The Asia Foundation and Renaissance Institute Facilitate Yangon Workshop for Municipal Leaders
Local representatives gather to share experiences in urban planning and reform efforts
Yangon, January 19, 2018 — The Asia Foundation, together with respected Myanmar policy think tank Renaissance Institute, held a three-day workshop from January 15 to 17 for state, region, and municipal representatives to share their experiences and learn from each other. In attendance were eight ministers, 13 directors, and 15 executive officers from across the country. The workshop was funded through the support of the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Swiss Development Cooperation.
After nearly five decades of authoritarian rule by a highly-centralized government, Myanmar is transitioning to more democratic and decentralized governance practices. One way this is being done is through municipal offices called Development Affairs Organizations (DAOs). DAOs are present in all townships in Myanmar, except for Yangon and Mandalay. Their responsibilities range from building urban roads, to providing garbage collection services, to issuing business licenses.
In Myanmar’s highly-centralized governance system, the DAOs have considerable levels of autonomy and control over their services and revenue generation. They are the only fully decentralized government agency under the control of state and region governments with no mother ministry at the national level to report to. As described by Development Affairs Minister of Chin State Salai Isaac Kehn, these institutions are a test of Myanmar’s decentralization. DAOs are presented with a unique challenge: without a central coordinating body or formal network, there is little opportunity for them to learn from what is happening elsewhere in the country.
U Maung Maung Soe, the mayor of Yangon, expressed in his opening remarks that this workshop has already proven to be a success just by gathering representatives from all states and regions in one room. This sentiment was widely shared by many of the participants, including Van Za Oak, executive officer of Paletwa Township in Chin State, who has been in his position for over a year. He expressed his delight in meeting other executive officers for the first time.
The three-day workshop followed the three-pronged approach that the Foundation and Renaissance Institute have taken to support municipal governments with their reforms, which focuses on increasing local service delivery, raising revenues to better fund services, and improving communication between government and the public. Officials from various states and regions presented on their experiences for others to learn from, and participants engaged in vigorous debate.
Some key lessons from the workshop include:
Municipal autonomy is a strength, not a weakness
In accordance with the 2008 Constitution, from 2011 on states and regions have had fully-autonomous control of the DAOs to raise revenue, and significant discretion to develop the city according to their constituents’ needs. Many DAOs are testing new innovations in how services are delivered. When combined with the opportunity to learn from each other’s reform successes and failures, DAOs can get better, faster.
Growing cities must consider sustainability in long-term waste management
Municipal representatives discussed the current system of waste management in growing cities. One commonly-cited challenge is the need to switch landfills every three to four years when they are at capacity. Many landfills in Myanmar are prone to combust when they are not treated by daily cover and can emit dangerous fumes. As such, several participants discussed the importance to “reduce, reuse, and recycle” to ensure waste management is sustainable as population density is projected to increase in all cities across the country. In the meantime, optimizing garbage routes will be necessary to handle increasing amounts of solid waste. This is being done in Hpa-An, as routes are mapped and analyzed using satellite imagery to find the fastest and most efficient routes to serve the public.
Reform in revenue-raising is possible and necessary
Improving local service delivery such as waste management requires more revenue than the DAOs currently have. One of the most feasible ways to increase municipal revenues is by increasing property tax, which is collected and controlled entirely at the local level. Myanmar has one of the lowest property tax rates in the world and in Asia; for example, Yangon collects the equivalent in property taxes of one cup of tea per household every six months. While tax increases are never popular with the public, Hpa-An has shown what is possible with an annual rental value equivalent to eight cups of tea per household. A reasonable response can be expected from the public when information about transparent and accountable tax collection and usage is provided to the public.
Communication with the public is crucial
One of the key ingredients to a healthy and functioning democracy is transparency and accountability. Recognizing this need, policymakers from across the country are reaching out to their constituents through innovative means of communication such as social media, websites, and mobile applications. Executive Officer of Taunggyi U Aye Ko spoke about his successes in administering a public Facebook page where he shares information about the DAOs’ activities and receives information from members of the public on where improvements can be made. Another pioneering example can be seen in Monywa Township in Sagaing Region. The township communicates to their constituents through a website and publishes their own township-level Citizens’ Budget for the public to view.
Many local experiments in urban governance reform are taking place across the country, as demonstrated through the discussions and presentations at the event. As the workshop wrapped, participants were asked to reflect on lessons they have learned over the three day workshop, and how they will continue sharing experiences with one another. Assistant Director of Kayah State U Than Tun stood proudly and spoke about the good work that is being done at the local level and his hope for DAO representatives from all townships to meet one day.
The Asia Foundation in Myanmar
In 2013, the Foundation re-established a resident country office in Myanmar after an absence of more than 50 years. The Foundation works with partners in government, the private sector, and civil society to build the country’s capacity for regional and global integration, strengthen the core institutions and processes of democratic governance at national and local levels, support initiatives for inclusive economic development, promote women’s empowerment and political participation, and increase public access to information through policy research and dissemination.
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