Interpretive Complexity and Crisis: the History of International Aid to Myanmar

Abstract

In the last two decades, Myanmar has gone through profound political changes. Over this time, humanitarian and development interventions by Western donor agencies have been guided by shifting and simplified narratives of the political context. During periods of military authoritarianism, quasi-democratic government and the recent period of rule by the National League for Democracy, donors have also faced moments of ‘interpretive crisis’, where predominant assumptions about political figures or program strategies no longer align with outcomes. Over time, and through their unstable and shifting interpretations, Western donor agencies have often failed to work coherently and accountably with Myanmar state or non-state actors. Decisions about how, and to whom, aid is channelled have amounted to decisions about who are legitimate socio-political actors and agents of change. Aid has therefore influenced power balances in Myanmar and has had significant unintended consequences on development and political dynamics on the ground.

résumé

Durant ces deux dernières décennies, le Myanmar a connu d’importants changements politiques. Les interventions humanitaires et de développement qui alors étaient effectuées par les agences donatrices occidentales ont été guidées par des récits à la fois inconstants et réducteurs sur son contexte politique. Pendant les périodes successives d’autoritarisme militaire, de gouvernement quasi-démocratique et de pouvoir de la Ligue Nationale pour la Démocratie, les donateurs ont ainsi vécu des phases de ‘crise d’interprétation’, lorsque les présupposés dominants concernant certaines personnalités politiques ou stratégies d’aide internationale ne correspondaient plus à la réalité. Au fil du temps, et à cause de leurs interprétations instables et fluctuantes des faits, les agences donatrices occidentales ont fréquemment échoué à travailler de façon cohérente et responsable avec l’Etat ou les acteurs non étatiques au Myanmar. Et puisque les décisions à propos du ‘comment’ et du ‘par qui’ transmettre l’aide internationale revenaient à des décisions concernant les acteurs sociopolitiques et agents de changement légitimes, l’aide internationale a modifié l’équilibre des pouvoirs au Myanmar, et a eu des conséquences involontaires importantes sur le développement et les dynamiques politiques au niveau local.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    In this article we use the official name of the country, which was changed to ‘Myanmar’ after 1989. However, some study participants continue to use the name ‘Burma’, as reflected within quotes in this article.

  2. 2.

    Interview, former UN representative, 09/12/18.

  3. 3.

    Interview, political analyst and former donor advisor, 30/11/18.

  4. 4.

    Interview, donor representative, 3/04/19.

  5. 5.

    There were also internal contests within OECD governments about Myanmar policy, for example in the UK between the Foreign Office and Department for International Development (DfID).

  6. 6.

    Interview, former UN representative, 09/12/18.

  7. 7.

    Interview, former donor representative, 10/10/18.

  8. 8.

    Interview, former UN representative, 9/12/18.

  9. 9.

    Interview, former donor advisor, 30/11/18.

  10. 10.

    Interview, former donor representative, 10/10/18.

  11. 11.

    Interview, former UN representative, 9/12/18.

  12. 12.

    Interview, former donor representative, 10/10/18.

  13. 13.

    Interview, donor representative, 3/04/19.

  14. 14.

    Interview, former donor representative, 10/10/18.

  15. 15.

    Interview, INGO country director, 28/11/18.

  16. 16.

    Interview, former donor representative, 10/10/18.

  17. 17.

    Metta Foundation is a Myanmar development organisation formed in 1998, which runs development and humanitarian programs in different states and regions.

  18. 18.

    Interview, former donor advisor, 30/11/18.

  19. 19.

    Interview, donor representative, 3/04/18.

  20. 20.

    Interview, long-term international consultant, 2/11/18.

  21. 21.

    Interview, INGO manager, 12/08/18.

  22. 22.

    Interview, consultant and former INGO leader, 5/10/18.

  23. 23.

    Interview, INGO director, 28/11/18.

  24. 24.

    Interview, former donor representative, 10/10/18.

  25. 25.

    Interview, INGO representative, 12/10/18.

  26. 26.

    Interview, INGO director, 10/10/18.

  27. 27.

    Interview, former donor representative, 10/10/18.

  28. 28.

    Ibid.

  29. 29.

    Interview, consultant and former INGO worker, 7/10/18.

  30. 30.

    Ibid.

  31. 31.

    Ibid.

  32. 32.

    Interview, CBO leader, 27/11/18.

  33. 33.

    Interview, consultant and former INGO worker, 7/10/18.

  34. 34.

    Written communication, consultant and former INGO worker, 18/02/19.

  35. 35.

    Interview, former donor representative, 10/10/18.

  36. 36.

    Interview, INGO representative, 12/10/18.

  37. 37.

    Interview, former UN representative, 09/12/18.

  38. 38.

    https://www.unhcr.org/rohingya-emergency.html, accessed 17/04/19.

  39. 39.

    Interview, INGO worker, 23/11/18.

  40. 40.

    Interview, INGO manager, 12/08/18.

  41. 41.

    Interview, INGO worker, 10/10/18.

  42. 42.

    Interview, INGO manager 12/08/18.

  43. 43.

    Interview, consultant and former INGO worker, 7/10/18.

  44. 44.

    Interview, former donor advisor, 30/11/18.

  45. 45.

    Interview, INGO worker, 5/12/18.

  46. 46.

    Interview, former donor advisor, 30/11/18.

  47. 47.

    Email communication, consultant and former INGO worker, 2/03/19.

  48. 48.

    Interview, INGO worker, 12/10/18.

  49. 49.

    Interview, INGO worker, 10/10/18.

  50. 50.

    Interview, INGO worker, 23/11/18.

  51. 51.

    Interview, INGO manager 12/08/18.

  52. 52.

    Interview, consultant and former INGO worker, 7/10/18.

  53. 53.

    Interview, INGO worker, 10/10/18.

  54. 54.

    Interview, long-term international consultant, 2/11/18.

  55. 55.

    Interview, former donor advisor, 30/11/18.

  56. 56.

    Interview, INGO worker, 5/12/18.

  57. 57.

    Interview, former donor representative, 10/10/18.

  58. 58.

    Ibid.

  59. 59.

    Ibid.

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank all the study participants and article reviewers for their contributions and involvement, with particular thanks to Elin Bjarnegård.

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Décobert, A., Wells, T. Interpretive Complexity and Crisis: the History of International Aid to Myanmar. Eur J Dev Res 32, 294–315 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41287-019-00238-y

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Keywords

  • Donors
  • Aid
  • Development
  • Humanitarianism
  • Transition
  • Narrative
  • Myanmar
  • Burma