UK urged to increase aid to Burma in bid to press home democratic gains
|Children at a school run by a monastery for impoverished children in Bago. MPs want DfID to invest in Burma's education system. Photograph: Paula Bronstein/Getty|
By Mark Tran
March 15, 2014
MPs recommend 40% aid increase to drive through reforms that could 'improve living standards for thousands of people'
Britain should seize the opportunity to improve the lives of people in Burma by increasing aid from £60m to £100m, MPs said on Wednesday.
As Burma sheds its pariah status after decades of military dictatorship, the international development committee (IDC) urged the Department for International Development (DfID) to step up its involvement in a country that, once among the richest in south-east Asia, is now among the poorest.
"We are persuaded that a window of opportunity has recently opened in Burma for considerable reform to make the country a more democratic and free society," said an IDC report, Democracy and Development in Burma. "Although some organisations are sceptical about the reforms, we believe that there are opportunities to fundamentally improve the living standards of thousands of people."
Burma has released more than 1,000 political prisoners. The Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has been freed from house arrest, censorship has been lifted, and trade unions have been formed. But after years of conflict and isolation, Burma remains one of Asia's poorest countries, with GDP per capita of about $800 (£482). Thailand, which was once poorer, now has a GDP per capita of $4,800.
A third of Burma's population of nearly 50 million people does not have enough money to meet basic food and living needs, and more than 75% of the country lacks access to electricity. But with its considerable natural riches – including arable land, forests, minerals, natural gas, fresh water and marine resources – Burma has enormous potential.
The country's commitment to democratic change has been questioned, however, notably by Burma Campaign UK, which believes that the republic is heading in the direction of an authoritarian regime along the lines of China or Russia and has not done enough in terms of reforms to persuade countries to drop sanctions.
Nonetheless, Sir Malcolm Bruce, chair of the committee, was upbeat. "We must seize the moment," he said. "We therefore support the UK government's approach to support reformers in the Burmese government to raise the country out of poverty, develop the economy and build a society that moves towards democracy. Progress will be unpredictable and uneven, but supporting the reform process by working to deliver public services and develop livelihoods offers unprecedented potential … We do not believe that progress will happen by standing back or adopting an unduly sceptical approach."
The committee has identified governance – including assisting the peace, helping to reduce inter-communal religious violence and strengthening Burma's parliament – and education as areas that it feels could benefit from increased spending. The committee considered DfID's education budget in Burma too small to be effective, and said it should increase, with a major focus on teacher training.
But DfID's Burma programme should not go ahead whatever the situation, MPs cautioned.
"If reform does start to falter and things start moving backwards, DfID and the UK government should be strong to act, reducing or diverting funding and projects," said the report.
DfID has already doubled aid to Burma – from £32m in 2013 to £63m – and increased the number of staff in Rangoon, the capital, from 12 to 26. About half of UK aid goes on health. The committee recommended thatgreater emphasis be given to addressing drug-resistant malaria, which threatens to spread from Burma to the rest of the world.
"The UK could spend a lot more than £100m – especially in helping to develop government capacity, particularly in the provinces – but spending less than that would not make much difference," said Bruce, adding that DfID can be an important catalyst for change.
The UK provides most of its aid through UN organisations and local NGOs, with no money going directly to the government. In 2012, the most recent available figures, Burma received $504m in official development assistance, with Japan, Britain and Australia among the top three donors. As Burma moves away from military rule, donors are lining up, potentially posing problems of co-ordination, a familiar bugbear for aid recipients. ActionAid told the committee that China, Japan and India do not want to attend co-ordination meetings at all.
"The UK, working with multilaterals which it can influence, in particular the World Bank, should seek to prevent a proliferation of donors who do not intend to spend significant sums of money taking up Burmese ministers' time," said the report.
Inter-communal conflict between the Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya populations – particularly in Rakhine state, bordering Bangladesh – poses the biggest challenge to Burma, witnesses told the committe when it gathered evidence for its report. The committee urged the UK to take a stronger position with the Burmese government to address the Rohingya's plight.
"We recommend that DfID do more to encourage interfaith dialogue and to ensure that the Rohingya have access to education and health services," said the report.
"We are pleased the IDC supports our approach," said Alan Duncan, minister of state for international development. "Without doubt, we have an opportunity to deliver further transformational change and we will be working across government to make the most of this. We will give full consideration to the IDC's recommendations, while ensuring we deliver value for taxpayers' money in Burma and elsewhere."