Aiding conflict in Myanmar?

Foreign aid may be doing more harm than good

Mali Walker

Development | Southeast Asia

14 May 2019

International aid donors are directing funds to government-led development programs in Myanmar. However, this presents serious risks for the country’s ongoing peace process, Mali Walker writes.

While aid programs in countries suffering outright civil conflict tend to focus on peacebuilding, Myanmar is an exception. Aid agencies seem to be investing in government-led development programs. In reality, many areas of Myanmar need emergency humanitarian relief and a stable rule of law before development projects will have any chance of success.

Aid provision in Myanmar increasingly reflects international best-practice principles, such as the New deal for engagement in fragile states. These commitments emphasise the importance of nationally-led development programs as a means of enhancing stability in fragile states.

However, in Myanmar, aid based on these principles may be making the situation worse.

Myanmar remains wracked by a series of ethnic conflicts. Not just the highly publicised conflict with the Rohingya in Rakhine State, but also in Shan and Kachin state, where multiple ethnic groups are fighting both the military and each other.

International donors must give more thought to how development principles should be applied in cases where the central government has been both a predatory force and a major conflict player for many decades.

Currently, Myanmar’s government promote the convergence of state and ethnic service provision. The government wants to bring areas which have previously relied on local-non-governmental services, like local religious based education or ethnic health organisations, under a national framework.

International aid donors, following international best-practice principles, now increasingly support this. However, this may prevent Myanmar’s most vulnerable people from accessing essential services, particularly in the education and health sector.

Most international donors in Myanmar now advocate for the eventual merging of monastic and ethnic-community education systems into the national education system. This ignores the extent to which education may be used as an instrument by the government for state assimilation of minorities.

Similar problems face ethnic health providers. When visiting Shan state, I saw first-hand the challenges facing the Shan State Development Foundation (SSDF) in coming under the government’s National Health Plan (NHP).

Members of the organisation stated that they are increasingly under pressure to move under the NHP, or lose support from their donors. As the SSDF is not a government registered health provider, the organisation has no collaboration with international health bodies such as the World Health Organization.

The SSDF deliver health services to many vulnerable people, including unregistered refugees along the Thai-Myanmar border. Under the NHP however, the SSDF would not be able to support these vulnerable people, as they are considered the responsibility of the Thai Government by Myanmar but have not been granted official refugee status in Thailand. The SSDF also stated that they currently lack the technical or administrative capacity to understand what is needed to come under the NHP.

While a more unified education and health system in Myanmar is arguably a desirable long-term goal, rushing the process risks undermining the National Ceasefire Agreement, which has a focus on shared decision making. Many ethnic service providers insist that merging with national systems is only an option under a federal system, where states will be guaranteed some authority and autonomy.

More on this: The Rohingya crisis: one year on

Viewing Myanmar in standard development terms has encouraged a one-size-fits-all approach to aid and a propensity to overlook the messy ethnic politics in most of Myanmar’s seven states.

As of early 2017, less than one-third of aid was state or region specific, and aid programs in conflict-affected townships usually covered the same sectors as aid programs in peaceful areas.

In some cases, aid-funded development projects are actually damaging the prospects for peace. While ceasefires can offer a useful opportunity to undertake projects, ethnic armed organisations and the government often feel the other side has taken advantage of the pause to extend their influence before any political agreements are reached.

The Asia Highway in Karen state, for example, is a major project supported by the Asian Development Bank and the Thai Government. While improved infrastructure is seen by donors as essential for development, roads can also extend the military reach of various actors and are thus particularly sensitive projects. Thousands have been displaced by violence along this highway as armed groups have attempted to impose taxation checkpoints along the road.

Given these challenges, it’s no wonder that some ethnic organisations are worried the government is using aid to avoid true political dialogue. The Karen Peace and Support Network, for example, insists that large scale projects be put on hold until there is more progress on peace, democracy and decentralization.

Ethnic distrust runs deep in Myanmar and development aid may have to take a back seat while the government wins the confidence of former rebel groups. ‘Peace before development’ is the catch-cry for some ethnic leaders.

It’s crucial that any expansion of central government power and service provision in Myanmar happens slowly and is accompanied by political agreements and increased legitimacy. Until then, it seems unlikely that aid will play a major role in contributing to conflict resolution in Myanmar, and may in fact continue to damage the prospects for peace.

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