Freedom of speech in Myanmar’s aid sector

November 14, 2016

 

Participation and pluralism are often held up as values, but Myanmar’s aid sector has its own subtle form of censorship.

One of the fascinating things about editing this Forum on aid and development is to hear people’s ideas and reactions to our blogs and articles. 

 

But what is striking is not so much the willingness of people to share their own opinions publicly, but their caution. 

 

I often receive private emails or comments from people with a particular opinion - positive or negative - about a posting. Nearly always I encourage them to write a few paragraphs that we can post on this Forum. 

 

Yet what most often happens is that people then say that they couldn’t possibly write their opinion publicly. 

 

Of course sometimes revealing information publicly would be unethical – there could be confidential or particularly sensitive information about individuals or organisations. 

 

But most of the time that is not the issue. 

 

Many aid workers simply feel uncomfortable about sharing opinions in a wider forum – even just to pose questions or raise issues. 

It made me start wondering why?

 

Part of the answer seems to be fear that the ‘head office’ or funding agency might not look favourably on aid worker’s public sharing of ideas, questions or challenges. 

 

And it seems that this fear is not unjustified. 

 

One international aid worker made a contribution to this Forum earlier this year that raised questions about a prominent aid project.

The piece was not directly critical of the project, nor did it disclose any new sensitive information - it simply raised open questions that seemed, at least to me, to be worth discussing. 

 

Yet the international aid agency that this aid worker consulted for told her in no uncertain terms that such an action was not acceptable.

 

Interestingly, most of the fear seems to be about mid level operators – international NGOs or project level staff – rather than the back donors themselves. It seems that the intermediary level actors are those most concerned to filter information. 

 

MOVING PAST CENSORSHIP

 

My own assumption is that open debate about policies and projects fosters the best outcomes. 

 

Myanmar knows only too well how bad a censored press is for governance and learning.

 

Yet aid agencies – and especially those mid level actors - have created their own form of subtle censorship in Myanmar.

Something about the culture of aid in Myanmar means that people are afraid to express opinions and engage in constructive debate about the very things they are working on. 

 

It seems that participation and pluralism are not just values to foster in programs, but also within the aid sector itself. 

 

by Tamas Wells

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