Too Much, Too Soon for Burma?

By Steve Hirsch
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A ministerial meeting in Tokyo between Japan and other creditors to support a package to write off Burma's overdue debt, Oct. 11, 2012.

Donors of foreign aid to Burma are now making many of the same mistakes in that country as they have elsewhere in the past, according to a study on overseas assistance to the country as it reforms after decades of military rule.

The report entitled, “Too Much, Too Soon? The Dilemma of Foreign Aid to Myanmar/Burma,” focuses on the work of the leading multilateral and bilateral donors and is scheduled for release at the Washington-based Brookings Institution on Wednesday.

The report, written by Brookings specialist Lex Rieffel and former U.S. Agency for International Development  Senior Economist James W. Fox,  was commissioned by Nathan Associates, a firm that helped Burma devise economic and social development plans, set up a tax system, and establish public services in the 1950s.

In their report, Rieffel and Fox measure donor performance against a set of internationally accepted aid principles, but their greatest concern is that in granting aid, donors should do no harm.

“This concern was hammered home when the country representative of a leading donor bluntly stated in January 2013: ‘We will do damage,’” the report says.

Rieffel and Fox say that a flood of aid-related visitors seeking meetings with Burmese officials has compromised aid effectiveness more than any other factor.

Burmese culture, they say, does not encourage a refusal of meetings. And given Burma’s pariah-state history, “it is very hard to say no to presidents and prime ministers, legislators, aid agency directors, CEOS of multinational corporations, Nobel Prize winners, movie stars, etc.”

Some donors have now moved to cut back on quick visits, conferences, and workshops. But even if the number of aid visitors drops, visits from promoters of business and investment could harm policy implementation.

The report also criticizes the practice of some donors of “throwing money at problems” and the reliance by multiple donor agencies on the same prominent local NGOs for project implementation—a practice that overburdens those groups “while neglecting smaller but competent NGOs.”

Particularly troubling, the report says, is the donor practice of hiring Burmese public sector or civil society employees, thus “hollowing out the organizations they are leaving.”


The report also cites concerns over how well donors understand Burma, “how feudal and personalized the society is, or how choosing one local partner can close doors to working with other partners, for example.”

Part of the problem involves Burma’s ethnic divisions, the report says, adding that it is “far easier for donors to work with the Burman majority than the dozens of ethnic minorities that need to feel they aer being treated fairly in order to arrive a durable peace agreement.”

The study gives donors mixed reviews when measuring their work against principles outlined in the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, which was produced by a meeting of donor agency and developing country representatives convened in 2005 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The report’s authors say they have been “impressed” by Burma’s progress in taking control of its development agenda—one of the Paris Declaration principles—and point to work undertaken to produce a set of national plans and arrangements made to engage with donors.

They acknowledge, though, that donor resistance to particular government approaches can improve aid effectiveness, citing for example donors’ successful efforts to postpone Burma’s first major donor conference.

The report is less laudatory about donors’ efforts to line up behind Burma’s development objectives and to coordinate among themselves.

“Donor plans are not aligned with ours,” the report quotes one Burmese official as saying, with a foreign advisor to the government adding that  “some of the biggest donors just want to ‘do it their way.’”

The report’s writers also point to a “gap” between “the rhetoric of country ownership” and the actual business of setting up donor programs. However, they acknowledge that donors frequently encounter difficulties stemming from the newness of Burma’s reforms.

On the harmonization of donors’ efforts, they quote one NGO leader as saying, “There is no culture of donor coordination here.”


Competition among donors is generally seen to be high, the report says, citing over-concentration in some sectors as well as in some geographic regions.

High-level disagreements also were said to occur between the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, among U.N. agencies, and between the U.N. Development Program and bilateral donors, according to the report.

Lower-level competition may be more damaging, though, and more examples of this could have been found if more interviews had been conducted, the report says.

The allocation of more aid to multidonor trust funds, where harmonization is stronger, would improve coordination, the writers say. That share is likely to drop, though, “as multilateral and bilateral programs settle into comfortable grooves.”

Overall, they praise donors’ “rhetoric on aid effectiveness,” but say, “It remains to be seen how far the donors go in matching their actions to their rhetoric.”

Burmese awareness of international development agreements such as the Paris Declaration could improve donor performance, they say. So could Burma’s visibility, largely due to the international popularity of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Because of this high degree of visibility, the report says, perceived foreign-aid failures in Burma could harm donor operations elsewhere, while successes could be “the best news for foreign aid” since the transitions in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

“The open question,” the report concludes, “is whether Myanmar’s [Burma’s] broad policy objectives will prevail over the day-to-day political and institutional pressures bearing on the donors.

Steve Hirsch is a contributor to RFA.


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