Burma: Look to the Locals

By Michael Boyce

Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unveiled the next steps America would take in its tit-for-tat rapprochement with Burma. Her announcement followed the (by most accounts) successful Burmese by-elections, in which Aung San Suu Kyi's once-banned political party won 43 of the 45 open seats.

RI welcomed the by-election results and we were equally pleased with Secretary Clinton's response. Many of the policy recommendations we made during our November 2011 mission to Burma were addressed in the Secretary's April 4 announcement. Here are just a few:

  1. The U.S. has pledged to establish a USAID mission in Burma for the first time, bolstering America's capacity to provide humanitarian aid, development assistance, and disaster-preparedness training in the country. This comes after RI's team pushed the U.S. to ramp up aid inside Burma while maintaining support to Burmese refugees in Thailand. 
  2. The U.S. announced it would allow the UN Development Programme and American private organizations to work with Burmese officials on key issues like health care and education. This mirrors RI's recommendation that the U.S. remove restrictions on donor assistance to the Burmese government, which impede capacity-building initiatives that could alleviate suffering.
  3. The U.S. declared it would lift travel bans on a limited number of Burmese officials to facilitate dialogue, and announced that Burma's Minister of Health would be one of the first high-profile visitors. Back in January, RI specifically named the Ministry of Health as one of the most reform-minded in the Burmese government and a key target for capacity-building projects.

These are all important steps that will help keep Burma on the path to reform and sustainable development. But while they are being implemented, the U.S. (and other donors) should remember that Burma's government is not the only actor worth engaging. Despite the government's restrictions, Burmese civil society groups have been on the front lines of assistance for years. When foreign agencies were blocked from entering the country after Cyclone Nargis in 2008, they provided lifesaving aid. And in Burma's war-torn ethnic states, where humanitarian access is limited, they have given shelter and sustenance to thousands of displaced families.

There's no question that Burma's civil society groups are best prepared to direct the aid heading for their country. They know what assistance is most needed, where it should be directed, and how best to deal with Burma's brutal military and labyrinthine bureaucracy. Furthermore, channeling some assistance through civil society groups - rather than the government - could prevent corrupt officials from siphoning off aid dollars.

As RI has seen in many parts of the world, local communities have to be full partners in their own development. Western cash, experts, and good intentions just aren't enough to get the job done; and if Haiti is any example, they can do more harm than good if distributed carelessly. Burma doesn't have to be the next Haiti, and it won't be if donors make the right choices.