Amid revolution, Myanmar’s NGOs face a deficit of donor solidarity

One would think that Myanmar’s revolutionary moment would create relationships of solidarity between local NGOS performing essential work and their international donors. But the authors’ research shows that Myanmar organisations feel hampered by the continuation of an approach focused on compliance and mistrust.

This post is an abridged version of an article that appears in a forthcoming special edition of the Journal of Contemporary Asia“Revolution and Solidarity in Myanmar” (Vol 54:5).


Apart from causing widespread suffering, economic collapse and conflict, the February 2021 attempted coup in Myanmar has also brought an upheaval amongst international aid agencies engaged in the country. International NGOs, UN agencies and bilateral donors have long been active in Myanmar supporting humanitarian and development programming. But the military’s attempted takeover has meant that international agencies have had to shift their approach.

In the days after the attempted coup, almost all aid agencies ceased their direct cooperation with the new military-controlled State Administrative Council (SAC) regime. But they also had to shift their approach to the way projects are delivered on the ground. With greater instability around the country, there has been significant growth in direct partnerships with Myanmar civil society organisations, who are implementing most humanitarian and advocacy related programs.

Amid the context of Myanmar’s revolution, this shift has brought the relationship between international aid agencies and humanitarian and advocacy groups into focus. International agencies have directed more of their resources to partnerships with local organisations, who are often working in extremely risky situations. We could assume that there might therefore be a strong sense of solidarity between Myanmar civil society leaders and their international supporters as they work together to support vulnerable populations in the country. Local organisations are in critical need of support in their work, and international agencies are providing important funding.

Why, then, are there a growing number of studies revealing strong criticism by those local organisations of their international partners? Why do these organisations say that there is a lack of solidarity, and that they are lacking appropriate support from international agencies in the post-coup context? International aid agencies have long received criticism from Myanmar groups. Yet why is there now, in the context of Myanmar’s revolution, such strident criticism of international aid agencies?

Criticism of the approach of international aid agencies around the world is not new. Many critics of partnerships between international and local aid agencies point toward the problem of a broader neoliberal system that favours the power of external organisations over local ones. Partnerships are also often characterised by overt neoliberal processes of competitive grants and subcontracting, or more subtle hierarchical dynamics based on maximising efficiency.

All of this may be true—but these conventional explanations of the breakdown of aid partnerships are often rather generic, and do little to illuminate the context-specific perspectives of local organisations. We think that there is more at play in understanding frictions in local–international aid partnerships in Myanmar and more attention needs to be given to the interpretations of local actors and how they reveal local expectations and practices of reciprocity.

In research published recently at the Journal of Contemporary Asia we draw on interviews with civil society leaders and aid agency representatives in Myanmar between August and November 2022. Rather than perceiving a relationship of solidarity, we found that in the volatile revolutionary environment in Myanmar, international aid agencies are often perceived by Myanmar agency leaders as self-interested and compliance-focused, while lacking confidence in the capacity of Myanmar aid organisations.

These negative perceptions of international agencies are obviously informed by everyday pragmatic challenges for Myanmar groups. But we think that well-known overlapping notions of sedana (goodwill), parahita (charity), and metta (loving kindness)—which are prominent in everyday language around aid in Myanmar—also inform Myanmar organisation leaders’ expectations of reciprocity in their relationship with international aid agencies.

These values place a moral and ethical overlay on interpretations of aid partnerships beyond the project-based and contractual relationship that characterises the formal realm of aid programs. Myanmar NGO leaders therefore often construct their own local organisations as deserving and committed partners whilst international aid agencies are often constructed as self-preserving and compliance focused.

While concerns about international aid agency engagement with Myanmar organisations are longstanding, the context of revolution and instability has sharpened these critiques considerably. The new existential challenges to organisations and aid workers themselves have raised the stakes in aid partnerships and brought diverging discourses into greater clarity.

Myanmar’s revolutionary context

Before looking specifically at the perceptions of international agencies by Myanmar civil society leaders, it is important to understand Myanmar’s revolutionary context, and how the many new challenges for local organisations have accentuated expectations in their partnerships with international agencies, in a way that is different to pre-coup aid partnerships.

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In the years of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government before the coup, civil society groups faced ongoing challenges. The NLD government was considerably more restrictive of their speech and operations than had been initially hoped. But compared to the extreme recent restrictions by the SAC, the NLD era presented a far more stable and congenial environment for international–local agency partnerships.

There are now profound everyday challenges for Myanmar aid organisations, both at a personal and organisational level. “The whole country is in fear,” said one Myanmar civil society leader in a September 2022 interview. “Every day we are threatened and don’t have a free mind anymore. We have to struggle and take risks to rebuild our country and support each other. If not, we will never escape from fear”. Those participants operating in SAC-controlled areas of the country reflected on the daily scrutiny they faced from authorities; for example, through being questioned at checkpoints, having telephones and computers searched, and even having a CCTV camera installed in an organisation’s office.

Another Myanmar organisation leader operating in SAC-controlled areas told us in September 2022 that “I am not sure how we can maintain momentum while the military is continuously suppressing the people and using very violent means every day”. Legal changes by the regime—including to Section 505A of the Penal Code, criminalising making comments that “cause fear” or spread “false news,” including on social media—have made it easier for authorities to target local organisation staff.

Despite all these operational risks and challenges, many Myanmar humanitarian and advocacy organisations continue to work with communities and with actors engaged in the revolution. Some organisation leaders have also become part of the National Unity Government’s administration and policy-making mechanisms, which entails further significant personal risk. Yet leaders often framed their motivation in moral terms and their desire to continue their work despite the personal sacrifices and dangers that they faced. Given the risks that these individuals and organisations are taking, it is understandable that their leaders have expectations that their international supporters will be willing to act in solidarity.

Self-interested and compliance focussed?

Yet due to their decisions since the coup to protect their own programmes and staffing, international agencies are often perceived by Myanmar leaders as self-interested—the antithesis of sedana (goodwill) and metta (loving kindness). They also construct international agencies as being overly focused on compliance—lacking confidence in the parahita (charity) worthiness and capability of local organisations.

In our research there were some positive reflections on the role of international organisations. But these positive interpretations tended to come from participants with short-term or less direct experience of partnerships with international aid agencies. Most participants from Myanmar organisations had longer-term and more intensive interactions with donors, UN agencies, and international NGOs, and they presented far less sanguine interpretations of international support.

Rather than acting in solidarity, one leader reflected in an October 2022 interview that “a disappointing thing is that [international NGOs] are focusing more on their survival”. Another Myanmar humanitarian organisation leader interviewed in the same month said, “They give priority to their survival, survival of their offices, continuing to pay the salary to themselves and to their staff”. The perception of international agencies as lacking sedana was made explicit by another Myanmar organisation leader:

For some internationals…as soon as they heard the news about a small bomb blast or gunshot in the area, their head office did not allow their staff to go to these areas. But…we have to keep working for those communities… So, we are asking, “Though you are saying that you want to provide emergency support, you don’t do it when it is needed” … The sedana is not the same (interview, October 2022)

In a context where local organisation staff and leaders faced everyday risks, some participants also perceived that Myanmar organisations were not treated as deserving support for their work, but rather as sub-contracted partners within externally defined programs. Heavy financial and project reporting requirements in turn implied that Myanmar organisations should not be trusted to deliver projects. “Capacity building” was portrayed by several participants as being more about compliance, and making processes easier for the international partner, than developing the effectiveness of local organisation programs. As a Myanmar humanitarian organisation leader explained in an October 2022 interview:

Our criticism is that the capacity building is just to comply with their project needs. They teach us about financial management so that they don’t have any trouble when the report goes to the donor … More for their compliance, more for their safety and security, and for their risk management … It is the “capacity to comply”.

Fostering relationships of solidarity between international and Myanmar humanitarian organisations requires practical change in terms of easing overly onerous compliance processes. Such suggested policy changes have been outlined in recent research papers. But relations of solidarity also require mindset change amongst international agencies. Local organisation leaders are seeking acknowledgement from international agencies about the sacrifices they are making in their work, and hoping for greater international efforts to support growth and strengthening of their organisations and vision, rather than simply demanding compliance with bureaucratic systems.

In the midst of the fear and extreme challenges since the 2021 coup, many organisation leaders are seeking relationships of solidarity with international organisations. Every day, many Myanmar civil society leaders put themselves and their colleagues at risk by continuing to run humanitarian or advocacy programs.

Yet there are diverging expectations about reciprocity between Myanmar and international agencies. Where many local leaders have expectations of engagement characterised by sedana, parahita and metta, they often perceive international organisations as the antithesis of this—as self-interested and overly focussed on compliance. These differences in expectations are fuelling ongoing frustration.

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