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To help tackle aid inequality, support Myanmar’s local intermediaries

‘If humanitarians are serious about shifting power, then it’s time to move beyond conservative and tokenistic localisation approaches.’

Three women stand amid the aftermath of Cyclone Mocha in Sittwe, Myanmar. Partners Relief and Development/Handout via Reuters
A view of the damage caused by Cyclone Mocha in Sittwe, Myanmar in this handout image released 17 May 2023.

You don’t need to be a big international agency to channel donor funding. 

 

Local organisations in Myanmar have been playing this intermediary role for years – receiving and sharing resources among networks of frontline aid providers in the midst of conflict and disasters, and under overwhelming pressure from the military junta. 

 

It’s time for the international humanitarian system to work on a more equal footing with these emerging local intermediaries by putting more resources and control in their hands.

 

Since the 2021 coup, escalating conflict and displacement, soaring humanitarian needs, and access restrictions have forced international donors and aid agencies in Myanmar to rely on local groups to reach communities in need.

 

Facing heavy restrictions from the military junta, international agencies that were previously direct implementers – delivering aid and running programmes themselves – are recasting themselves as intermediaries that channel donor funding to smaller, local groups.

 

This pattern repeated itself when Cyclone Mocha made landfall in May, leaving a trail of devastation across western Myanmar. Civil society groups immediately stepped into action to help their communities, but most had to rely on international agencies for pass-through funding if they hoped to tap into the global humanitarian aid system.

 

But Myanmar’s humanitarian NGOs are becoming increasingly organised. In 2022, a group of 14 of Myanmar’s largest NGOs launched what they’re calling the Local Intermediary Actor network. Their goal is to promote the role of Myanmar organisations – not just international ones – in channelling funding to frontline groups.

 

Whose ‘capacity’ gets counted?

Intermediary agencies have long been the link between international donors and those delivering aid in countries like Myanmar. But with calls for humanitarian action to be more locally led, there is a fundamental tension: International intermediary agencies are seen as agents of localisation; but their role is made necessary by, and can reproduce, unequal power systems.

 

In Myanmar, like elsewhere, most international aid going to local responders is still channelled through international NGOs, UN agencies, or pooled funds. The default assumption is that intermediaries should be international agencies, due to the mistaken belief that local groups lack the “capacity” to manage donor funding and compliance regulations.

 

But it’s the complex requirements imposed by donors and international agencies that create this so-called “capacity gap”: Local groups operating on bare-bones budgets often don’t have the time or staff to jump through these hoops.

 

“When we work with international organisations, they have already designed their project. They urge us to fit in with their design.” 

 

At the same time, international donors themselves typically lack the ability to manage large numbers of smaller, direct local grants. Yet the narrative persists that it’s local organisations that are somehow lacking – the logical response being more “capacity building” for local agencies, while funding remains in the hands of big international intermediaries who have the staff and resources to write grant proposals and project “logframes”.

 

This leaves the same power structures that reinforce a top-down and unequal aid system. Many civil society groups in Myanmar say most international intermediaries that pass on funding aren’t flexible or adaptable, simply imposing top-down donor demands that are often unrealistic and even dangerous.

 

This has real-world consequences in volatile Myanmar. For example, many international intermediaries still demand multiple quotes for basic supplies like rice, despite warnings that people suspected of helping frontline aid groups in conflict areas risk arrest. One civil society leader told us how in one instance the military detained a local supplier.

 

“When we work with international organisations, they have already designed their project. They urge us to fit in with their design,” said a civil society leader, who described the difference between receiving funds from a local intermediary compared with an international one: “One lets us run freely, but the other lets us run with strings attached.”

 

The need for radical change to an unequal system

In Myanmar, the NGOs that formed the new network of local intermediaries already play key roles in channelling money to smaller civil society groups, handling donor funding and compliance requirements, and shouldering more of the legal and fiduciary burdens and risks that come with receiving aid money.

 

Their networks help them access communities that need aid, support a flexible and low-profile aid response, and navigate Myanmar’s increasingly restrictive operational environment in ways that often aren’t possible for international agencies.

“For members of Myanmar civil society, debates about the localisation and decolonisation of aid are, at a deeper level, debates about who has the right to define the future of their country, and about their need to be recognised as equals.”

These local intermediaries are partners, mentors, and coaches for smaller groups. Rather than simply focusing on helping civil society groups comply with international aid bureaucracy, local intermediaries are helping their partners to grow on their own terms – by quickly answering requests to develop data protection systems, for example, or by helping smaller groups build what they need to access and manage donor funding themselves.

 

Crucially, the push to channel funding through local intermediaries is about more than just the effectiveness and efficiency of aid programmes. For members of Myanmar civil society, debates about the localisation and decolonisation of aid are, at a deeper level, debates about who has the right to define the future of their country, and about their need to be recognised as equals. 

 

Humanitarian academic Hugo Slim writes that “localisation is a matter of self-determination and political justice, not just effectiveness”. In Myanmar, then, true localisation is about recognising and supporting the agency and autonomy of local humanitarians, their leaders, and their institutions to shape their own social contracts and futures. 

 

The international aid system is unequal and imbalanced. Reform initiatives like the Grand Bargain and the Charter for Change were born from widespread recognition of this. 

 

The aid sector promised to change by making it more locally led. But progress has been slow. If humanitarians are serious about shifting power, then it’s time to move beyond conservative and tokenistic localisation approaches. 

 

Doing so requires recognising and working on a more equal basis with local intermediaries. Redefining who has the power to receive and channel aid funding will be a concrete step toward changing the system itself.

 

After all, international aid agencies in Myanmar have seen their on-the-ground access shrink, but they still steer humanitarian donor funding as intermediaries. 

 

If local groups are empowered to be intermediaries, then more international organisations may be forced to rethink their own roles, the value they provide, and how to meaningfully share power. 

 

As one civil society leader in Myanmar told us: “Maybe some of your privilege you may need to share. Without sharing your privilege… localisation is impossible.”

 

The authors are researchers who have conducted independent assessments of the Local Intermediary Actor network’s work, which include suggestions for improvement, and on how the international aid system can better support local intermediaries.

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