Since 2011 when Myanmar embarked on its historic democratic transition, the international development community has engaged in a near unprecedented effort to show how official development assistance can actually work to deliver results.
Myanmar offered exciting prospects for development institutions and professionals — an almost unique opportunity to transform arguably the least developed and definitely the most isolated country in the fast-growing Southeast Asian region. Riding the back of reinvigorated diplomatic relations and high-profile visits by government leaders, international donors pledged their long-term commitments and vowed to apply assistance in the most constructive, meaningful and coordinated ways.
Cautious pragmatism prevailed from the beginning. No one expected any miracles in Myanmar. The environment for conducting development work was unfamiliar, unpredictable and difficult. Despite an international assistance windfall, most segments of the development community practiced restraint, heeding the warnings and advice widely circulated in a 2013 report commissioned by Nathan Associates which questioned if the outpouring of foreign aid to Myanmar over three to five years would “be more of blessing than a curse.”
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Today, some foreign governments cite Myanmar as a foreign policy achievement. By many accounts, the government in Naypyitaw has pursued a responsible and measured transition that has set the stage for broader reforms. Donors concede many missteps but highlight the incremental progress — social, political and economic — in a country marginalized under an authoritarian military regime for decades. According to a recent national survey conducted by The Asia Foundation, 62 percent of respondents “believe things in Myanmar are going in the right direction.”
But there is also no denying the disturbing news — such as violent crackdowns on student protests or multiple ethnic struggles and conflicts — that lead some observers to believe democratic progress has stalled and the country’s “opening-up” is more smoke and mirrors than reality.
Some plainly doubt the government’s dedication to basic freedoms and inclusivity. The Asia Foundation survey also revealed candid public perceptions of the major problems — conflict, poverty, unemployment, poor roads and lack of electricity, among others — as well as a “lack of social trust and deep political divide that could threaten the development of a common vision for the country.”
Donor nations will watch the November 2015 elections closely and the outcomes are likely to influence future development planning. Already, development organizations report project slowdowns as national and local politics take over.
Assuming elections are conducted freely and fairly and results are accepted, most analysts agree that Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy party will gain seats in parliament but not necessarily the majority of seats. Either way, because the renowned opposition leader is constitutionally barred from the presidency and there is no obvious alternative from any party, there will be a period of considerable uncertainty and apprehension between the time the parliamentary elections finish and the next president is decided in early 2016.
The new administration will then have to build the team, alliances and overall credibility to govern effectively. In the best-case scenario, these issues will extend well into 2016 and, once the dust settles, the development community could very well be dealing with an entirely new set of officials, priorities and systems when they were just getting used to the existing ones.
So there remains a precarious balance of foreign aid in Myanmar characterized by the complexity and opportunity that comes with any massive political transition as well as increases in both development dollars and actors. Still, the donor community operating there appears more committed than ever to Myanmar’s development.
Development leaders during the Devex Executive Forum in Yangon painted a picture of a country riddled with challenges and nuance but also emphasized Myanmar’s distinctive potential and their continuing efforts to coordinate and scale development programs to achieve it. And recognizing the importance of the upcoming elections, they agree that next couple of years represent a new phase that could make or break the longer-term development trajectory of the country.
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