Why the disconnect between Aid and Buddhism in Myanmar?

December 8, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

Back from Myanmar today, and still processing an intense week of conversations. Here’s a first instalment. A week in, I was struck by the gulf between the aid bubble and the deep religiosity of people throughout the country. So I dashed off this vlog on a weekend visit to the spectacular Shwedagon Pagoda, in the heart of Yangon.

In it I make a few points:

  • Buddhism doesn’t sit easily with the aid industry: Buddhism urges modesty, whereas aid organizations have to blow their own trumpets if they want funding or profile; Buddhism sees true donations as those which come without accompanying questions – try selling that idea to the average aid donor.
  • We talk increasingly about norms, but religions are the ultimate norm shapers (for good or ill). If we’re serious we should be investing far more in understanding how they go about that task.
  • Religions are money magnets. In a few years’ time, at current rates of growth, Myanmar is likely to graduate out of low income status, and aid flows are likely to decline sharply. Local civil society organizations that remain aid dependent (as many currently are) face a grim future. Those that can tap into non-aid sources such as religious giving, domestic altruism, migrant remittances, or social enterprises, may be able to survive. I heard very little to suggest that current aid donors are doing much to help that process, but without preparation, it could become a nasty cliff edge for a lot of excellent social activism.
  • More generally, research almost invariably shows that poor people trust faith organizations more than they trust the state, civil society or anyone else. Surely any genuine ‘bottom-up’ approach to development should acknowledge and build on that fact?

Of course, once I showed the video to a few people, it turns out that there is more going on in this area than I realized, albeit in a few limited areas:

Pyoe Pin, who I was studying as an example of adaptive management, works with a number of interfaith organizations, eg the Myanmar Interfaith Network on HIV or women’s rights. The Baptists are central to the work in Kachin. Then there’s the work on Monastic education. ‘Religion is fundamental to power and change in Myanmar’, according to Pyoe Pin boss Gerry Fox. The Sangha (Buddhist monastic order) and its state supported regulator are extraordinarily powerful players at all levels.

Another (local) PP staffer added that, ‘we don’t take religion as central, but engage with their organizations on particular issues, especially at the local level, where the monks tend to get more involved.’

But even with those caveats, the links between the aid business and faith organizations seem far flimsier than they should be.

Why is that? In part I think the aid business has plenty of secular DNA, built on its origins in orthodox economics, medicine and the provision of stuff (infrastructure, schools, hospitals). Since most aid is provided by governments, they typically see other states as their natural partners, so projects and activity swarm around governments, even when they are weak. By contrast, the aid business finds it hard to work with ‘non-state actors’, which in fragile and conflict-affected places like Myanmar, can be relatively more important than elsewhere. That includes faith organizations, ethnic armed organizations, traditional leaders, but also shadowy, powerful players involved in jade or gold smuggling. It’s a bit like physics concentrating on the visible world, while acknowledging that 96% of the universe is actually made up of mysterious, unknowable ‘dark energy’ and ‘dark matter’. Not very satisfying, is it?

More on Myanmar next week.

December 8, 2017
Duncan Green