Myanmar occupies a special place among the different contexts where localisation has had a major influence on the way aid practices have evolved. It was the focus of one of the case studies during the research project, “More than the Money: Localisation in Practice”, that Groupe URD carried out for Trócaire.
“While the international community is guided by deadlines and guidelines, local actors here are caught between front lines and ethnic lines.”
Member of staff of a national NGO in Myanmar
Myanmar: a turbulent history
Having gone through a number of different crises in the last four decades, the situation in Myanmar today is particularly complex. A peace process is currently being implemented following the insurgency in the northern states, but the conflict is far from resolved. The situation is even more difficult in the western part of the country with the ongoing Rohingya crisis in Rakhine State, which is based on specific political, socio-economic and religious issues. In addition, the country has been regularly affected by extreme climatic events since typhoon Nargis in 2008. A complex mixture of humanitarian and LRRD situations currently exist, with both continuum and contiguum processes, and the aid community is increasingly focusing on resilience building.
The crucial role of local actors
An important characteristic of the context in Myanmar is the critical role of civil society organisations in disaster response. Indeed, many civil society organisations, monks’ associations and individuals react when a disaster strikes: generosity is deeply enshrined within Myanmar culture as was evident during the large locally-led responses that took place after typhoon Nargis and the 2015 floods.
Although the recently elected civilian government and large parts of the economy continue to be controlled to a large extent by the army, democratic forces are on the rise in Myanmar. Civil society organisations and the private sector have grown and have become better organised to respond to different crises and have gained a lot of experience since the cross-border operations linked to political resistance in the 1980s. The private sector also plays an important role in natural disaster response. Local businesses, very much guided by the Buddhist tradition of “doing good”, mobilize all kinds of relief items and send them to the disaster scene. However, response mechanisms seem to be radically different in places such as Rakhine State where local response capacity is far less developed due to historical and political issues.
As in many southeast Asian countries, state-owned and parastatal response mechanisms have always played a critical role in crisis response in Myanmar, and the current trend is towards even greater involvement (the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement with its respective departments, the military, the National Disaster Management agency/Civil Protection Forces and the Myanmar Red Cross Society as an auxiliary of the State in times of disaster).
The key strategic added value of national and local NGOs remains their ability to reach areas where international agencies are deprived access, particularly the conflict-affected northern regions (Kachin and Shan States). International agencies have sub-contracted their activities or have established partnerships to the extent that local NGOs in these areas are leading the humanitarian response both in terms of service delivery and advocacy. In both government and non-government controlled areas, faith-based organisations have been present for a long time and are able to provide much-needed services to displaced populations. Due to their longstanding presence and local knowledge of the region and the conflict, these actors have a legitimate claim to be given a central place in the humanitarian set-up.