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Aid architecture in Myanmar. What’s the way forward? And what about civil society?

Matt Desmond reviews new ideas about the aid architecture in Myanmar and the danger of it becoming a ‘roof without walls’.

A famous architect was overheard in a Lagos tea-shop saying “this is not a house – it is a roof without walls”.

Towards the end of last year the government (FERD) and donors (development partners) commissioned a study on the aid architecture - the way aid is done - in Myanmar.

Is the current system good enough to take future opportunities and meet future challenges?

A draft discussion paper is available and final consultations are starting. From my reading the draft makes four main points:

1. Donor collaboration and donor perspectives are insufficient for the future application of development assistance.

2. Participation of grass-roots civil organisations will be essential – and is often over-looked or absent.

3. There needs to be a larger role for SMEs and more local firms to ensure that policies are more rooted in local realities.

4. Uninformed development assistance is a real and predictable risk to an effective decentralization (federalizing) process.

Remarkably, civil society’s role, concerns and challenges are not a footnote. The draft paper begins with these.

CIVIL SOCIETY ROLE. The paper highlights the importance of civil society in language that will be very familiar to Forum readers: a very active citizenry; considerable social capital; delivering literally thousands of projects etc.

CIVIL SOCIETY CONCERNS. These are highlighted in equally familiar language: a general discontent about the structure of development co-operation; being marginalized by donors; being used as cheap delivery agents rather than as partners; pseudo-consultation with a few, hand-picked local agencies.

The paper goes on to suggest that INGOs and other expensive intermediaries may be crowding out local voices and it would be timely for INGOs to redefine their role in Myanmar.


The paper notes that civil society spans programme delivery, policy advocacy and direct activism, and there is no agreement on key concerns (apart from those above?) and messages to government and donors.

An organic and locally-led process is suggested to build a shared agenda. This would be based on a more informed understanding of civil society’s key roles.

The challenges of civil society access are highlighted: access to the national development discussion and access to funding and capacity support. It recommends that donors focus on removing barriers to engagement and simplifying conditions for support.

Finally the draft paper proposes a Myanmar civil society forum that could agree messages for the annual Development Forum of government and donors. And this is where the architecture risks becoming a roof without walls.

What civil society has been asking from donors at consultation after consultation - for as long as I recall - is that donors promote civil society to shape a formal, direct dialogue with government at the national level. More than just having some agreed messages that can go to the Development Forum.

The paper is still in draft and has many useful observations and recommendations. One of the latter is for a funded secretariat to organize national and region/state forums of civil society.

This is not a hundred miles from the emerging civil society position of “no more donor consultations without a funded donor-advocacy body”. Civil society groups want to be able to advocate to donors more effectively about their concerns.

In the coming weeks we will be talking more about this proposed new Aid Architecture, and whether it is a ‘house’, or a ‘roof without walls’.

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