Support to local initiatives in the Nargis response: a fringe versus mainstream approach
by Kerren Hedlund and Daw Myint Su December 2008

In 1997, a noted author on Myanmar said that civil society in the country was dead (David I. Steinberg, A Void in Myanmar: Civil Society in Burma). Since then he has dared to correct himself. In the wake of Cyclone Nargis, the remarkable civil society response has clearly and undeniably proved that it is alive, and capable of doing great things against all odds. While measuring the full scope of the local response is impossible, the fact that at least $40 million (over $120m if the Red Cross is included) was provided by the international community to local organisations in the first four months after the cyclone is a significant indication of both the scale of the response and the existence of previously unrecognised local capacity.

In the wake of a catastrophic disaster there is a strong and sometimes necessary tendency for the international humanitarian community to rapidly mobilise all its resources. There is also an ongoing struggle to find the right balance between international and national efforts, and to make international efforts more inclusive of national ones. However, given the reluctance of Myanmar’s government to allow significant direct foreign assistance in the first month after Nargis, the instinct of the international community to ‘surge’ could not be realised. In the first months of the response, what did the international community do to facilitate or reinforce what was decidedly a ‘surge’ of a local nature?

Sharing information and coordination

On the fringe …

On 8 May, a group of interested agencies (donors, international and national NGOs and capacity-building projects) came together to discuss how to help civil society contribute to the Nargis response. As a result of that discussion, a Local Resource Centre was established to:

  • link local organisations to donor funds and technical expertise;
  • provide support to local NGOs in proposal writing, reporting and procuring supplies;
  • facilitate information exchange between the IASC coordinating bodies and local NGOs and other civil society groups;
  • advocate to ensure that the work of local organisations was acknowledged and understood;
  • provide local NGOs with information and training on principles of disaster relief including codes of conduct, accountability (HAP) and minimum standards (Sphere); and
  • monitor funded activities.

Building on a pre-existing project called the Capacity Building Initiative (CBI), which provided coordination and training to local and international NGOs, the LRC provided training in various areas, including financial management, organisational development, reporting and monitoring and evaluation. It also offered technical training in key sectors such as health and water and sanitation. With the arrival of HAP and Sphere consultants in July (see the preceding article by Erik Johnson), Sphere and HAP training has been targeted to local groups through the LRC. The LRC facilitated weekly meetings with local organisations, often exceeding 50 people from 40 different organisations. In July, these local organisations initiated their own network, and dedicated staff to Cluster meetings, the IASC and other information and decision-making fora, such as the Technical and Strategic Advisory Groups of the Periodic Review.

More than 500 local NGOs and CBOs were supported in the Nargis response, albeit in an ad hocand usually insufficient way. A new grant has been made available for over $1 million for 15 Myanmar NGOs and 50 CBOs to implement livelihoods recovery projects. The LRC and collaborators have also trained nearly 100 local organisations, or 800 people, in ten topics. Sphere and HAP have trained an additional 70 local NGO staff. It remains to be seen to what extent new initiatives by INGOs, such as the Disaster Resilience Response and Learning Project (DRRLP), will reinforce ongoing capacity-building initiatives such as those of the newly formed Capacity Development Support Group, which includes CBI and the LRC.

There are certainly limitations to parallel information and coordination structures. Coordination of local response has remained fettered by concerns about publishing too widely the names and activities of local NGOs for fear of damaging their access to communities. Yet, coordination of local response has limited utility unless the international response subsequently recognises the local NGO contribution and their ‘space’, and attempts to reinforce it or at least protect it.

In the mainstream …

Standard practice in a humanitarian catastrophe is to ensure leadership through a humanitarian coordinator, coordination through the Cluster approach and information through a humanitarian information centre. But one wonders, for whom? In Myanmar, participation by local NGOs was severely limited given the language, location and attitudes of main players in the international response. It is surprising that, after decades of humanitarian response, this remains a common criticism. It is particularly disappointing given that, in Myanmar, where the early response was largely by national actors, this was not recognised and these actors were not engaged with from the start.

In general, the international community restricted itself to the Yangon UN compound, which required participants to provide legal identification to enter, and then later a five-star hotel nearby. After two weeks the UN provided identification cards to all who requested them, but fewer than 20 out of more than 300 were issued to representatives of local NGOs. Cluster meetings, minutes and technical and strategic documents were almost all in English, and translations were rare. At the time of writing, the Post-Nargis Joint Assessment (PONJA) document has yet to be translated. In October, it became mandatory that Cluster meetings at township level (where the ratio of nationals to internationals is never less than 10 to 1) are held in Burmese.

The Humanitarian Information Centre website is in English, and there is no link to a Burmese-language page where Burmese-language documents could easily be found. It would be very difficult for someone who does not speak English to find basic translated documents such as the NGO/Red Cross Movement Code of Conduct and the INEE minimum standards in education. In short, the inclusion of local actors remains largely a ‘fringe’ activity.

Protecting the space for and encouraging national response

‘There is no civil society in Myanmar’ – international aid worker, Labutta, September 2008.

‘Half of all villages surveyed reported having self-reliance groups, one third women’s and/or youth associations and one-fourth religious associations’ – Post-Nargis Joint Assessment, June 2008.

Given the constraints to direct implementation by INGOs, Nargis was the perfect opportunity for agencies to change their way of working, even if only on a small scale, by supporting local initiatives through or alongside their own operations. In the end, those few who normally work with partners did so, while those who directly implement stuck as far as possible to their standard operating procedures.

On the fringe…

Supporting the spontaneous development of self-help groups

A number of small programmes run by donors and INGOs provided grants, largely under $5,000, to hundreds of self-help groups, spontaneously organised in response to the cyclone. Not only saving lives, these grants were responsive, cost-efficient and some argue catalytic with regard to promoting dignity, self-reliance and recovery. These grants provided an important indicator of what local communities were not getting from international humanitarian agencies, seeking livelihoods inputs weeks before they were included in the distribution of INGO/UN programmes and filling food pipeline breaks.

Limitations included being unable to ensure 100% coverage of villages or equitable needs-based targeting, the risks of giving too much money to new groups unused to managing grants, potentially encouraging false applications for grants and corruption, and at one time the inability to operate the project itself due to the ‘aggressive recruitment policies’ of INGOs, which left several local organisations including one small grants project without adequate staff. Note that all of these limitations are also reported from time to time by INGO programmes, or cited in donors’ evaluations.

Reinforcing existing networks, federations and local development organisations

Prior to Nargis there existed a handful of INGOs operating in-country whose mandate and philosophy was to reinforce existing civil society structures. By and large, these were the same organisations that contributed to the start up of the LRC, seconding experienced staff to the Centre in the first two months. By reinforcing existing capacity, this not only achieved an important and otherwise unattainable degree of coverage early on in the crisis, but also contributed to a longer-term resilience to disasters, with relatively little expatriate input. The Red Cross and Church networks also fall into this category, together reaching over 1 million beneficiaries. At the peak of the crisis, the Red Cross response was supported by 20–25 expatriates at any one time, while national volunteers numbered in the thousands. Perhaps the biggest limitation of this approach was that very few agencies operating in Myanmar had existing relationships with or had previously explored how to work with Myanmar civil society to implement joint programmes.

Implementation through local ‘service providers’

Some 40 INGOs sought to operate in Myanmar post-Nargis without official agreement or while awaiting approval. The majority of INGOs sought out legitimate (or registered) Myanmar NGOs that were apolitical, secular and with existing capacity to implement 50,000-plus beneficiary programmes. Local capacity was quickly exhausted. Under pressure to demonstrate outputs, some local organisations may have sacrificed downwards accountability (as do some INGOs under similar pressure). With some exceptions, the INGOs that used this approach admit that their commitment was overtly to the ‘project’ and not to the ‘partner’, largely in order to meet donor commitments.

Between the self-help community groups and the registered Myanmar NGOs, hundreds of smaller civil society groups sprang into life. All mobilised their own resources, and some were partially funded by small grants programmes. Many had the potential to do much more. However, INGOs and donors felt that it was too great a risk to themselves (not the civil society group) to directly engage, as these groups were operating in a sensitive ‘grey area’. At a meeting of donors and INGOs in early June it was announced that 30 such groups had been identified and were looking for partners and funding. There was silence in the room.

Direct implementation

The majority of INGOs chose direct implementation, waiting for permission to operate and then scaling up rapidly (see Figure 1). There were many reasons for this, not least an unclear understanding of what local capacity did exist, and a clear humanitarian imperative to intervene. Under intense pressure from headquarters, amid ‘sensationalist’ descriptions of humanitarian conditions and with fantastically successful fundraising, at least early on in the crisis (the first Flash Appeal was funded at 96%, though it is worth remembering that there had not been a disaster of this magnitude since 2003 and in 2008 some agencies were not meeting their ‘growth’ objectives), demands to demonstrate and report on outputs were immense. This barely left room for staff to notice what communities were already doing for themselves, or to implement even the most basic measures of downwards accountability. Few distribution committees were answerable to communities. Few INGOs provided information to communities on their agency and their (planned or actual) intervention, or systematic feedback and response mechanisms, let alone participatory approaches. Local NGOs often reported feeling let down by the national staff of international organisations, who could be dismissive of local capacity. One local NGO working in Ngapudaw since 2000 was told ‘they could stop now that [the INGO] was here’. Working with local partners was felt to be idealistic, not pragmatic.

Obviously, given the magnitude of the catastrophe a combination of approaches was necessary to meet the needs of the survivors. It is difficult to say if the right balance was achieved. However, it is clear that civil society had a lot more capacity than the international community gave it credit for. The lack of existing knowledge and experience of working with civil society in Myanmar before Nargis was an impediment to working with it after Nargis. And the inflexible approach used by most agencies largely precluded a response ‘led’ by local communities and existing organisations.

Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities – and threats

When asked, many INGOs expressed their concern about working with civil society actors in Myanmar as follows:

  • Given pre-Nargis restrictions on Myanmar NGOs, it was not always clear whether an NGO had links to the regime.
  • Myanmar culture is hierarchical and bottom-up approaches to development (let alone relief) are still the exception, with Myanmar NGOs normally taking a very charity-oriented approach.
  • There was a risk that aid would be biased towards a particular constituency (religious, ethnic, political, even livelihood group).

An international advisor for Danish Church Aid and CWS candidly admits violations of the Code of Conduct by local organisations: ‘almost naively they report using funds to provide aid to ten believers, coffee for the church meeting, guitars and bibles’. However, he went on to state that these risks can only be mitigated by working with these groups. An unavoidable first step is to learn if and why communities trust these CBOs and local NGOs, and explaining the basic principles that govern relief aid. On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of CBOs implementing ‘best practice’ without ever being trained.

Taking the plunge and deciding to work with Myanmar civil society organisations may have carried some risks. But by and large the INGOs, donors and projects that took those risks have been rewarded with the knowledge that not only did they contribute significantly to the relief response, but they also supported a remarkable blossoming of civil society that Myanmar has not before known – a civil society which had been prematurely consigned to the grave by the outside world.

Lessons learnt (?)

International relief agencies have long been accused of overestimating their capacity to respond and under-estimating the capacities of affected communities. This is unlikely to change until the international community leaves the attitude behind that working with local populations and partners is not pragmatic, or worse, the view that ‘if we are not doing it ourselves then it’s not being done’. The international community could start by reflecting on the messages it is sending and the approach it is using at community level. Make an effort to find civil society groups, in the villages, in their offices and businesses, creating space for regular dialogue. As for direct implementation versus a partnership approach, it is not either/or but both/and, and agencies can start making explicit links, even experimental ones. A little trust and humility would go a long way.

Nargis destroyed much, but it also revealed much as well. No one can any longer deny that there is an active and capable civil society in Myanmar, one that made an immeasurable life-saving contribution with minimum support from international agencies. Imagine what would have happened if the international community had done it differently, had had more experience of working with civil society, had engaged from the beginning, had consulted formal and informal coordination and decision-making mechanisms, had taken a community-led approach both with villages and local organisations. What impact could this have had on longer-term recovery and development in Myanmar? The proposition here is not to ‘mainstream’, like a river absorbing a new current. The proposition here is to change the colour of the water.

Kerren Hedlund is NGO liaison for ICVA. Daw Myint Suis Programme Manager of the Local Resource Centre. This article reflects the opinions of the authors and does not necessarily represent the view of the organisations they work for.

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