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Country case study: Myanmar

18 Decentralization and of rural self help groups in Myanmar: Poverty alleviation and food security at the community level, Soe Thant Aung, Myanmar

18 Decentralization and of rural self help groups in Myanmar: Poverty alleviation and food security at the community level, Soe Thant Aung, Myanmar

For more than a quarter of a century, Myanmar had lived with a centrally planned economy when reform measures were initiated in late 1988 to facilitate a market-oriented economic system. During the transition period the economy was managed by formulating and implementing annual plans from 1989-1990 to 1991-1992 based on prevailing conditions and in response to policy changes and reform measures undertaken by the central government. The main objectives of the annual plans were to achieve economic recovery with stability in the short run and to lay down firm foundations for sustained long-run growth. One significant reform measure thus undertaken was decentralizing control from central to local levels. The process of decentralization is relatively new for the people of Myanmar. The practice, experience, knowledge and understanding of decentralization is still limited. This essay reviews one human development initiative project supported by UNDP to support potential rural self help group regarding poverty alleviation and food security (particularly at the local level). A brief overview of Myanmar is given regarding the country and its people. This is followed by descriptions of the organization of institutions at local levels; the UNDP Human Development Initiative (HDI); a brief description of community development of the Ayeyarwady Mangrove Project and issues regarding the role of self help groups. The essay concludes with implications for improving the role of self help groups in poverty alleviation and food security at community levels in the Myanmar context.

Overview of Myanmar

The Union of Myanmar is the largest country of mainland South East Asia with a total land area of 676 577 km2. From north to south, three parallel chains of mountain ranges divide the country into three river systems and create various topographic regions. Population is estimated at just over 44 million and population growth is 1.8 percent. According to government publications, Myanmar is inhabited by many ethnic nationalities, as many as 135 national groups with bamas (ethnic Burmans) forming the largest group - comprising 70 percent of the population. Only 25 percent of the population reside in urban areas.

Britain annexed what was then called Burma in the course of three wars: the first in 1824 (when Rakhaine, Taninthayi, Assam and Manipur were taken), the second in 1852 (Lower Burma including Pegu and Yangon) and the last in 1886 (when all Burma became a province of British India). During World War II, Japan occupied Myanmar from 1941 until 1945. On 4 January 1948, Myanmar received independence from Britain. In March 1962, a military-led Revolutionary Council led the country to the system of "the Burmese Way to Socialism". In 1991, the official name of the country was changed from Burma to the "Union of Myanmar".

Organization of local level institutions

Myanmar is divided into seven states and seven divisions based on the geography, administrative character and the density of ethnic minorities. Each of the 14 regions is controlled by a State Peace and Development Committee (SPDC) chaired by a military commander. There are 320 townships, administered by states and divisions. Some small towns (as subtownships) are placed under the administration of nearby townships. The village tract is the lowest government administrative structure in rural areas and three, four or more nearby villages are clustered to become a village tract. Villages are administered by Local Peace and Development Committees composed of three locally elected members, unpaid, and a clerk appointed and paid a salary by the township authorities.[11]

Some other local institutions in sample villages with UNDP Human Development Initiative projects[12] are: Myanmar Agricultural and Rural Development Bank (MMCWA); Village youth group; Women's group; Village fire brigade; Village pond committee; Contact farmer group; Village Resources Management Committee (VRMC); Village Credit Committee (VCC); Women's Credit Committee (WCC); Parent and Teacher Association (PTA); Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) (a political group); Others (cooperatives and religious groups)

UNDP Human Development Initiative

Citing critical humanitarian and development needs in Myanmar, UNDP in June 1993 approved $25.6 million to continue assistance through 1994. It also acted to channel all future UNDP assistance to Myanmar via programmes with sustainable grass-roots impact in areas of primary health, environment, HIV/AIDS, training, education and food security. Within the framework of UNDP's Human Development Initiative (HDI) programme, 15 projects were approved and implemented. In 1994, UNDP extended all 15 projects until September 1996.

In January 1996, UNDP again considered assistance to Myanmar. It: 1)approved continued funding of activities previously outlined; and 2) authorized project-by-project approval of new projects not exceeding $52 million from 1996 to 1997. Government was defined as the cooperating agency and inputs and support were provided through sectors of relevant ministries. Government provided the following inputs: Salaries and all costs for government project personnel; accommodation, communication facilities and maintenance; Locally available equipment and materials; Plantation sites and infrastructure, including nurseries; Maintenance and operating costs for vehicles and machinery; Local costs of project operations including manual labour.

Community development in the Ayeyarwady Mangrove project

Project concept

The project was conceived and initiated based on the rapid degradation of the environment in the delta area due to the unsustainable overuse of forests to meet growing demand for firewood and charcoal, caused in turn by a severe shortage of kerosene and inadequate electricity and cooking gas[13]. Charcoal production is four times greater than the sustained capacity of the Ayeyarwaddy Delta forest (Lahiri, 1996), leading to a government-imposed ban on charcoal production in 1993.

The project focuses on the use and conservation of mangrove land and water resources of Bogalay and Laputta townships in the Ayeyarwady delta. Fifty villages were selected from 909 villages (125 village tracts) in two townships. Selection criteria depended on scarcity of firewood, availability of arable land, degree of landlessness, extent of land degradation and urban demand. An initial needs assessment was conducted in the project villages through a survey questionnaire to develop a plan of action. Later, Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) procedures were used to formulate project strategies and implementations. When doing training exercises it was found that the priorities the villagers set for themselves differed from those indicated in the village forestry plan[14], so integrated Village Development Plans were prepared by using PRA and rapid rural appraisal to develop income producing opportunities for villagers based on land, water and the skill of the people of the area.

On the other hand, township level officials, villagers in general and project villagers were mobilized to an awareness of the threat to the mangroves and the direct and indirect consequences on the quality of life of the local population.

Community organization

The project formulated a model of varied local institutions at village levels as part of the community organization activities as well as facilitated delivery of goods, services and initiated the process of participatory village development sub-projects. Village groups were formed to facilitate: (a) income generation, (b) women's development, (c) extension activities and (d) forestry activities.

Income generation group An income-generation group comprising representatives of fishermen, farmers, livestock farmers, etc. operate a revolving fund for income-generation. Inputs such as fertilizer, seed, twine, hooks and weaving looms supplied by the project to the villagers were distributed through the group. Some 1 150 villagers were trained in various income-generation opportunities in agriculture, fisheries, forestry and home industries. The group also plans to offer rental operation of agricultural implements (such as power tillers) to villagers to recover a service charge. The group provides each recipient villager with a card recording the supplies or implements advanced with the fee/price, and records the return in the group registers. A large number of income generation activities are now in operation in villages.

Women's development In the project, the resource poor women are particularly involved in the field of fishnet weaving, tailoring, cloth weaving, fish drying, livestock rearing etc and is also engaged in popularizing wood saving stoves. Women's group is facilitating access to appropriate technology, inputs for income generation for the resources poor women.

Forestry group Forest group organizes villagers for creation and maintenance of community nurseries and community plantations. The group mobilized villagers to plant 6.4 million seedlings/seed in village common lands to preventive bank erosion and create a wood reserve.

Extension and village development groups Extension and village development groups are carrying out various extension activities in the village and act as contact group with the project. Some 490 members (324 men and 166 women) of villagers were trained in extension, communication and management training. The group makes available varied information about income generation opportunities, package of practices/available to villagers. Posters and leaflets, have been produced for the use of the groups.[15]

Village development committee HDI project villages organized as Village Development Committees (VDCs) with a chairman, a secretary and two to five members from the voluntary self help group. The committee works closely with the extension group for village development. Village development committees and resource managers were quite advanced in the Ayeyarwady Delta as compared to Rakhine where participatory community development processes in the villages have been left to VDCs which are quite new (Kato, et al, 1996).

Project outputs

The following outputs are noted in UNDP's 1996 assessment report: Fifty villages in two townships plus adjoining project villages participated; Villagers raised 4 800 acres of forest plantation; Villagers planted 6.4 million mangrove and forest seedlings - equivalent to 6 400 acres of riverbank protective vegetation; Protection of 1 400 acres of natural mangrove regeneration area; Technical training of 1 150 villagers in income generation in agriculture, fisheries, forestry and home industries; Large numbers of poor women were involved in fish net weaving, tailoring, fish drying, livestock rearing and nursery operation and fruit tree propagation; Twenty women's groups now make fishnets, and another 62 women work in fisheries-related trades; Training 490 committee members (324 men and 166 women) in extension techniques, communication and management on an ongoing basis; One hundred eighty men and 12 women have been trained in aquaculture, and 11 men and 39 women trained in post-harvest handling of fish and prawn products.

In kind contributions of $450 000 (25 percent of project funds) for income generating activities through revolving fund; Forty-eight Village Development Committees (VDC) have been formed in target villages to coordinate functions of village action groups; Thirty extension leaflets, posters, booklets, slide sets and videos were produced; Fourteen farmers and 10 township project staff studied mangrove development areas of Thailand, Viet Nam and Malaysia; A fuel-efficient cook stove and a locally-produced stove using paddy husks were promoted; and micro packages on cage culture of fish and crabs were developed for the landless and poor.

Issues affecting the role of self help groups

Some issues are hindering self help in community development.

Poor access and communication

Access and communication are generally considered as important factors in expediting socio-economic development opportunities for rural communities. Delta townships are very large and villages are scattered throughout the islands, set between numerous creeks and rivers. The only means of movement is by boat, which is also constrained by tidal levels. There is essentially no telecommunication between villages, village tracts and townships. Accessibility affects every aspect of development in the Delta.

Compensation for project participation

Prior to the government ban on charcoal production in 1993, many villagers depended on the natural mangrove forest for their livelihood. The project was intended to achieve full local participation in needs assessment, planning, implementation and use of mangrove land and water resources - including participation in evaluation of the project benefits. However, in the end there was no proper measure to encourage people to participate in the project activities. There remained a need to identify the appropriate entry points, incentives and policies to encourage villager participation.

Conclusion and implications

The project is considered as one of the most successful projects among HDI projects in Myanmar. It encouraged group formation for improved community participation and effective use of project resources. Some implications: Fewer villages should be used at project initiation and extending to wider areas should be based on lessons learned in the former; Work with existing village institutions and modify according to their needs and demands; Minimize sector divisions at local level; Encourage setting up rural financial institutions closer to the rural community; Strengthen decentralized planning by hands-on training (principles of cooperatives, credit union concepts, introduction of local value-added products, etc.) and exchange visits; Improve market information at local level.


Andrus, J R., 1957. Burmese economic life, Calcutta, Oxford University Press.

Ministry of National Planning & Economic Development, 1995. "Economic development of Myanmar". Yangon.

Department of Economics. 1962. Economic development of Burma. University of Rangoon.

Dews, P., 1997. Starting & operating a business in Myanmar, Bangkok, McGraw-Hill.

Lahiri, A K , 1996. Human development initiative (HDI) projects in Ayeyarwady (Mangrove) Delta. (MYA/93/26 & MYA/96/008)

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[11] Tin T,1997. “Myanmar working paper of SDA Technical Consultation on Decentralization (TCD)”, p. 4.
[12] Win, A.S., 1997. Towards sustainable community forestry management in the dry zone of Myanmar, Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok, p.125.
[13] UNDP/FAO, 1996. Community development of Ayeyarwaddy mangrove, Union of Myanmar, Yangon, p. 1.
[14] (UNDP/FAO, 1996. p. 2).
[15] UNDP/FAO.

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