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Myanmar: The Politics of Humanitarian Aid


Since the 1988 uprising and 1990 election in Burma/Myanmar, foreign governments and international organisations have promoted democratisation as the solution to the country’s manifold problems, including ethnic conflict, endemic social instability, and general underdevelopment. Over time, however, as the political stalemate has continued and data on the socio-economic conditions in the country have improved, there has been a growing recognition that the political crisis is paralleled by a humanitarian crisis that requires more immediate and direct international attention. Donors face a dilemma. On the one hand, the humanitarian imperative raises difficult questions about the sustainability of international strategies based on coercive diplomacy and economic isolation, which have greatly limited international assistance to Myanmar. On the other hand, there is widespread concern that re-engagement, even in the form of limited humanitarian assistance, could undermine the quest for political change and long-term improvements.

This policy dilemma raises two basic questions: Should international assistance to Myanmar be increased? And, if so, how can this be done in a responsible and effective way? This report answers the first of these questions with an unequivocal ‘yes’. There should be more international assistance in Myanmar, more resources, more agencies, and more programs in a wider number of sectors. The human costs of social deprivation in Myanmar are simply too large to be ignored until some indefinite democratic future, which could be years, or even decades, away. In the meantime, international development agencies are making a significant difference bringing relief and new opportunities to vulnerable groups, building local capacities, even helping to rationalise policy-making and planning – and they could do a lot more. Importantly, so far at least, there are no indications that these efforts are having significant political costs, whether in terms of strengthening the regime or undermining the movement for change.

Those who oppose international assistance, or at least are cautious about it, point out that Myanmar’s development for a long time has been hostage to political interests and that any sustainable, long-term solutions would have to involve fundamental changes in the system of government. They are also concerned that the current government will reject international advice and maintain development policies and priorities that are partly responsible for the current problems.

However, these obstacles should be actively addressed rather than left for some future democratic government to tackle. Instead of placing absolute constraints on international assistance, the focus should be on improving monitoring and distribution to minimise existing problems and facilitate more aid reaching people in need. If properly applied, international assistance could in fact serve to promote political reconciliation and build the social capital necessary for a successful democratic transition.

Foreign governments and donors do not face a choice between promoting political change or supporting social development in Myanmar. Both strategies would have to be integral parts of any genuine effort to help this country and promote stability and welfare for its 50 million people, as well as the broader region. In order to facilitate responsible and effective delivery of more international assistance, all the main protagonists, inside and outside the country, need to reassess their positions and do their part to generate the kind of cooperation and synergy that has so far been lacking.



1. Accept that it is not necessary to choose between promoting political change and supporting social development in Myanmar: both strategies need to be part of an integral effort to create stability and improve social welfare.

2. Provide more aid to tackle poverty, illness and the shortfall in education.

3. Work with both local civil society organisations and government bodies to help develop overall capacities for aid management.

4. Strengthen current oversight mechanisms, in particular by setting up an inter-governmental aid consortium with monitoring functions to liase with UN and international non-governmental development organisations (INGO) inter-agency groups in Myanmar.

5. Use aid to attract increased government funding, for example, by ‘matching’ government expenditure in priority sectors and encouraging specific ‘joint-venture’ development projects.

6. Take care that other political tools are wielded with due consideration to their humanitarian and human rights impact – and, for that purpose, commission an impact assessment of all existing and potential future sanctions by a neutral body of economic and development experts.


7. Place a greater emphasis on human development by:

(a) cutting back defence spending and moving more resources to health and education; and

(b) reconsidering the current top-down approach to development, which fails to activate all the country’s resources.

8. Facilitate increased international assistance by:

(a) demonstrating clearer commitment to resolving the country’s socio-economic problems by providing more resources and changing policies that do not produce results;

(b) minimising the obstructions currently placed on foreign aid organisations in the country; and,

(c) increasing the scope for international actors to work with local NGOs.

9. Take more advantage of the wealth of knowledge and development experience outside the country, including in neighbouring countries and among fellow members of ASEAN.


10. Formulate a public plan for international assistance that recognises needs and priorities for expanded humanitarian assistance.

11. Support efforts to strengthen the state's capacity to formulate and implement policy, in preparation for a smooth political transition.

12. Encourage donors and aid organisations to fund local development NGOs and work with community groups.


13. Expand the UNDP’s mandate in Myanmar to allow it broader involvement in policy issues and administrative capacity building.

14. Use the significant leverage of the UN system with the government to negotiate a framework more conducive to the effective functioning of all aid organisations in the country, including the INGOs and local civil society organisations.

15. Do more to challenge inaccurate official figures and other data, whether overly pessimistic or optimistic, which distort the situation in the country.

16. Work to maintain current standards of accountability of NGOs as their numbers expand and funding increases, for example, by formalising the INGO Joint Operation Principles and establishing an NGO Council, which could service individual organisations and liase with donors and the national government.

17. Be prepared to lower standards of transparency and accountability in exceptional circumstances, viz. where needed in order to reach people in sensitive areas and sectors where security requires full confidentiality.

18. Strengthen coordination to avoid duplication of projects and pool information and ideas.

Bangkok/Brussels, 2 April 2002


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