Members and supporters of the Karen National Union during the 65th anniversary of Karen revolution day. KNU representatives were among those who signed on March 31 a draft cease-fire agreement with the Myanmar government. Photo by: Prachatai / CC BY-NC-ND

Recently opened up following 50 years of authoritarian military rule, Myanmar has embarked on a significant process of reform since 2011, aimed at addressing crucial economic and social challenges as well as long-lasting conflicts with ethnic minorities in the country’s borderland regions.

What is today considered as the most tangible transition in Myanmar, if not in the whole development world, has triggered the lifting of sanctions imposed on the country and the resulting sudden rush of aid donors, which have made Naypyitaw the international development community’s newest donor darling.

At the same time, the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness held in Busan, South Korea, in the same year determined the latest international standards on good development. More specifically, HLF-4 put forward the “New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States,” highlighting endeavors from the international community to guarantee that development programs in fragile states are more appropriately managed.

A key principle set through this New Deal was the need to work on capacity building when engaging in a conflict-affected country, and more generally, to reinforce leveraging “national systems,” i.e., to work and channel aid through national circuits in order to give national institutions the autonomy needed to conduct their own transitions out of fragility.

Yet what is actually emerging out of the most recent outcomes of the Myanmar peace process is that despite a recent agreement on a nationwide cease-fire, Busan principles may not be sufficient to address the question of fragility in the country.

The New Deal’s limitations in the case of Myanmar

First, the idea of “country ownership of development,” which has become a catchphrase in the development world, seems to ignore some crucial realities pertaining to the experience of the transition in Myanmar.

Favoring governmental channels in contexts of widespread mistrust between the state and the society can indeed not only appear counterproductive, if the constituents do not buy into the projects implemented by the government, but can also create a discrepancy between beneficiaries from aid programs sharing the interests of the government and left-aside stakeholders with a potential antagonistic vision of the society.

In Myanmar, even though the army has officially ceded power to a civilian government, the military background of a range of officials and the domination of the military-backed party at the parliament tarnish the image of the current administration, which still tends to lack popular legitimacy. This is evidenced in the peace process, where some moves made by the current administration have sometimes been interpreted by ethnic groups as mere calculations to move forward its own interests rather than genuine steps toward national reconciliation.

Second, the government in Myanmar is notably both a development partner and a party to various conflicts.

While the government has signed the Naypyitaw Accord in 2011, aimed to strengthen cooperation with global partners and ensure better public service delivery, it is still involved in various conflicts. This is recently evidenced by tensions around the Letpadaung Copper Mine projects — where civil society groups accused the government of infringing on its Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative pledges during the latest clashes at the mine — or the recent clashes between government troops and Kokang rebels in Shan State. This dual role is highly problematic since it can generate an amalgam between development and political objectives, and puts into question official efforts to promote state and peace building.

An illustration of this is the restrictive narrative that had developed among donors around the nationwide cease-fire agreement, which was eventually signed March 31 after a year of difficult negotiations between the government and ethnic rebel groups.

While President Thein Sein’s administration had clearly set its own preferred sequencing of the peace process, explicitly prioritizing the signing of the agreement, several ethnic groups insisted on the urgency to hold an inclusive political dialogue, and tended to portray the government’s own sequencing as a fence to reach the next stage in the peace process. Blinded by their commitment to work through governmental channels, donors built their aid programs around this official account of the agreement, which triggered some discontent among some minority groups.

“The fact that the delivery of aid remains dependent from this sequencing of the peace process defined by the government is highly problematic,” explained Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe, a Karen activist. “Donors should focus on the actual needs of the communities, instead of complying with abstract political requirements fixed by Naypyitaw.”

Another example can be found in the dilemma of funding education in conflict-affected areas, where armed ethnic groups have developed systems of their own. For instance, in Kayin State, government-run schools are used to cohabit with schools not run by the state. Against this backdrop, donor service provision is not neutral. While in the past, the international community used to fund more ethnic education systems, the suspension of sanctions in 2013 has paved the way for closer engagement with central authorities. Funds in the sector of education are thus increasingly channeled to the government at the township level.

“This way of proceeding has given rise to widespread corruption, but also to mistrust, conflicts and misunderstanding in ethnic states,” Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe explained. “In [Kayin], most of the community has refused to accept the emergency food provided by the Japanese government because it is supplied through government channels.”

Overall, despite the recent transition process out of fragility, Myanmar — with its 135 official ethnic groups — does not seem to be the ideal receptacle for Busan’s requirements. In Yangon’s context, this means accepting a homogeneous consensus between the Bamar — the dominant ethnic group in the country — and the numerous Buddhist groups in the country. But this might inevitably lead to tensions with ethnic minorities, and, if the same logic continues to apply, could prove the New Deal’s inability to restore stability, peace and prosperity in this profoundly divided society.

The problem, however, is that a more relevant and realistic solution than the New Deal’s has yet to be found.

The way forward

On the whole, Myanmar embodies a context that challenges donor engagement in assisting the resolution of a long-standing conflict. Nonetheless, there are ways to work around these limitations.

1. Engage in areas that do not have the potential to intensify societal or political divisions. Development partners operating in fragile contexts should realize how nurturing their connections with a transitional government might profoundly affect the local situation and further instability. Engagement with governing authorities should focus on areas that do not have the potential to create new discontent among the various stakeholders.

2. Secure inclusive and participatory planning and implementation. It should be noted that in transition countries, parliaments generally do not guarantee a genuine political representation of the diversity of views that make up the nation. There is therefore a need to conduct consultations beyond this official body. A genuine dialogue with all stakeholders in the country should be held before the deployment of any development intervention in order to anticipate potential modification of existing power relationships.

Moreover, in cases of profound mistrust toward authorities, as it is often the case in transitional contexts, this engagement should not prevent the possibility of working with other bodies falling under different jurisdictions. Development partners should thus act as intermediating, if not reconciling actors, ensuring a genuine inclusivity of the transition process in fragile states.

3. Recognize that state-building endeavors should not focus solely on the state. This is especially crucial if peace is to be built on the longer term. In that respect, ethnic groups or competing authorities, and more generally any conflict-affected community or CSO, should be truly taken into account in development programs.

Regrettably, the literature on engaging with nongovernmental stakeholders is scarce, making donors and agencies reluctant to do so. More academic research is needed to inform better ways of appropriately tackling developmental issues in conflict-affected and divided societies.

Development partners should understand the whole state-society relationship in Myanmar, and look at these dynamics more closely than they have done in the past, for their policies and interventions to truly leave a positive impact.

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About the author

  • Mathilde Tréguier

    Mathilde Tréguier is working in Myanmar on peace issues and questions related to intercommunal violence. She graduated in 2014 from the London School of Economics and Political Science with an MSc in International Relations. She also holds an MSc in Management from the EMLyon Business School.