Myanmar Needs Better Governance, Not Just a Stronger Government

Myanmar Needs Better Governance, Not Just a Stronger Government

This article was written by Anjali Garg and Ryan Flynn, International Budget Partnership.

Source: Flickr/Tom Godber


Myanmar is a country in the midst of enormous change. In 2011 the country embarked on a series of reforms that have helped pull it out of decades of isolation. The transition from military rule toward more open governance has included establishing a parliament, implementing a more market-based economic system, relaxing media censorship, and negotiating ceasefire agreements aimed at ending some of Asia’s longest-running conflicts.

The government has also signaled a willingness to improve transparency and accountability, including signing on to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) and the Open Government Partnership (OGP). And a new law loosening the government’s grip on civil society was enacted in July 2014.

Progress toward more open budgets remains nascent. IBP’s Open Budget Survey Tracker – an online tool that monitors the availability of budget information – shows most documents still remain under wraps. Despite producing a wealth of budget information, the government is currently publishing only the final Enacted Budget. This means that crucial documents produced by the government, such as the Draft Budget and the Audit Report, remain off limits to the public.

IBP recently sent a team to Myanmar to explore opportunities to expand budget transparency, participation, and accountability. We found that current efforts to strengthen Myanmar’s budget system are focused primarily on building government’s capacity.

A similar commitment should be made to strengthening local civil society and opening up space for public participation.

Strengthening Public Finance Management (PFM)

Recognizing the links between better budgets and improved service delivery, donors have made strengthening the government’s ability to manage public finances a priority. The World Bank, the United Kingdom, and Australia have committed a collective $55 million over the next five years (through 2019) to providing Myanmar with technical and financial assistance for public finance management reforms.

Few would question the need for government to have the skills and capacity to manage public money, and donors are doing an impressive job of matching these needs with resources. But an effective budget is more than the product of strong government systems: the ability of those outside government to understand and participate in budget decisions, and to hold government to account for how money is raised and spent, is crucial.

More Inclusive Budgets

Many of the donors we met with acknowledged the importance of reforming budgets to be more inclusive. But so far the process has been to inform rather than consult those outside government about reforms. Little has been done to facilitate a much-needed dialogue between local civil society and the finance ministry. As a result, many are left disconnected. This is a missed opportunity to ensure that issues that are often championed by civil society, such as transparency and participation, are high on the PFM reform agenda.

Importantly, donors are currently investing too little in building the capacity of local civil society to directly engage in budget issues and undertake budget analysis. Holding government to account for how it is raising and spending public money depends on the ability of civil society to analyze and use budget information. We know from experience that, much like building the capacity of government, equipping civil society organizations with the necessary knowledge and skills takes time.

A Country in Transition

If civil society appears to be largely disconnected from the reform process, the general public appears to be struggling to make sense of the enormous changes underway. A groundbreaking report by the Asia Foundation found that the public, while generally upbeat about the country’s future, has “very limited knowledge about the current structure and functions of various levels of government.” At the same time, those surveyed placed remarkable importance in citizen participation in governance: 94 percent believe it to be very or somewhat important; virtually no one believes it is unimportant (see chart below).

Myanmar Participation
Source: The Asia Foundation

A lack of understanding on the particulars of government should not be an excuse for excluding the public from the process of reform and government decision making more broadly. Rather, the Myanmar government and donors should seize on this widespread optimism and appetite for public participation to inform and involve the people in governance decisions.

In the context of government budgets, this means laying the foundation for an informed and engaged civil society that can shape budget priorities, draw the public’s attention to budget issues, and hold the government to account on its management of public resources.

Now’s the Time

To its credit, the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) has earmarked US$6.8 million from its PFM program to support civil society. While this is a good sign, so far none of the funds have actually been disbursed according to DfID’s Development Tracker.

Delaying this effort has the effect of sequencing civil society budget work until after other reforms have taken root and, in doing so, threatens to undermine some of the fundamental objectives of donor support. Building more accountable, inclusive budgets, in which the public plays a greater role, is not a narrow technocratic exercise. International experts can help to deliver better budget systems, but building the capacity of local civil society to monitor and influence public spending is essential to better outcomes.

Investing in civil society is also likely to stoke demand for greater budget transparency and space for participation. Donors can add momentum by encouraging the government to make more budget information publicly available. If the government is serious about instituting a more open and participatory governance system, a significant step toward this can be achieved at little or no cost by simply publishing the budget documents that are already produced.

Increasing opportunities for the public to participate in budget decisions is no less important. The finance ministry should organize meetings around Myanmar to collect citizens’ views on budget priorities, and the national parliament should open their hearings on budget oversight decisions to the public. The Asia Foundation’s findings suggest that there is an optimistic populace eager to engage, but it lacks a solid understanding of how the government works. Greater participation from the public will not only help the government better understand people’s priorities and needs, but also allow the public to “learn by doing” as they engage in budget and service delivery decisions that have a direct bearing on their lives.

These three elements – supporting local civil society, increasing budget transparency, and encouraging public participation – should happen at the same time as investments in better budgetary systems and improvements in government capacity.

Without each of these, donors run the risk of merely strengthening Myanmar’s government, not strengthening Myanmar’s governance.

Links Roundup: News and Analysis on Transparency, Budgets, and More

Links Roundup: News and Analysis on Transparency, Budgets, and More



Counties Not Giving Enough Information, Study Shows (Standard Digital)

  • This article talks about the dearth in the budget information that counties in Kenya are making available to the public online, citing primarily a recent IBP Kenya brief.

SEND-Ghana Gives Government a Thumbs up on Budget Transparency (SPY Ghana)

  • At a recent event in Ghana on post-2015 and the OBS Tracker, SEND-Ghana commended the government for its budget transparency and called for greater public participation and expenditure monitoring.

Accountability + Transparency = Democracy

Transparency in Brazil (Development Initiatives)

  • This brief presents the domestic environment for transparency, access to information, and open data in Brazil, including substantial discussion of budget transparency.

IMF Publishes Fiscal Transparency Evaluation for Romania (International Monetary Fund)

  • Some 15 of the 36 dimensions in the IMF’s Fiscal Transparency Code are rated as good or advanced, 15 dimensions are rated as basic, and 6 regarded as yet to be achieved. This reflects progress made in public financial management reform since 2010.

Finland: Fiscal Transparency Evaluation (International Monetary Fund)

  • Finland meets most of the principles of the IMF’s Fiscal Transparency Code at good or advanced level. Some areas, notably related to the analysis and management of fiscal risks, are still rated as basic or below, but with a few exceptions the importance of these areas for fiscal management in Finland is relatively low.

Following the Money 2015: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data (USPIRG)

  • The report finds that U.S. states continue to make progress toward comprehensive, one-stop, one-click transparency and accountability for state government spending. Over the past year, many states have launched new and improved websites to better open the books on public spending, or have adopted new practices to further expand citizens’ access to critical spending information. Some states, however, still have a long way to go.


Budgets and Public Finance

Budgeting in the Real World: Response to Gilad Isaacs (Daily Maverick)

Kenya: State Corporations Under the Devolved Budget (All Africa)

  • This article argues that going forward in the Kenyan budget reform process, some substantial reform of state corporations is required to streamline both revenue as well as functional responsibilities between the national and county governments. Mentions IBP Kenya and recent publications.

PB Vallejo Banner

Pioneering Participatory Budgeting (American City & County)

  • This article discusses how Vallejo, California, has become the first municipality in the country to adopt participatory budgeting on a citywide scale and decided how $2.4 million of the city’s budget would be spent.

Why Context Matters in Public Finance Management Reforms (Governance for Development Blog)

  • This post emphasizes how the context of public finance management reforms has profound implications for work in development.

Presenting Public Finance Just Got Easier (OpenSpending)

  • This article announces and explains how CKAN, the data handling software suite which powers and other open data portals across the world, has been significantly upgraded and can open up new opportunities for existing and coming deployments.


Post-2015 and Development


Patterns of Progress on the MDGs and Implications for Target Setting Post-2015 (Overseas Development Institute)

  • This paper argues that in order to bridge the gap between expectations and achievements in the new MDGs, it is essential to maintain the power of a unified set of goals while bringing in greater sensitivity to national realities.

Leaving No One Behind: How the SDGs Can Bring Real Change (Development Progress)

  • This report argues that more detail is needed on what “leave no one behind” means for implementation of the SDGs, specifically to define the actions needed to “leave no one behind” and to provide the right framework to monitor success in the SDGs.

Measuring Development: Why Statistics Matter (Transparency International)

  • Transparency International and Saferworld have been working recently to identify the relevant statistical indicators – the monitoring framework – to achieve goal 16 of the SDGs: “peaceful and inclusive societies, justice for all, and open and accountable government institutions.”

Proposed SDG Governance Indicators: Rule of Law or Simply Rule? (Permanent Observer Blog)

  • This blog post highlights some important points about the specifically political elements of goal 16 of the SDGs.

Improving Delivery in Development: The Role of Voice, Social Contract, and Accountability (World Bank)

  • This volume argues that the consistent integration of voice, social contract, and accountability into both the design and the implementation of development efforts is indispensable if successful outcomes are to result.


Governance and Civil Society

How to Stop Extremism Before It Starts (Foreign Policy)

  • In the global fight against violent extremism, a major element has been missing from the conversation that has focused on mostly top-down, official efforts: how ordinary citizens and communities are successfully challenging the acute corruption that drives young people and others into the folds of radicals, for example through social audits.

Social Media and Governance (GSDRC)

  • This brief addresses the question of the impact of social media on governance of social, political, and economic bodies, contending that social media has a lot of potential to be used for governance purposes, but that this is not capitalized on in most contexts. It includes an annotated bibliography on social media and governance as related to political participation, transparency and accountability, peacebuilding, the private sector, and internal governance.

A Workshop on Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives and Governance: What Did We Learn and Where to Go from Here? (Transparency and Accountability Initiative)

  • This article provides a thorough summary of a workshop convened by T/AI on international multistakeholder initiatives addressing public governance issues, particularly related to government transparency and accountability.

Advocating for Civil Society Space in 2015 (Huffington Post)

  • In this article, the CEO of InterAction argues that as dialogue among member states for the post-2015 agenda begins, advocating for civil society space and voice will remain one of the leading priorities.


Upcoming Events

“Impact, So What?”: FBL BackTalk with Accountability Lab (Feedback Labs)

  • Join Accountability Lab and Feedback Labs at the Open Gov Hub for a discussion on monitoring and measuring impact in transparency and accountability work. This event will take place on 31 March 2015 from 12:30-2:00 pm (EST) in Washington, D.C.