Call to build up local NGOs

The international community should make better use of local NGOs and community-based organizations in Myanmar, while at the same time building capacity among them, aid officials say.

"Local NGOs... have local knowledge, contacts and they don't have to worry about getting permission on planning and resources from a central head office. They also have little problem accessing different parts of the country," said Walter Davis, programme manager for Paung Ku, a consortium of 11 international and local organizations established in 2007 to strengthen civil society in Myanmar.

But as things stand, most donors continue to funnel money through international NGOs (INGOs), which at times compete with local groups.

"INGOs need to change to do more capacity building. The rules of engagement still see local NGOs as subcontractors because their capacity is weaker," said Aung Tun Thet, a senior adviser to the UN Resident Coordinator in Myanmar.

"INGOs need to decide whether they are in direct competition with [local organizations] or whether they are here to mentor local NGOs," he added.

Post-Nargis growth

Cyclone Nargis in 2008 spawned hundreds of civil society organizations to cope with the humanitarian crisis that killed a reported 140,000 and affected another 2.4 million, by UN estimates.

"Nargis was a catalytic push for the mushrooming of local NGOs. There were 50 times as many NGOs as before," said Aung Tun Thet.

"Faced with the magnitude of Cyclone Nargis, donors needed to find a way to give money and not go through the government - the elephant in the room," he added.

Local groups were a natural funding vehicle as they reacted most quickly when the tidal surge hit.

But when the government declared an end to the tsunami's emergency phase in 2010, many of these same NGOs collapsed or turned to development activities - often lacking basic capacity to carry out the work.

"With such rapid evolution [of NGOs activated by Cyclone Nargis], the rigor required of NGOs did not accompany this expansion. These groups have good intentions but lack basic rudimentary management skills," said Aung Tun Thet.

Too often, local groups have been recruited and supported to serve the project needs of INGOs, but not beyond, said Ingeborg Moa, Myanmar director of Norwegian People's Aid, which has supported dozens of local groups since 2004.

"If more funding could be [made] available for organizational development, capacity building and support for initiatives that aim to strengthen local organizations' overall capacities, not just their capacity to 'deliver services' as implementing partners of international organizations, this would be a big step in the right direction," said Moa.

Removing barriers

Focusing on so-called shortcomings in local accounting and management systems may be misguided, according to a December report by Paung Ku, which includes Save the Children, Oxfam and CARE, as well as local groups.

Receipts, for example, are often difficult to obtain in Myanmar, leaving many organizations unable by international standards to account for resources and unable to qualify for international funds, Davis said.

"Myanmar has a long history of using accountability mechanisms related to religious donations, with Buddhist monks playing a key check and balance role. Strengthening these existing frameworks may ultimately be more effective in building accountability than continuing to use imported concepts," said Davis.

A cumbersome government NGO registration process is an additional obstacle for local groups to tap international funds.

"The government would not allow any group without a [memorandum of understanding] to accept donor funds. What is needed is a more transparent registration process," said Aung Tun Thet.

An official at the local relief NGO, Aung Yadanar, based in the town of Pyapon in southern Myanmar, said he applied for registration soon after he co-founded the NGO in 2008 - but has yet to receive any news.

"In the meanwhile, we have to keep [a] good relationship with township authorities so that we can do our job."

Even without being formally registered, the group still receives funding from the UK Department for International Development, which also provides technical assistance along with the Ministry of Agriculture.