Myanmar has been called an ‘innovation lab for localisation’.+2. Group URD (2018) Myanmar: an innovation lab for innovation (www.urd.org/en/review-hem/myanmar-an-innovation-lab-for-localisation/). Local communities, especially diverse groups of local women and their organisations, have historically been the first responders to disaster and conflict. The valuable skills possessed by these groups, such as their strong understanding of the local context and the needs and realities of the community at large, enable them to reach those most in need. Despite this, their active role as agents of change within humanitarian responses is not always recognised. Increasing humanitarian access restrictions in Myanmar have led to the country becoming seen as a testing ground for locally led humanitarian action, which risks ignoring the rich, complex and long-existing humanitarianism and local activities already there. The Covid-19 pandemic has heightened these challenges by restricting humanitarian access more than ever. International actors are having to revise their approaches to local partnerships accordingly, and still struggle to reach frontline responders.
Humanitarian needs in Myanmar are driven by multiple factors, including armed conflict and natural hazard-related disasters, which are aggravated by chronic poverty and protracted displacements. In Rakhine State, 120,000 Kaman and Rohingya Muslims have been interned in camps since 2012 and 800,000 Rohingya refugees remain in neighbouring Bangladesh since fleeing in 2017. In the last two years, violent armed conflict between the Arakan Army (AA)+3. The AA is an Ethnic Armed Organisation that has been fighting for greater autonomy in Rakhine State. They had become one of the more significant challenges to the Myanmar army, although a ceasefire has been in effect since November 2020. and the Myanmar army has displaced over 90,000 civilians within Rakhine and led to a new level of government restrictions on humanitarian work. The unfolding political crisis will further contribute to these needs as the Tatmadaw’s (the official name of the armed forces of Myanmar) violent crackdown on demonstrators continues, and many international donor governments are either withdrawing developmental assistance that directly benefits the Myanmar state or strongly considering the shape of new engagement guidelines and protocols in Myanmar. Humanitarian actors are under increasing pressure to circumvent the state wherever possible and avoid programming that is seen to legitimise the new government. More than ever, there is a need to understand how to support and transfer power to local responders, such as local women’s groups, who are the first and sometimes only actors to provide lifesaving support in Rakhine and elsewhere.
This article discusses the recent history of localisation and its current opportunities in Rakhine. It examines how the recent conflict with the AA has shifted narratives on international and local humanitarian action. It also showcases the experiences and innovative solutions of local first line civil society organisations (CSOs), such as women’s rights organisations (WROs) in Rakhine through the Rakhine First-line Response Mechanism (R-FRM), which endeavors to find a balance between localisation, meaningful access and humanitarian principles within the new remote dynamics of Covid-19.
Histories and hierarchies of localisation
Power dynamics between local and international humanitarian organisations working in Myanmar differ across the country, but the international localisation agenda often bypasses the historical trends which define local humanitarianism. Despite talk of ‘power transfers’ in general terms, international programmes often have little cultural or political context. Such context is vital in Rakhine, where complex ethno-religious identities have shaped aid relationships in the past two decades and set its CSO context apart from the rest of the country. Rakhine faces some of the most acute levels of violence, displacement and natural hazards in Myanmar and yet its local humanitarian ecosystem has not had access to the same financial and capacity-building resources as in other conflict-affected areas in Myanmar.
Rakhine’s humanitarian landscape has been structured by the same ethno-religious and economic dynamics that fuel its armed conflicts. Rakhine Buddhist communities, fueled by religious nationalism, were suspicious of international agencies and for a long time viewed them as biased towards the Rohingya and Kaman Muslims. Conversely, some INGOs do not work with CSOs which are seen as ‘too religious’ or which may refuse to work in areas due to religious differences. These accusations have led to a general deterioration of trust, and in certain instances violence and altercations between INGO and UN offices and staff in Rakhine and the local community.
In reality, Rakhine’s network of informal, grassroots aid providers is incredibly nuanced, with complex links to different religious tendencies. They play a key role in sheltering and supporting internally displaced people (IDPs). Many are referred to in Myanmar as Parahita, a Pali term signifying ‘working for others’. Parahita networks, for instance Buddhist monks and monasteries, are religiously inspired but most do charitable volunteer work across communities. Their largely informal yet robust nature mean they are the core of first-line responses throughout Rakhine State and indeed Myanmar. Smaller ethnic CSOs are often the only groups able to access people in remote areas that are usually out of reach for INGOs because of government-imposed access restrictions and security risks. These national and subnational restrictions have meant that INGOs have had to rely on ethnic CSOs much more than before.
The ethno-religious fabric of Rakhine’s CSO environment serves as a complex asset and social capital for international action in Rakhine. In many cases, INGOs depend on the ethnic and religious constituencies of small partners to gain community trust and carry out funded activities. However, international actors and donors have struggled to engage with such networks and the ethno-religious identity of local partners is seen as risky regarding donor accountability and humanitarian principles. This has led to funding bottlenecks and the under-development of certain portions of civil society, specifically WROs who are not always recognised as key humanitarian actors. Women and WROs still lack meaningful recognition throughout Myanmar, with low numbers of women represented in senior leadership roles both at government and local level. A large portion of households continue to rely on men to provide the majority of income for families, with women maintaining responsibility for (unpaid) domestic and care work. Covid-19 has further entrenched gendered inequalities, as well as systemic and structural exclusion in decision-making processes.
As with other conflict zones in Myanmar, patterns of displacement and resulting IDP settlements are often dictated by ethnic identities. In one example, a women-led CSO usually based in Chin State extended its activity to central Rakhine specifically to support ethnic Chin communities displaced there. It had become apparent that this organisation was able to work with remote communities that others were unable to reach and their needs would have otherwise remained unaccounted for and overlooked. For instance, it led a particularly successful maternal healthcare programme adapted to the cultural specificities of childbirth for that ethnic group.
Changing developments in Rakhine State from 2018 onwards
Prior to 2018, international actors could bypass a number of government restrictions by relying on well structured, professional national- or Rakhine State-level CSOs, most of which operate from the state capital, Sittwe. However, in the last three years, increased scrutiny and control from the Rakhine State government has led to constraints on these larger CSOs, signifying that hierarchies of localisation have shifted among national NGOs, state-level CSOs and frontline community actors.
Since 2018, the AA conflict has brought to light some of the missed opportunities from not engaging constructively with the complexity of Rakhine’s civil society. Violence and human rights abuses have affected all regions and ethnic groups in Rakhine, including the majority Rakhine Buddhists, Christian and Hindu minorities, and Rohingya and Kaman Muslims. The state of humanitarian access in Rakhine has been further worsened since the political crisis that started in February 2021, with fears around food shortages and lack of access to displacement sites.
The new layer of Covid-19 restrictions, combined with shifts in perception on collaborating with international organisations, has created new opportunities for locally owned responses that depend solely on township-based ecosystems and economies. Local perceptions of international assistance have become much more positive, recognising that the UN and INGOs strive to provide needs-based humanitarian assistance. New government access restrictions at national and subnational levels have meant that INGOs have had to rely on ethnic CSOs much more than before. In Rakhine, the Covid-19 pandemic has drawn attention to a deepening public health crisis and shrinking INGO access to vulnerable communities. In August, the Rakhine State government cancelled multiple international agencies’ travel and activity authorisations after staff members were diagnosed with the virus. The government has also restricted the activities of all other international humanitarian agencies to only ‘essential assistance’ of food, health, water and latrines – although there is some flexibility in these limitations.
It has therefore become necessary to work through hyper-localised mechanisms such as local traders or youth networks who act as central coordination points and have the presence across townships to respond to displacements. Local actors have been providing a large part of the response to vulnerable communities that INGOs have been unable to reach due to Covid restrictions. A key development has been the creation of a local coordination mechanism, the Arakan Humanitarian Coordination (AHCT) team, which brings together six local Rakhine CSOs to assist communities throughout the state. The AHCT has played a key role in supporting quarantine centres and Covid-19 needs. However, this created difficulties for international actors and donor-funded projects. The complex political and religious influence and responsive nature of these groups does not fit well with short-term project cycles. Working with them involves looking beyond traditional partnership models and slowly developing trusted relationships. Long-term funding and a dimension of flexible, unrestricted funding is often conducive to these. Progressing to systemic township-level responses means speaking to frontline actors and understanding how to support, meaningfully engage and work with these local networks.
Establishing a Rakhine First-line Response Mechanism
The Rakhine First-line Response Mechanism (R-FRM)+4. This project is led by ActionAid, Christian Aid, the Rakhine Youth New Generation Network, Phyu Sin Saydanar Action Group and The Peace and Development Initiative –Kintha. is a consortium project, co-led by ActionAid. It is a local preparedness and emergency response arrangement developed to equip CSOs and community-based frontline emergency actors and self-help groups to provide critical preparedness, awareness, multi-sectoral assistance and early recovery support to victims of emergencies in Rakhine. The mechanism is specifically tailored to the fragmented nature of Rakhine’s emergencies and local humanitarian landscape, which vary significantly from township to township.
The project’s progressive engagement and trust building has supported preparedness efforts and allowed for emergency responses to be designed, coordinated and led at the township level. One of its main partners, the Rakhine Youth New Generation Network (RYNGYN), highlighted that, compared to other mechanisms, the R-FRM partnership and funding model allows for the flexibility and time to build relationships with frontline actors. This is evident in villages that have been cut off by the Myanmar military from external markets, as was the case for several months in Dar Let, Ann township, which led to severe food insecurity and rocketing food prices. Youth networks within the project in Ann and in the neighbouring township of Myebon have been constantly monitoring the crisis by interviewing those who have fled. Having a durable presence in the township enables the R-FRM to actively explore access and build relationships in harder-to-reach areas, while continuing its engagement with the community; for instance it is currently exploring cash solutions for people to purchase items in external markets.
Similarly, the R-FRM can reach frontline community-based organisations (CBOs) working across ethnic groups. In July and August 2020, operations from the Myanmar army displaced thousands across Rathedaung township to the neighboring township of Buthidaung, which both became inaccessible to INGOs due to the security situation and government-imposed restrictions. Through the presence of partner PSSAG in Buthidaung, the R-FRM was able to work with a Rakhine CSO that responded to the needs of people recently displaced in the Mya Taung monastery to identify food insecurities in four Rohingya villages in that area, which they also supported. More recently, the R-FRM also leveraged its presence in Kyauktaw in central Rakhine. While there are a few large and long-established official camps in the area managed by big aid agencies, there is a growing mosaic of smaller camps made up of IDPs who fled in July 2020, which are not recognised by the government and most actors are prohibited from accessing. A small local Rakhine CSO was able to provide cash assistance to ethnic groups in these camps, including people from the Dainet, Mro, Khamee and Chin Ethnic groups, using a mobile money transfer network.
Mechanisms like the RFRM have become increasingly important during the current political crisis in Myanmar, which has created new levels of access restriction and a degree of operational instability for international actors. Localised funding and response mechanisms are a first step to meaningfully transferring power and resources to frontline responders in Rakhine. Local actors have reported that they are better able than international organisations to adapt to the destabilising and unpredictable crisis dynamics they face. These actors also highlight that the localisation of humanitarian action needs to consider the increasing amount of human rights abuses that Rakhine organisations and ethnic groups face, including arbitrary arrests, torture, abduction, forced labour and military recruitment. Raising legal awareness and building the capacity of CSOs and communities on issues around freedom of movement, assembly and expression are some recommendations that have been made. In the same way that many Rakhine CSOs intersect with religious and ethnic influences, some – especially women’s groups, youth groups and networks – have a strong background in human rights activism. This is another factor that those supporting Rakhine’s localisation efforts will need to understand and support in the future.
Local CSOs such as women’s groups, faith actors and youth groups are the first to respond in a humanitarian emergency. The Covid-19 pandemic and unfolding political crisis in Myanmar has further highlighted the importance of local CSOs, and yet the localisation agenda still struggles to support these actors without understanding the diverse and contextual histories that define them. By briefly examining this in Rakhine, it quickly becomes apparent how important it is to explore the rich histories and cultures of localisation in specific regions, which become visible when comparing Myanmar’s conflict-affected areas. Local humanitarian actors in Kachin State to the north, for example, have become large and well structured as a result of a long civil war and significant international investment. In the south-east, local humanitarianism has been shaped by trans-border relationships with Thailand, where more than 100,000 refugees have fled from Myanmar over the last three decades and from which several key CSOs operate. Acknowledging and understanding these complex humanitarian histories, rather than considering localisation in a cultural vacuum, is more than ever a precondition to meaningfully transferring power to frontline response actors.
Su Myattun is with ActionAid, Myanmar and is the Rakhine First line Response Mechanism (R-FRM) Consortium Manager.
Niki Ignatiou is a Humanitarian Policy Advisor with ActionAid UK.
Etienne Bergès is a former Advocacy and Policy Advisor with ActionAid, where he worked when supporting this publication.
Yeeshu Shukla is Global Humanitarian Manager for Christian Aid.
Lal Muani is the Managing Director of the Phyu-Sin Saydanar Action Group in Myanmar.
Than Hla is the Director of the All Arakan Youth Organizations Network in Myanmar.