Just one year ago the restrictions on the United Nations Development Programme’s mandate in Myanmar were lifted after more than two decades. As the new country director, I received a brief that indicated the agency could now respond to changes in the “development context”, support the “progress of reforms” and offer “development solutions to partners”. After a year on the job, I have learned that the thrust of that brief was right but its underlying assumptions were not nearly nuanced enough.
First of all, there is no single “development context” in Myanmar. The country is too diverse to be described by one set of conditions.
On one hand there are Rakhine and Kachin states, where challenges are largely humanitarian: recurrent violence, displaced populations and continued human suffering.
Then there are Shan State and southeastern Myanmar, where armed conflicts have stopped but peace remains fragile, and needs to be reinforced through a political process and post-conflict recovery that can show a tangible peace dividend.
There are distinct characteristics of regions dominated by the Bamar majority, including rural poverty, land disputes, outward migration, and issues of trust between authorities and communities. When experts refer to a “least developed country”, the label is entirely accurate for upper and lower Myanmar.
And finally, there are also Yangon and Mandalay: not least developed cities at all, but fast-growing Asian megalopolises facing issues of congestion, access to services and sustainable use of scarce resources.
Given this almost unparalleled diversity of development contexts, policy priorities in Myanmar cannot be examined through a single lens or context. One size fits all simply does not apply. Development terms like poverty reduction, community resilience or inclusive governance will mean different things in different states and regions.
A second lesson is that the “progress of reforms” is not a straight path.
Very few reforms take a country straight from point A to point B, and probably none will do so in a linear fashion. As we are seeing in Myanmar, one step is to announce a reform – whether on anticorruption or decentralisation – and another is to start actually implementing it. That there might be a lag between the two does not necessarily suggest a deficit of intentions.
Often it takes time to broaden the reform coalitions or indeed to tailor intended policy change to Myanmar’s different development contexts. Once a reform begins being implemented, it may pick up momentum, lose it and get back on track again because of competing agendas or the government’s implementation capacity.
As we look into the government’s four waves of reform – political, economic, administrative and private sector – we must recognise the tremendous challenges faced by reform champions. We should allow for non-linear progression, expect the process to go in circles and make room for trial and error as long as the overall direction is not lost and the momentum continues.
And the third lesson: In development, “partnerships” matter more than “solutions”.
The UNDP has expanded its partnerships in Myanmar throughout this year. Working with ministries, parliament, civil society and local governments we have learned to pay more attention to evolving perspectives and develop a more nuanced understanding of the capacity of partners. In the process we also learned to de-emphasise the purity of development solutions. As UNDP administrator Helen Clark recently said, “Our role is never to deliver ready-made solutions, but rather to support the emergence of networks of change agents empowered to decide for themselves what needs to be done.”
That Myanmar’s reforms have so far been driven by a relatively small circle of people within and outside the government does pose challenges. Slowly but surely, however, the reform momentum is expanding beyond big-ticket items and outside of the centres of power. Increasingly, it is about the leadership of people, including remarkable individuals I have been privileged to meet throughout the country: a township administrator in Mon State who has strong commitment to providing essential people-centred services; a female NGO activist in Mandalay who courageously stood up for woman-led households that lose out in land disputes; a newly minted entrepreneur in Myitkyina who worked his way out of poverty through a microfinance loan and is creating jobs for others.
It is these hardworking and courageous people who personify my Myanmar lessons in development. As we are beginning to see the full potential of the networks of change agents dispersed across the country, we hope these emerging leaders across the country will keep this historic transformation on track. And we might all learn a few more lessons in development along the way.
Toily Kurbanov was appointed country director of the UNDP in Myanmar in September 2012. He joined the UNDP in 2004 and prior to his current assignment was UNDP deputy resident representative in Fiji, where he led its program and operations in nine Pacific Island countries.