Themes /

The aid industry in Burma

Tamas Wells

Manna Matters August 2011

For almost twenty years Burma has experienced one of the most intense Western led sanctions of any country in the world. North Korea and Antarctica seem to be the only places left with less Western engagement.

That is not to say that Burma has been economically isolated. Especially in recent years, Chinese, Indian, Thai and Singaporean companies have enjoyed the lack of competition and poured billions into getting their hands around the country’s rich natural resources- especially timber, oil and gas and gems.

Nor has Burma been isolated from Western cultural influence. Walk past a teashop in a small rural town on a Friday night and it will likely be packed with young men watching Chelsea versus Manchester United. And in the Karaoke bar next door a young girl will be singing Mariah Carey hits from the 1990s.

So, while sanctions haven’t hindered the selling off of Burmese resources or the march of Western cultural influence, they have meant that the vast majority of the country has not felt the impact of international aid in the way some nearby countries (for example, Cambodia) have.

This isolation from the aid industry is beginning to change. Most Western donors – who have traditionally invested heavily in humanitarian aid to refugees and internally displaced people on the Thai-Burma border- are sensing a gradual shift in the Burmese political landscape and are scaling up programs to other areas of the country. This includes both large sectoral programmes in livelihoods or health and funding to support the growth of local Burmese organisations.

But among international donors and other agencies there are competing visions for what the future of aid should look like in Burma.

One widely held vision is that of a ‘big scale up’ of humanitarian and development services around the country. With a huge expansion of aid in sectors like health and education, they assume that Burma’s development challenges can be turned around. While in most countries the vast majority of aid goes to governments, it is argued that the authoritarian leadership in Burma should be shut out of receiving any direct aid. International and local non government agencies need to pick up the baton and deliver the required services to the needy around the country.

This is an attractive vision on the surface but there are a few critical flaws in the way it is applied in Burma.

First, backed with global ideas like the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, the advocates of the ‘big scale up’ are primarily talking about an externally defined solution. Initiatives like the Global Fund for HIV&AIDS, TB and Malaria are providing medicine for sick people in many parts the country and have saved thousands of lives. This is much needed. However, when you talk to local organisations implementing the programme they will tell you that they are left with almost no room for locally led problem solving- as the activities are almost all defined according to international templates. This leaves Burmese organisations feeling like they are simply the bottom rung implementers of a grand project designed in Washington or Geneva.

I was at a workshop a few months ago and a Burmese civil society leader told a story about his work in poor rural villages in the east of the country. He said that when he and his colleagues went to one village the community said clearly that what they really needed to move forward was a better communal source of clean water. But since their donor had decided that clean water was not one of their priority sectoral areas- they had to spend the money on something else.

These kinds of mismatches happen all over the country, where international donors have made blanket decisions about how aid money should be spent that doesn’t fit with actual needs on the ground. Fundamentally, it stems from the mistaken idea that you can design one big solution to address a million local problems. Local issues usually need locally designed solutions.

The second critical issue with the ‘big scale up’ is that it misses the central reason for Burma’s poverty- which is a problem of governance. Collective decision making systems in Burma– whether at a local village level or in the new national Parliament – are in desperate need of reform. Even the Chairman of the new Burmese ‘civilian’ Parliament is admitting that the country has been going backwards and needs to change.

While international donors are trying to take a principled stand by having a ‘firewall’ between their aid money and the government’s coffers, they are missing the opportunity to influence the very issue which is at the heart of Burma’s problems. Creating a parallel system of humanitarian service delivery through the UN or NGOs may save lives and improve services in the short term, but it does little to rebuild the fractured and dysfunctional relationship between the Burmese government and its citizens.

Civil society’s voice in Burma needs to be strengthened. And the government clearly needs to learn how to listen. But the ‘big scale up’ idea does little to help either of these things.

The final issue with the idea of a ‘big scale up’ in Burma is to do with accountability of the aid industry itself. As flows of funding increase, the temptation is for donor governments to be more worried about their voters back home, than about the people they are trying to help. Stringent financial procedures and relentless reporting back to head offices are designed to stop the misuse of money. But what it can mean on the ground is that local organisations are forced to think more about whether the donor is happy, than about whether beneficiaries are happy.

The effectiveness of aid should be measured by how well it serves the needs of poor people. Sadly, as the scale up happens and donors design more and more stringent systems, the aid industry easily loses sight of this.

At its best, the ‘big scale up’ approach to aid in Burma can save lives and bring temporary relief to thousands of vulnerable people. But at its worst, it can be patronising, superficial, unsustainable and unaccountable.

Burma needs more aid. But more importantly it needs better aid. Aid that encourages local problem solving, aid that influences the core issue of Burma’s governance and aid that is primarily accountable to the vulnerable people it is trying to reach.


Tamas Wells is an Australian development worker. He has lived in Burma/Myanmar since 2006 and works as a civil society and policy advisor for a consortium of international agencies including Save the Children, Oxfam and CARE.