Daw Saw Yee and Daw Ohn Shwe have many things in common, but until recently their paths had not crossed. Both in their 50s, their communities elected the two women as village tract administrators in January 2018 during the third local elections to take place since Myanmar started its transition to democracy.
This is the second time that Daw Ohn Shwe has been elected village tract administrator for the Muslim community of Kyaung Tike, in the township of Thandwe, where she is the only woman among 72 village tract and ward administrators. Daw Saw Yee, ward 3 administrator is, in like manner, the only female village tract or ward administrator among the 53 in Ramree township.
When they describe their new roles, their smiles convey a sense of accomplishment. And there is a good reason for it: they are among the very few women all across Myanmar who have been elected as village tract and ward administrators — only 101 out of 16,829 after the last election.
Women are under-represented in the political arena in most countries, but in Myanmar the situation is particularly pressing. UNDP has been working for the last few years with female local administrators who, like Daw Saw Yee and Daw Ohn Shwe, are trying to address the strong barriers for their participation in local governance.
The people have high expectations for the women to represent the interests of the communities in dialogues with township officials about the development of their areas. Their achievements will be measured in terms on how Kyaung Tike and Kayuk Phye become better places to live.
Tackling obstacles for community participation
Given Myanmar’s institutional arrangements, opening avenues for civic engagement is not an easy task. Decentralization is still incipient; allocation of resources is top-down, with rare opportunities for real participatory and inclusive planning. As a consequence, community representatives rarely have a say in how to prioritize the scarce resources to respond to the most pressing needs on the ground. A siloed approach, with each ministry managing their own public services, creates a cumbersome system to navigate.
As a result, people feel disempowered, while townships, which deliver the bulk of public services and are where people most often interact with the state, have no decision-making power nor any discretionary funds to respond to people’s priorities and needs.
Making democracy local
This may start changing thanks to the Township Democratic Local Governance project (TDLG), an initiative of the UN Development Programme and funded, in Rakhine, by the Government of Japan and as part of a larger joint programme with UN Women to address the complex development challenges in Rakhine State, particularly the inequalities faced by women.
At the heart of a democratic relationship between citizens and the state lies an accountable and transparent system of public spending. By providing discretionary grants, UNDP is assisting townships to put in place a responsive local administration that effectively and efficiently provides basic services to its people in an inclusive, accountable and transparent manner.
“The participatory township planning workshops have brought people together from the township departments, state government representatives, civil society and Hluttaw (legislature) members, to identify public service gaps and needs of the communities,” Daw Ohh Shwe explains. “In our township this have resulted in an investment for local development of 696,102,000 Myanmar Kyats (around US$450,000) for the 2018/2019 fiscal year.”
Daw Saw Yee’s experience is similar. She insists that “to openly discuss with the township officials was a very useful experience and exercise”. Following this open process, participants agreed to use the grant to build a bridge and two roads and renovate a water pond. Daw Saw Yee’s community will be better connected to key public services such as health centres and schools and will improve its access to water.
What one dollar per capita can achieve
“This is not just a community development project,” as Anki Dellnas, UNDP’s chief technical advisor for local governance explains, “but rather a project that develops the local government’s capacity to do what they are there to do: deliver public services to the people in an inclusive, efficient, transparent and accountable manner. It is about changing the mindsets of governmental officials to put the people’s needs at the centre of everything they do.”
Since 2016, UNDP has been working with this local development and local governance model across Myanmar, starting in Mon State and Bago Region. The approach brings together key local governance actors in the annual township planning and budget cycle: heads of sector departments, elected ward and village tract administrators, members of the parliament, civil society representatives and others. On average a grant of US$1 per resident is provided to the participating townships following a needs-based allocation formula.
The grants are reflected in Rakhine State budget and become de-facto public resources for the people in Rakhine. The ongoing “Participatory Township Planning” methodology has shown to be very suitable and applicable in Rakhine as demonstrated by the Rakhine State Government’s commitment to scale up and duplicate the UNDP’s efforts for participatory planning to cover other townships, with co-funding from Rakhine State Government. UNDP will continue to provide technical assistance, and Rakhine State Government will use its own resources for the township development grants in the near future.
Daw Saw Yee and Daw Ohn Shwe know the task ahead is not trouble-free. But a few years from now, when their communities look into the past, they would like to be remembered as the women that pioneered participation and inclusion by representing the voices of their communities, and as authentic and true trailblazers of gender equality and local democracy in Rakhine State.
Story and photos by UNDP Myanmar