Taking risks and supporting local governance
published : 24 Mar 2023 at 04:00
newspaper section: Oped
A recent paper, prepared jointly by Chatham House and the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, estimated that close to 50% of the populations living in fragile and conflict-affected states were in contexts "where relations between a significant number of international actors and national authorities are estranged". Rather than being an outlier, Myanmar is tragically part of a new normal.
The international aid community has yet to adapt to this new reality. Economic sanctions and restrictions on more structural aid continue to be a prominent part of the international toolkit for dealing with regimes that violate international norms and rules or are beset by conflict. Such an approach neglects to take into account that sanctions and interruptions of structural aid often end up hurting the poor more than the rich, particularly the political elites who the sanctions are most meant to target.
Some donors try to limit the impact of their political measures on the poor with humanitarian aid. Based on the estimated needs -- hence the gigantic sums requested -- the UN humanitarian appeals to which donors respond obscure for the most part the reality of what is achievable on the ground in contexts of contested governments. The classic humanitarian response that adheres to existing levels of donor financial accountability and respects the principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence result in many populations being unreachable. A new complementary form of donor engagement needs to be found.
Myanmar is fragmenting. Autonomous local governance entities are emerging, for the most part comprised of ethnic administrations, popular defence forces and local community networks and governance structures. A bottom-up form of decentralisation is taking shape, which in the long term could form the basis for a far more viable model of national governance.
While some pro-democratic local governance structures continue to receive international aid, albeit at much reduced levels and no longer as predictable as in the past, other such entities resort to different forms of revenue generation that include such novel approaches as crowdfunding, online lotteries and sales of autocrats' properties but also more well-trodden approaches such as diaspora support, taxation, natural resource extraction, and even a growing dependency on unregulated economic actors.
The spontaneous mobilisation of communities in periods of conflict is nothing new. After the withdrawal of the Assad administration from many parts of Syria during the first phase of the Syrian conflict, local administrative councils emerged to replace them. These entities functioned as alternative governance structures, meeting the needs of their constituencies and ensuring the continued functioning of basic services. For as long as they were able to continue to operate as providers of services and support to their constituencies, the leadership of these local structures were able to resist the take-over of their communities by the armed militia. But as a result of the conflict, donors transformed their support to humanitarian aid and short-term funding cycles. This meant that local community structures were unable to match in terms of consistency and predictability the resources that armed and religious groups had access to, which in turn undermined the ability of local community structures to continue to provide basic services to their constituencies.
While in Myanmar, the factor of violent religious extremism has not come into play since the coup, there is the phenomenon of the capture of some economic activity by ruthless individuals or groups. Today, warlords, unscrupulous economic actors, either linked or not to both armed actors and international criminal networks, are far more independent in the way that they operate in Myanmar. The risk is that the local communities are subjugated to them or forced to turn to them for support.
There are a number of examples of international support to local community mechanisms in highly constrained and risk-laden circumstances. In the case of Afghanistan, local community governance demonstrated robustness in the face of sustained conflict, ethnic political and social diversity, the presence of predatory armed groups, a big illicit economy, and weak government institutions. Indonesia and the Philippines both used national community programmes to continue basic service delivery and then recovery, even in their most tumultuous, conflict-ridden regions. After the 2004 Aceh tsunami, Indonesia's Reconstruction Bureau anchored its successful reconstruction strategy in community programmes.
There are many lessons to be learned from these and other examples. But perhaps the most important of these lessons is that well-designed community programs can reach poor people without legitimating pariah regimes. And in all of these cases, careful, field-based reviews showed good cooperation with NGOs, low rates of corruption, and high levels of grassroots ownership, by both women and men. This is not to say that there were never problems, but that in contexts of conflict, corruption, and sanction, ordinary people can still be helped.
In Myanmar today, there exists tremendous capacity to scale up the support to local governance entities. But doing so demands the international community be willing to take some level of risk and accommodate new ways of working. In practical terms, it means being willing to support open-ended processes rather than well-defined outcomes, which in turn necessitates multi-year commitments rather than short-term funding cycles.
In this new reality of contested governments, a new form of international solidarity with populations legitimately resisting the encroachment of oppressive regimes needs to be found. And this level of engagement may not fit traditional humanitarian approaches.
Sir Charles Petrie, a former senior UN official, served as an adviser to the Syrian Opposition (2017-2019) and was the UN representative in Myanmar (2003-2007). Scott Guggenheim, PhD, a former senior official at the World Bank, is a development anthropologist who has worked extensively on designs for impoverished peoples' participation in large development projects.