US Institute of Peace (Blog)
December 18, 2013
Read the original version here
As Myanmar opens up ‘ethnic’ areas for international aid, foreign actors risk undermining existing service structures and falling short of ‘Do No Harm’ standards.
Based on the realization that aid can have both positive and negative impacts on conflict, the ‘Do No Harm’ (DNH) framework provides a seven step process which aid actors are implored to undertake to ensure that their programs are doing more of the former than then latter.
Naturally, as international non-governmental organizations have been permitted greater legitimated access to Myanmar’s conflict-affected regions by the military dominated government, the term ‘do no harm’ has become a common linguistic feature of the many interventions being initiated.
However, the extent to which programs are actually being designed around DNH doctrine is starkly questionable given the lack of proper analysis into the actual determinants of ongoing conflicts. DNH provides a conflict analysis tool that seeks to understand what the main schisms in society are that have led to conflict, and then what proximate factors exacerbate those divisions (dividers), and which can help to ameliorate them (connectors). Thus, without in-depth analysis of these factors, any claims that a ‘do no harm’ approach is being implemented appear little more than shallow uses of the right buzz words.
There is therefore a need for such analysis to be undertaken in conflict-affected regions of Myanmar so that a standard can evolve on which external aid actors can base their DNH implementation. This post aims to explore one of the major failings of most aid programs to comply with DNH, namely, their total lack of support or even acknowledgement of existing services not linked to the state.
The societal schisms in Myanmar that have engendered violence over the years exist largely between elites, and are tied to deep hierarchies and patron-client relationships in society. As the ruling Bamar military elite has aimed to augment its position as sovereign patron over all the country’s people groups, elites from these other groups have competed to claim patronage over their own respective group. Crucially though, the latter are driven by grievances experienced by broad swathes of the population, while government policy has been guided by a very select few.
Conceptions that underdevelopment in some areas is a result of government neglect and that this is a core ‘ethnic’ grievance driving conflict are way off the mark. As a Karen internally displaced person explained during consultations I held in June, ‘we don’t need the Bamar [government] to build us new houses or anything else – we just need them to stop burning down the ones we already build.’ Rather, underdevelopment and the continuance of conflict are two symptoms of the same broader problem: absolute intolerance among the ruling Bamar military elite for pluralism in leadership or national identity and the resultant use of extreme violence against civilians and strangulation of societal structures tied to other elites (such as services).
Thus, foreign aid that aims to provide material support to populations with the state taking credit as chief arbiter and facilitator risk exacerbating feelings of forceful patronization further. This represents, in DNH terminology, both a ‘divider’ and of a harmful ‘implicit ethical message’ as inferiority is experienced by ethnic national populations in their own homelands. Qualitative research I have undertaken in government and non-government territories has found this specific concern to be felt by militants and local civil society leaders in Shan, Kachin, Mon and Kayin states, where large communities have depended on alternative service structures for decades.
Aid should continue to be provided through established local agencies, and the state must also be encouraged to respect and legitimate them and recognize their value to the country’s progress towards unity and peace in order to transform this into a ‘connector.’ Programs in such areas therefore should include state participation but focus on promoting the structures considered most legitimate by local people, enhancing their capacity and building local confidence in interacting with the state. Convergence of state and non-state structures should also be encouraged, but critically should be done so under an ethos of equality, whereby egalitarian partnerships are formed in aid of common goals.
Ultimately such agendas should endeavour to support the formation of an implicit social contract between these marginalized populations and the state which is sensitive of their existing relationships with elites of their own ethnicity and these actor’s claims to political legitimacy.
Aid is unavoidably politicized in any context. Given the important role in Myanmar cultures of collective identities and patron-client formations, this is particularly crucial. Understanding local perceptions of their ethnicity and how various groupings relate to each other is therefore critical to a DNH approach. Programs claiming to adhere to the concept of DNH but that promote the provision of foreign-funded state-fronted services into contested political spaces are therefore falling far short of their claims. The legitimation and promotion of systems attached to alternative structures or encouraging their convergence with state structures must become a central aim in non-state and contested areas.