A group of school children reciting lessons in new school building built by a local NGO in Shan State, Myanmar. Photo: AFP

In recent years, international donors have poured large amounts of aid into development and peacebuilding in Myanmar. But when military forces seized power in a coup earlier this month, the international aid community was left grappling with how to respond.

The UK has announced it will review its aid programs to Myanmar, while New Zealand has committed to ensuring its aid does not benefit the military. The US has indicated it will redirect development assistance away from the military state and towards civil society.

Other embassies in Myanmar, including Australia’s, have condemned the actions of the military and called on security forces to refrain from violence, but haven’t specified yet how they will adjust their aid programs.

And international NGOs working in Myanmar have voiced their commitment to supporting local and national civil society partners.

Yet, it will take time for donors and international agencies to find new ways forward and disentangle their programs completely from the Myanmar government and the complex administrative structures that were developed over the past decade.

The situation illustrates the need for more flexible and politically sensitive approaches to aid programming in countries like Myanmar that are transitioning to democracy and are prone to setbacks like this.

Riot police stand in formation during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on February 18, 2021. Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu

How aid has evolved in Myanmar

When Myanmar was last ruled by the military in the 1990s and early 2000s, Western donors mainly provided humanitarian aid by bypassing the state.

For some, this meant supporting community-based organizations like the Back Pack Health Worker Team and non-state systems like the Karen Department of Health and Welfare.

Such organizations historically worked across borders (“cross-border aid”) and in partnership with ethnic armed organizations, fighting for self-determination in the country’s disputed borderlands.

But when Myanmar began its democratic reforms in 2011, donors engaged more with the state and increasingly channelled aid directly through government agencies or through international agencies based inside the country.

Donors also focused more on long-term development goals. By 2013, official development assistance to Myanmar had reached US$6 billion — almost a 60-fold increase compared to 2005.

Over the past decade, international aid to Myanmar has fostered an increasingly vibrant civil society. It supported large-scale development programs in sectors like health, education and livelihoods.

A number of donor-funded initiatives also supported both state systems as well as community-based organisations and non-state actors in border areas. This developed valuable collaborations between individuals and groups that were historically divided by conflict.

But the shifting aid economy was not all positive.

Community-based organizations and non-state actors serving ethnic minority communities often felt sidelined from key decisions affecting their activities. Many faced funding cuts or were forced to access donor support through more bureaucratic funding streams inside Myanmar, instead of through partner agencies in places like Thailand, as they did in the past.

Internationally funded development initiatives were also seen as undermining indigenous health and education systems and increasing centralized state control over border areas.

And peacebuilding initiatives were criticised for being co-opted by the military and bolstering efforts by the central, Bamar-dominated state to consolidate control over ethnic groups in border regions.

This photo taken on February 9, 2020, shows children playing in Karmawlawyi village in Myanmar’s Sagaing region, near the border with India. Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu

Rolling back of last decade’s achievements?

The coup not only draws increased attention to these issues, but also throws into question much of the development and peacebuilding work that has taken place in recent years.

With the military now in control and key ministerial leaders replaced or having resigned, work to develop government systems and capacities has ground to a halt. Development workers fear the past decade’s achievements will be rolled back.

The ability of international NGOs and UN agencies to continue their operations is also now in question, with staff safety and access to local communities jeopardized.

Myanmar’s junta historically restricted international access to people in ethnic minority regions along the borders. The new regime — if it remains in power — could create a similarly difficult environment for aid workers.

And community-based organisations face other difficulties. A civil disobedience movement is intensifying across the country among civilians opposed to the coup, leading many people employed by the government and in other industries to boycott work.

As such, many banks are closed and organizations cannot access funds for the day-to-day running of their programs.

Leaders of community-based health organizations working in border areas also tell me that much of their funding is now funneled through centralized administrative systems, which are frozen and would not be able to operate under the military regime.

People need these health services more than ever, due to the shutdown of official health systems, the potential for increased violence in border areas and the COVID-19 crisis.

As a result, the leaders of these health organizations are asking donors to support community programs and once again fund cross-border aid. Yet, they don’t know how donors will be able to adapt to the current situation or what this will mean for them.

Buddhist monks join a demonstration against the military coup in front of the United Nations office in Yangon on February 16, 2021. Photo: AFP/Sai Aung Main

Flexible, politically sensitive aid programs

After the coup in Myanmar, much criticism has been directed toward international actors for their faith in the country’s shaky political transition. But what is really needed is a constructive dialogue about how foreign governments and aid organizations should approach development and peace-building in countries like Myanmar.

new approach is needed that recognizes countries do not always transition from conflict to peace, or from military rule to democracy, in a linear fashion. Rather, they can be unstable and subject to major setbacks.

This means supporting vulnerable people in such countries requires a two-pronged approach that combines both flexible and shorter-term “humanitarian” aid and longer-term, more state-focused “development” assistance.

International donors and agencies must also build greater flexibility and concrete contingency plans into their programs from the outset when working in “transitional” countries.

In Myanmar, international donors shouldn’t pull out of the country entirely. Instead, they must listen to and work with community and civil society actors to devise programs that can be adapted to an evolving and unstable situation.

This should include support for community-level groups that were developed in response to decades of military rule and have the experience and structures in place to continue helping people in the current climate.

Anne Decobert is Lecturer in Development Studies, University of Melbourne. Disclosure: Anne Decobert has worked for over a decade with community-based and ethnic health organizations in Myanmar’s border areas, both as a researcher and as a volunteer/consultant.

She has received funding for her research from the University of Melbourne, where she now works. Anne is a founding member of the Myanmar Research Network at the University of Melbourne.

This story first appeared on The Conversation website and is republished with permission. To see the original, please click here.

Anne Décobert

Anne Décobert is a development scholar and practitioner currently working at the University of Melbourne and whose research focuses on conflict, development, humanitarianism and peace-building in Myanmar.