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After the Storm: Working with an Authoritarian Regime

May 21, 2012

In June 2011, the United Nations Development Program in Myanmar released their second Household Living Conditions Survey results. This survey aims to provide data on the living conditions within the country in order to strengthen development programs. The results show that overall poverty has been reduced. However, the report  notes that Myanmar is still facing significant humanitarian and developmental challenges. The most recent Human Development Index, which measures literacy, life expectancy and standard of living, ranks Myanmar 149 out of 187. About 25% of its population lives below the national poverty line.

Despite the harsh sanctions placed upon the country by the West, many international NGOs have implemented quite successful development programs in Myanmar. A 2011 Study by the Hauser Center for Non Profit Organizations at Harvard University, found that there are currently 65 international NGOs operating in the country.

The number of NGOs have increased in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. When Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008, over 148,000 people lost their lives and an additional 2.4 million more were affected. The military government blocked aid in the immediate aftermath. Under pressure from the international community and realizing the severity of the effects of Nargis, Myanmar finally allowed aid in from its Southeast Asian neighbors. Since Cyclone Nargis, the military Junta has been more open to work with international NGOs to address the dire humanitarian situation in Myanmar. Observers speculate that the government’s increased willingness to cooperate with international NGOs was because their positive experience with international relief efforts. In addition, they realized that not all international NGOs are human rights advocates seeking for major reforms in Myanmar.

The Hauser report demonstrates that even in constrained environments international NGOs are able to implement successful development projects.  Due to the political situation in Myanmar, international NGOs need to cooperate with the government via various frameworks. For instance, Memorandums of Understanding or Letters of Agreement are granted for a period of up to 3 years. NGOs typically work with the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Health or the Ministry of Social Welfare, and during the implementation phase government officials are encouraged to visit project sites and attend ribbon cutting ceremonies.

Though NGOs are able to work with government, the Hauser Center survey notes that these organizations face many challenges when cooperating with the government. It’s a delicate relationship to balance: improving the humanitarian situation without unintentionally legitimizing the government’s policies and driving away donors. Furthermore, there are operational challenges such as the lack of mobility of foreign staff and securing long-term funding in an unstable country environment.

Despite many challenges and facing new ones, international NGOs are having a positive impact on the development of Myanmar. Over the upcoming months and years, the developmental situation in Myanmar will have a chance to improve significantly. The United States Treasury Department recently announced that it is easing sanctions against Myanmar, and the EU soon followed suit. This would allow a flood of projects in to the country and potentially new and more effective solutions.

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