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Poverty in Burma is appalling

Poverty in Burma is widespread and appalling. The failure or disinterest of the government to provide a policy framework conducive to development and to direct resources to other needs than security largely explains the hard conditions under which so many people in Burma live.

With support of different donors, UN Development Programme (UNDP) has gradually developed a major programme since 1993 attempting to address rural poverty. Presently this programme, the Human Development Initiative, reaches some 6,500 villages predominantly in border areas inhabited by ethnic minorities. This has been achieved in an extraordinarily hostile development policy and security context.

The complexity and difficulties in operating the programme have been further compounded by restrictions imposed by the UNDP Board on UNDP activities in Burma as a consequence of the US policy stand on the country and its influence in UNDP. Hence, in executing the HDI, UNDP has not been permitted to cooperate with government institutions or channel any funds through such institutions. For instance, it has not been possible to cooperate with the government structures at local level in the fields of agriculture, health, education, and so on, in order to coordinate activities and draw upon their technical staff resources. Therefore, UNDP has been forced to develop what has become a gigantic NGO-type organization. This arrangement has both reduced implementation capacity and undermined the prospects for sustainability of services delivered and benefits.

As the conditions under which the HDI is implemented by necessity reduce the prospects for impact and sustainability of achievements, expectations should be adjusted accordingly. A further consideration is that whatever impact achieved is of great importance given the deplorable living conditions of millions and millions in Burma.

The UNDP Board requires that an Independent Assessment Mission annually determines whether the UNDP Country Office implements the HDI within the mandate given to it by the Board. It is the Mission report for 2010 which is the basis for the article UN aid has ‘limited impact’ in Burma in DVB on 25 August. This Mission concludes that two of the three main projects in the HDI have had limited impact on poverty, as elaborated in the DVB article. This conclusion is based on impact evaluations undertaken by the programme itself.

However, the Mission does not find the entire programme deficient. It gives unreserved credit to the micro-finance project, which is the third main project in the programme. This project is outstanding and counts among the 20 most successful large micro-finance projects in the world. It proves that properly designed and well managed significant development gains for the benefit of poor people can be made also in Burma. Furthermore, the two remaining (small) projects in HDI – the HIV/AIDS project and the Household Survey project – are also found to be satisfactory.

The Mission expresses concern about two main projects in HDI and argues that the primary reason for their limited impact is to be found in the design. The Mission points out what it considers to be the design flaws. Doing so begs an answer to the question of what a modified design with better prospects for a greater impact could be. The Mission provided a tentative proposal on principles and a strategic approach for a revised design. However, given the terms of reference for the Mission and instructions from UNDP New York, this discussion is not included in the report, which is now made public, but in a separate report submitted to the UNDP-Myanmar Country Office. This may leave the unfortunate impression to the readers of the official report that provision of development support for poverty alleviation in Burma, at least through UNDP, is unsuccessful and has no prospects. End of story.

This is factually incorrect and not the conclusion of the Mission. Firstly, one of the three main projects in the programme, the micro-finance project, is a resounding success and two smaller projects are satisfactory as already noted. Secondly, the Mission is firmly of the opinion that modifications of the design of the two less successful main projects can significantly enhance impact on poverty. This opinion is not mere speculations; it is evidenced by concrete suggestions based on experience. The fact that the report containing this discussion is not made public prevents any further elaboration here.

The current programme comes to an end in 2011. This provides a golden opportunity for UNDP to elaborate a revised programme building on the viable elements of the present programme. The prospects for something better is clearly within reach. The potential of this programme is unique in Burma given its outreach and coverage. The staggering levels of poverty strongly call for attention. There is no reason and justification for “donor fatigue”. However, there are reasons for reflection and reconsideration.

Lars Birgegard is team leader of the UNDP’s 2010 Independent Assessment Mission of the Human Development Initiative in Burma. He writes this piece partly in response to UN aid has ‘limited impact’ in Burma, published in DVB on 25 August.


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