
There will also be a greater focus on the concept of sustainability, as the agenda will incorporate the “sustainable development goals” that have been in formation in parallel as part of climate change negotiations. Progress toward aims like eradicating extreme hunger will not simply entail ensuring that enough people have food in 2030, but will also involve assurances that agricultural methods are sustainable enough to ensure food security is maintained for decades.
However, largely because of this added complexity, there are still huge questions about what the agenda will look like. Current proposed frameworks have included up to 17 goals and 169 targets (compared with the MDGs’ simpler eight and 21), leading to concerns that they will become less universally appealing and discourage the widespread commitments needed. Key to the coming months of
planning will be striking the right balance between covering all the important issues while maintaining the catchiness and graspability that helped to generate widespread support for the MDGs.
The new aid paradigm in Myanmar
Until 2011, Myanmar was largely isolated from both international aid and commerce, both by its own government and Western sanctions. Though the country has met a few targets within a few of the MDGs – such as gender equality in school enrolment and access to clean water – it looks unlikely to achieve any of the goals in their entirety by the end of 2015. This failure has been common across countries affected by conflict, authoritarianism and political fragility: As the UN has reported, “no low-income fragile or conflict-affected country has achieved a single [full] MDG”. This demonstrates that the challenge in Myanmar is largely a political one, and will not be addressed by the aid community simply providing funds and technical support.
Nonetheless, with its international relations now normalised and no shortage of developed countries looking to invest in the country, Myanmar will be considered a prime target for the post-2015 agenda. This comes at a time when the country is undergoing a much broader shift in its relationship with international aid. Prior to 2011, the meagre assistance that was received generally went to civil society, community-based organisations and entities linked to various opposition movements, including exile and ethnic national networks.
Today, in line with key international accords, aid is being geared increasingly toward strengthening the state’s ability to provide basic services and facilitate economic growth. At the same time, this aid is designed and packaged in line with agendas set by donor countries and intergovernmental bodies. This leads to a somewhat paradoxical balance of global and local priorities, where broad concepts and policy directions are devised in Europe and the United States before being tailored into national-level strategies inside the country by the government alongside foreign agencies and consultants. Though the specifics remain in question, this kind of process will likely take place in 2016 to plan Myanmar’s approach toward the post-2015 goals. Based on the international framework, the government will be assisted to produce a “national stakeholder report” for aid programs to be based around.
A focus on strengthening government capacity, often called “statebuilding”, is particularly strong in aid policy frameworks for fragile and conflict-affected developing countries. This approach works on the understanding that the foundations for peace and prosperity are found in the existence of a responsive central government, and thus development aid must be centred on building the state’s reach and capacity. Such an agenda is also considered crucial to global efforts to achieve integrative security and economic prosperity, which depend on close cooperation between well-functioning, authoritative states.
The importance of a strong civil society
For some, Myanmar represents a model candidate for “statebuilding”, as its once-pariah leadership has shown unprecedented willingness to cooperate on economic reforms, getting to grips – almost overnight – with the aid lexicon and embracing development partners from all corners of the earth. Without the right precautions, however, the risk remains that aid will be delivered in an increasingly top-down manner driven by the priorities of Myanmar’s autocratic leaders or even those of donors, undermining local agency.
While there is no doubt that the aid committed prior to 2011 was insufficient, it played a crucial role in fostering the rapid growth of civil society, building on impressive forms of social organisation that had grown out of communities as a result of decades of government neglect. The vast women’s, youth, religious and other community-based networks, and the robust civil society organisations that partner with them, still represent a core local capacity that should be at the heart of the country’s progression, both in implementing development, and on keeping checks on the state and external actors.
Meanwhile, state development activities are – with the exception of specific services – largely carried out by the ministries of home affairs and border affairs. These are military-run and staffed, and tend to lack the will and capacity to operate in an inclusive and responsive manner. There are further complications in conflict-affected areas, where the state has most often been experienced as a violent and predatory intruder, and where ethnic national organisations have at times established more effective administrative and social service structures.
While the emergence of a strong and responsive state will be crucial to Myanmar’s development and prosperity in the long term, aid agencies will need to be patient and appreciate the many political processes under way. Politically smart aid should be wary of fast-tracking the state’s monopoly over developmental affairs until there is a truly responsive government in place. Furthermore, aid should be structured to encourage steps in this direction, building capacities for accountable, responsive and participatory governance where there are genuine gaps, while adding a degree of conditionality to disbursements of funds that test the government’s commitment to meeting its people’s needs.
Similarly, aid actors should be wary of fostering an aid environment dominated by international agencies. International organisations are taking an increasing percentage of the aid available in Myanmar, quite often acting as intermediaries – taking the bulk of overheads – while local partner organisations still carry out much of the implementation. While international organisations can bring certain skills, these are often implicitly prioritised over the crucial attributes of local organisations, such as contextual knowledge and trusting relationships with communities. This risks subjugating civil society actors that have been the fabric of Myanmar’s social development while precluding local ownership of development processes. At the same time, international organisations have the funding to pay much higher salaries for national staff than local organisations, leading to a brain drain effect that weakens civil society further.
While the post-2015 agenda will present unmissable opportunities for the country’s development, it will come at a fragile time. Considerations should be made to ensure civil society has a central role in the development, implementation and oversight of post-2015 strategies, complimenting the roles of the state and international agencies. This will be central to ensuring the impacts are inclusive, sustainable and contribute to the country’s ability to take development into its own hands.
Kim Jolliffe is an independent researcher, specialising in security, development and humanitarian affairs in Myanmar.