Sharing Experiences of Effective Development Cooperation in Myanmar

Hyun Jee[i]

The Myanmar development context

Since the opening of the Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (Government of Myanmar) in 2011, and its concurrent launch of four waves of national reform – political, economic, public administration, and private sector reforms – Myanmar has re-emerged as a member of the international community and become an aid darling and a frontier market. While I was working as Official Development Assistance (ODA) Specialist in Development Cooperation and Effectiveness at the KOICA Country Office in Myanmar from December 2013, I witnessed an ever-growing number of bilateral and multilateral development agencies flagging out their support for Myanmar’s development efforts, and, at the same time, international business setting its feet on the ground to seek new market opportunities. The country has vast potential for economic development: as frequently put and almost as a prefix to Myanmar, the country is endowed with an abundance of untapped national resources and positioned in a strategic geographical location with its direct access to the two largest markets in Asia, China and India, and to the ASEAN countries, and further acting as a connecting route to the Middle East. With this highly favourable context for growth, it is unsurprising to see many countries rushing in to claim a stake in Myanmar’s development.

Huge opportunities and challenges coexist in Myanmar as a ‘latecomer’ developing country. Navigating through the uncharted waters of an ever more complex development environment, the right mix of the key ingredients for a successful development story is required, namely: (i) a national development vision shared by all; (ii) unified political will; (iii) strong and responsible government leadership; and, (iv) capacity to discern and solicit wise counsel and to translate policy ideas into action.

Localizing the implementation of the principles of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation (GPEDC)

The international development assistance coordination system in Myanmar was set up in January 2013, and has strengthened the cooperation and coordination between the Government of Myanmar and development partners. The key achievement has been the operationalization of the Nay-Pyi-Taw Accord for Effective Development Cooperation (NPTA), which was jointly adopted by the Government of Myanmar and development partners in January 2013 on the occasion of the first Myanmar Development Cooperation Forum (MDCF). The NPTA follows the principles of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation (GPEDC)[1], namely: (i) ownership (and leadership) of development priorities by the development cooperation recipient countries; (ii) results-focused development efforts; (iii) inclusive partnerships for sustainable development; and, (iv) transparency and mutual accountability to one another between development cooperation recipients and providers.

Country ownership. At the forefront of country ownership of the development process, the Framework for Economic and Social Reform (FESR) 2011-2015 sets out the nationally-defined development priorities in Myanmar and acts as the key reference document to which international development assistance must be aligned.

The Government of Myanmar, in close consultation with the international development partners, has drafted and/or is currently drafting key guiding and standard-setting documents for development cooperation. These include the Guide to International Assistance (GIA), Principles for Technical Cooperation between the Government of Myanmar and International Development Partners, and the National Capacity Development Strategy (NCDS). Each of these documents has been developed based on inputs from development partners on international good practice in development effectiveness.

Emerging from over 60 years of isolation, the Government of Myanmar has shown a genuine thirst for know-how and great appetite for technical assistance from international development partners. They have aspirations to catch up with the global community, primarily with its ASEAN neighbours. What will make this aspiration a reality is a political leadership inspired by a national development vision of the highest calibre geared towards development by incentivizing and attracting Myanmar diaspora to return to the country and contribute to the effort. While welcoming foreign and international advice, the sustainability of a country’s development can be assured only when the country takes full charge of the development process. Concurrently, the political leadership will drive the strategic mid-to-long term investment in human resource development by investing in education, including technical and vocational education and training and public health.

Another crucial need to be addressed is developing capacity in governance and public administration. The Government of Myanmar and Parliament are faced with the huge task of updating existing, and formulating new, policies and regulatory and legal frameworks for almost all areas of economic, social and environmental development. However, a lack of capacity to fulfill governance and public administration requirements causes systemic constraints and bottlenecks at the implementation level. As Myanmar only recently emerged from a long-standing, top-down command and control socialist military system, the absence of a culture of communication and information sharing and delegation is the root cause of this problem and demands the due attention be paid to address a change in mind-sets and cultural attitudes followed by capacity development support.

Transparency and mutual accountability. Myanmar has become a member of the International Aid and Transparency Initiative (IATI), and after significant tedious work in collating and compiling information on the international development assistance provided by key development partners (bilateral and multilateral development agencies) and led by the Government of Myanmar, the Aid Information Management System (AIMS) was launched in February 2015.

However, with the AIMS launch, there remain some follow-up actions. In the short term, the Government of Myanmar and development partners have prioritised validating and updating the data and information, and organizing public awareness and training on the usage of the AIMS by the public and stakeholders.

In the short- to medium-term, the AIMS could be further developed into a comprehensive and integrated national development finance database to include those data and information on development cooperation efforts rendered by non-traditional development partners, including South-South cooperation, and incorporate a public finance management system.

Inclusive partnerships as a necessary process leading to results-focused development cooperation. For the past two years, with the international development coordination system set up and running, the information flow concerning international development cooperation has been smooth and active amongst the development partners involved, mainly by utilizing dialogue channels set up by the Government to coordinate: (i) amongst the Government offices and ministries (that is, Myanmar’s Foreign Aid Management Central Committee and Foreign Aid Management Working Committee); (ii) amongst official development partners (Development Partnership Group involving representatives of bilateral and multilateral development agencies and international and regional financial institutions); and, (iii) between the Government of Myanmar and the development partners (regular meetings organized between Foreign Economic Relations Department as the Government focal point for aid coordination, and Development Partners Working Committee functioning as the executive committee of nine development partners as members, working on behalf of the larger international development community, and the seventeen Sector Working Groups as a mechanism for development partners to contribute to the Government’s efforts in developing and implementing sectoral policies, strategies, programmes and projects).

While the primary task of managing official development assistance resides with the Government of Myanmar, in close cooperation with official development partners using these dialogue channels, engagement with other key development stakeholders has been increasingly more common (involving parliamentarians, national civil society organizations, experts in academic and research institutions, private sector entities, media, international non-governmental institutions, and non-traditional development cooperation providers).

One of the key inputs to effective development cooperation was provided by the National Civil Society Forum held in October 2014, which produced joint recommendations for the Government of Myanmar, donor governments (bilateral development agencies), UN agencies and INGOs respectively. The joint recommendations demanded due attention be paid to the sensitivity of ongoing efforts in peace building. The very process to build up national reconciliation and harmony in Myanmar is crucial while the country is emerging from active conflict, especially in border areas, and the legitimacy of the current Government is not fully recognized throughout the national territory[2].

Lessons learnt and way forward

Effective development cooperation in Myanmar requires a common and shared understanding of the national development context. This common understanding can be formed by reaching out to development partners, sharing information and experiences, and constant and mutual learning. In the process, there emerges a sense of community amongst development cooperation practitioners and an understanding about each other’s operational constraints.

Based on these lessons learnt, the five most critical efforts to be made by development cooperation providers to enhance effective development cooperation could be summed up as follows:

  • Better communication: To be able to provide and deliver effective development assistance, there is a need for better communication between policy makers in the capital and implementation arms at the country level. There exists a gap of knowledge about policy makers’ pledges made within international development fora, about which implementing development agencies on the ground are often not well informed. There is a clear need for the development cooperation policy making process to be informed by feedback gathered from the country-level implementation, with due attention given to lessons learnt and good practices.
  • Better coordination: A holistic government approach to development cooperation and enhanced policy coherence for development demands better coordination between various government offices and ministries at different levels involved.
  • There is a growing need to incentivize the role of international development practitioners to carry out due diligence in partnership building, and information and knowledge management in the development context. This could be done by designating a full-time specialist in development cooperation and/or by incorporating this role into the monitoring and evaluation process of development programme management.
  • Efforts to achieve development results sometimes require flexibility in applying international principles and standards. These need to be tailored to the varied and unique country development contexts, while maintaining the aspirational quality of the international norms to be respected.
  • Most importantly, development cooperation providers should approach their work with humility, and be open to constantly learning about the local and country context by engaging with counterparts, not replacing them, and avoiding ’copying and pasting’ their own knowledge and experiences. The goal and key result of development cooperation is to see a developing country steering its own development sustainably and become a responsible development partner (for a responsible trading partner, etc.).

[1] The GPEDC is derived from the 2011 Busan Partnership agreement (BPa), which built upon the 2005 Paris Declaration and the 2008 Accra Agenda.

[2] This essay was written prior to the emergence of the current regional political tension related to the trafficking of Rohingya and the role that Myanmar has in this crisis.

[i] Ms. Hyun Jee was the Official Development Assistance (ODA) Expert in Development Effectiveness, Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) Country Office in Myanmar until May 2015. Opinion of the author does not necessarily represent that of the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA)


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