Myanmar: Being Context-Sensitive Makes All the Difference

Elderly woman from Myanmar ethnic minority.
Elderly woman from Myanmar ethnic minority.

By Winfried F. Wicklein

Sensitivity to the local context always pays off – even more in such a fragile environment.

As Myanmar’s transformation unfolds, the country’s development prospects are bright, but important challenges remain. Chief among these are maintaining macroeconomic stability in a challenging global economic environment; addressing infrastructure and human capital deficits that constrain social and economic development; and accelerating reforms towards inclusive growth, improved governance and private sector development.

Moreover, reaching enduring solutions to the county’s civil and armed conflicts will be critical to achieving sustainable and inclusive development.  

Myanmar is emerging from decades-long ethnic armed conflicts in several states that predate the country’s independence in 1948. Many ethnic nationality communities in and around conflict areas have limited access to basic services or markets, feel marginalized, and have historically had little or no trust in the government.

In many areas, traditional state services are delivered by non-state actors. Inter-communal tensions and violence, often based on religious or ethnic grounds or access to resources, have escalated in recent years. Lasting peace and minority rights will be critical for inclusive development in the ethnic areas, but will be years in the making. So, one of the main challenges for a development agency like ADB is to figure out ways to work effectively in conflict-affected areas.

It’s such a fragile development context that there’s a real risk of development projects and programs not fully reflecting the complex dynamics in such settings, and actually potentially undermining Myanmar’s transition process rather than nurturing it.

Minimize risks, maximize impact

When ADB returned to Myanmar in 2012 after some 20 years of absence, building our own capacities and country knowledge has meant a very steep learning curve for us. We soon realized that civil society had what we didn’t have and needed – great insights and deep understanding of the complexities of the context, and of what was happening in local communities and particularly in conflict-affected areas.

We made a deliberate effort to make sure our activities from the very beginning were sensitive to the local contexts, hence the term 'context sensitivity.' The objective was (and of course still is) to minimize the risk of doing harm while maximizing the development impact of ADB operations in Myanmar.

As a first step, we asked development experts working for civil society organizations, as well as context and conflict sensitivity experts, to work with us to prepare a strategy which subjects all ADB operations to context sensitivity analysis and actions. Then we dedicated resources to raising awareness and capacity among key stakeholders about ADB-financed projects; developing protocols and guidance for working in conflict-affected areas, and providing in-depth training and resources for ADB staff operating in Myanmar’s conflict-affected areas.

The approach emphasizes listening to and learning from all stakeholders including ethnic armed groups; building a solid understanding of the political and social context; developing strategies for specific affected groups; and implementing community outreach programs. It requires ADB officers to integrate risk mitigation strategies into projects at the design stage and implement them throughout the project cycle. Sector specialists out of ADB headquarters in Manila provided critical support to devising innovative modalities for engaging local communities, including for instance capacity support for a pilot for a project-level grievance redress mechanism.

ADB decided early on to focus its country operations geographically, to work only in selected and tightly defined parts of conflict-affected areas.  Rather than covering several conflict-affected states, we decided to cluster a range of activities in the states of Kayin and Mon, which share a history of ethnic conflict and where bilateral ceasefires signed between the government and a number of ethnic armed groups provided space for carefully planned development projects.

Local feedback is key

We found that meaningful consultation and civil society participation builds support for ADB-financed projects and provides crucial local feedback that helps improve projects to deliver results. We also realized that this context-sensitive approach, while critical in conflict-affected areas, serves us well for all ADB projects. So, we established a Civil Society Advisory Group that advises ADB’s Myanmar Resident Mission on a regular basis, acting as a sounding board on strategies and projects, and also keeping us informed about issues caused by or affecting ADB operations on the ground.  

The going, however, hasn’t been easy. There are many obstacles: mindsets can be resistant to new ways of thinking; capacities in the government are relatively low, particularly in relation to international development assistance projects; and, generally speaking, the government and civil society don’t fully trust each other yet, especially in ethnic areas. The good news is that very positive change is happening.

We have learned that safeguards, consultations, communications, and context sensitivity are inseparable. Not only does ADB need ongoing feedback from the community; communities and civil society also expect to have a voice early in the process, and should be consulted on their own terms. Close interaction between ADB and communities, and of course the government, is crucial for development effectiveness. 

ADB’s context-sensitive approach can be replicated in other developing member countries. The main takeaway from our experience in Myanmar is that context sensitivity requires a deliberative and consultative approach—combined with analytical work—to understand the complex operating environment and then implement coordinated action across programs.

This strategy pays off because it helps prepare better project designs, mitigates risks, and reduces complaints and delays. It enhances the effectiveness of our development programs and projects – and ultimately improves the quality of life for the people of Myanmar.