Cyclone Nargis survivors taking refuge in a monastery Cyclone Nargis survivors taking refuge in a monastery Photo credit: UNHCR
Local NGOs in Myanmar: vibrant but vulnerable
by Kim Wallis and Carine Jaquet September 2011

Contrary to many assumptions, Myanmar is home to a determined and vibrant civil society. For more than 30 years after the final seizure of power by the military in 1962 no organisations independent from the state were authorised. Since the mid-1990s, however, the number of local NGOs (LNGOs) has been constantly increasing. Although these organisations have very diverse profiles, they can be categorised according to their ethnicity, religion, size and sectors of intervention. This article explores some of the dynamics, characteristics and working modalities of LNGOs in Myanmar, and puts forward recommendations for international actors working with or with an interest in supporting LNGOs. Findings are based on observations made by the authors and consultations with LNGOs over a number of years. Due to the sensitive nature of working in Myanmar the names of organisations are omitted and sources protected.

Civil society in Myanmar: characteristics and operational space

Civil society in Myanmar is diverse and hence hard to define. One Burmese stakeholder explained it as ‘things apart from the military. In the context of Myanmar, it means ordinary people trying to improve things for their community’. For the purposes of this article we will refer to ‘LNGOs’ as groups operating independently from the government, delivering humanitarian and or development projects reaching beneficiary numbers in the hundreds, managing budgets above €100,000 and having salaried professional staff.

Some of these organisations are officially registered with the government, though most are not. The registration process is long and complicated. While there are many operational advantages to being registered, a certain amount of independence must also be sacrificed, with regular submissions to the government on activities and finances. The majority of LNGOs therefore operate on the periphery of the central authorities, which means that there is no official data on the number of LNGOs in Myanmar. A directory produced by the Capacity Building Initiative (CBI) recorded 30 LNGOs in 2001, rising to 62 in 2004 and 86 in 2009.+Main criteria for an LNGO to be included in the directory are the following: being willing to be in the directory, having an office in Yangon, and being non-profit, independent and with a clear leadership. CBI is an LNGO that provides capacity-building for Myanmar NGOs. The actual number is thought to be above 200.

Cyclone Nargis in 2008 was the catalyst for much of the growth of the last three years, with community and national organisations being set up to respond to the massive needs the cyclone created. Despite the fact that such a large-scale humanitarian disaster had never been experienced in Myanmar before, within three days LNGOs were delivering food and non-food items. Many of these organisations supported the recovery phase and have pushed the boundaries of humanitarian space in Myanmar further than ever before, with productive dialogue with the Ministry of Social Welfare and some increased support and funds from the international community.

Although restrictions on LNGOs were eased in the wake of the cyclone and international aid was stepped up, humanitarian space in Myanmar remains fragile. In areas of active conflict or ceasefire areas (mainly in border regions) the government has limited access significantly due to ‘security’ concerns, and LNGOs are not systematically permitted to work in many areas despite dire humanitarian needs. In other areas, such as central Myanmar and the Delta, access has been easier to obtain. Many LNGOs working in eastern Myanmar operate clandestinely, with the support of host communities. Based in Thailand or in other third countries, these groups have been able to attract significant support from Western donors over the last 25 years, delivering quality ‘cross-border’ relief and high-profile advocacy work. Organisations working in non-conflict areas or areas administered by the government, while perhaps less visible to the international community, have also demonstrated their strength in carving out space to work and their ability to respond effectively to the needs of communities. A majority of the organisations working in these areas remain low-profile and work ‘under the radar’, though they are in a position to at least engage and negotiate their space with the authorities.

Now that a certain amount of space has been carved out by LNGOs, innovative strategies for maintaining it have been developed. These include managing field operations from mobile offices rather than setting up a permanent presence in areas where the organisation has no authorisation to carry out relief work. Smaller community organisations and LNGOs use larger national or international organisations as umbrella organisations to channel funds and provide a legal framework under which to work. Building relationships and trust with local authorities is key, including sharing information about project activities. Omitting information or choosing non-threatening vocabulary when talking about more sensitive work, such as ‘peace-building’ or ‘empowerment’, is another part of this strategy, as is giving credit for the work done to government officials where positive impact is visible. The crucial ingredient, however, is gaining the trust of communities, which provide access, cover and legitimacy for everything these LNGOs do.

Another distinctive feature of LNGOs in Myanmar is their ownership of projects. As noted by several researches and interviewees, it seems that LNGOs are not being driven by donors or external agendas. This might be the legacy of the very limited presence of institutional donors in the country and the fact that funding comes mainly from religious groups and foundations, perhaps giving more flexibility and autonomy to LNGOs.

It would not be accurate to present all of these characteristics and strategies of LNGOs wholly as strengths. Many have a flip side. For example, the need to work in a clandestine way has meant that communications among different actors are very limited, and there is a reluctance to trust each other and share information between LNGOs based inside and outside the country. The fact that humanitarian space is so fragile makes it hard to plan long-term, and there is a lack of clarity around what is and is not possible. Securing institutional funding for LNGOs is also a problem. Myanmar receives one of the lowest levels of aid per person of any developing nation, despite the country’s dire needs. While the lack of funding going to Myanmar is partly a political response to the regime, the lack of registered LNGOs and the sensitivities around sharing information on what they are doing also present major challenges.

Advocacy: using the space or threatening it?

Advocacy is not a welcome word in Myanmar. For the authorities it is automatically perceived as negative and viewed with great suspicion, and for this reason it is highly sensitive for LNGOs based in Myanmar. Terms like ‘influencing’ are more appropriate. For organisations based in Myanmar, advocacy activities take many shapes and forms. Most view their humanitarian advocacy activities as practical, local-level influencing on issues such as travel authorisation or permission to deliver aid supplies. However, organisations based inside Myanmar are increasing their engagement with both the government and the international community on focused issues such as forced labour, environmental concerns, land rights and health issues such as HIV. Many of these higher-level advocacy initiatives are backed by INGOs, the UN and international donors, and have been credited with significant successes, not least the work of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and LNGOs in the wake of Cyclone Nargis.

Organisations based on the border tend to take a different approach to their advocacy, and tend to focus more on the international community and less on local-level influencing with the authorities. Much of their advocacy is high-level and public, including carrying out media interviews or releasing hard-hitting human rights reports denouncing the military. While the goals are broadly the same, several individuals based in Myanmar felt that outside advocacy on the human rights situation, while well-intentioned and potentially valuable if well-coordinated, could lead to reprisals within Myanmar. For them the simplistic picture presented to international audiences of Aung San Suu Kyi (Good) versus the military (Bad) is no longer helpful as it does not reflect the complexity of the context or necessarily lead to positive policy developments.  Lastly it was felt that there is insufficient knowledge and understanding among organisations based in Myanmar on issues such as justice mechanisms or the impact of sanctions, to enable them to credibly and confidently contribute to the debate. The lack of trust among the different stakeholders involved and the risks involved in sharing information are currently the biggest stumbling blocks in addressing this challenge. Many organisations based inside Myanmar feel exposed to the consequences of international advocacy into which they have very little input and influence.

Ways forward

LNGOs in Myanmar are becoming stronger and the space in which they work is expanding. The international community should recognise this trend and support these organisations in a relevant and sensitive way that is consistent with the difficult working context. Financial support must be increased, alongside technical support to reinforce local capacity. The context also requires greater flexibility from donors to match the innovative and adaptable approach being shown by LNGOs. More reflection and research needs to be done on the impact of international advocacy on humanitarian space, looking at both the positive and negative implications and the gaps in knowledge among different groups. Useful insights could be gleaned from other contexts such as Zimbabwe and Sudan.

The different dynamics and characteristics of LNGOs and civil society organisations must be better understood, in particular between organisations operating in Myanmar itself and those operating from third countries, the different types of risk they face and the strategies they use to carry out their work. It is also important that increased efforts are made to ensure that these groups understand each others’ work and create trusted spaces for exchanges to take place. The dichotomy between organisations working ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ needs to be broken down to ensure that strategies complement each other and protect what humanitarian space is available. Finally, the international community needs to be mindful that, as space inside the country opens up, LNGOs remain in the front line of government retaliation. The risks they face are real and great. It is LNGOs that know where and how to work, and international actors must respect and listen to them.

Kim Wallis is a Programme Officer at Trócaire, based in Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Carine Jaquet is a Programme Officer at Trócaire managing humanitarian programmes in Southeast Asia. She has been working on Myanmar since 2005.