Insights and Analysis

Blocked Drains and 1500 Cups of Tea: Making Reform Work in Myanmar

October 9, 2019

By Dan Jollans and James Owen

As the 2020 elections draw near, the Myanmar administration, led by the National League for Democracy, is looking to accelerate changes to how government works and bring tangible improvements to people’s lives. This will require “policy reform,” and we’ve already seen some big policy announcements, from the new Investment Law to drastic changes in electricity tariffs. Policymakers have a difficult task on their hands in Myanmar, where decades of dictatorship have left the government with few conventions, institutions, or procedures to support policy reform. Many in government have pushed on through the challenges, however, and a lot can be learned from their experiences.

Street vendors have become a rarer sight in downtown Yangon as the municipality has stepped up enforcement and tried to address the lack of alternative affordable trading spaces

The Asia Foundation and the Renaissance Institute have been working with Myanmar’s municipal authorities—known as Development Affairs Organizations—for more than four years to help them reform how they deliver urban services, raise revenues, and engage with the public. We’ve supported the them with policy design, policy instruments (laws, rules, and processes) and policy implementation (putting policies into practice). We’ve seen how reforms are viewed from various perspectives—from strategically minded mayors to wise-cracking tax collectors. We’ve spoken directly to the public about policy reform, through surveys and focus groups. From this, we have drawn three important lessons that we believe can facilitate policy reform across the country.

Take time to analyze the root causes of problems

Many problems persist because the fundamental causes are not addressed. Often this is because policymakers have assessed the problem too narrowly, allowing their preconceptions to cloud their vision.

Closed circuit television (CCTV) is in vogue in Myanmar, but international evidence suggests it only works for very specific problems. Photo: Dan Jollans

Take the example of inner-city flooding. We know of one city that defined the problem as inadequate cleaning of drains. So, their policy response was to devote resources to cleaning drains, year after year. Another city, however, went further and asked why the drains kept needing to be cleaned, and they determined that a root cause of the problem was bad drain design. Their new drains helped solve the problem of flooding while reducing the need for costly cleaning.

So, what can policymakers do to develop better policy solutions?

The root causes of apparently similar problems often vary from context to context, so a useful starting point is to map out these root causes using a structured questioning process, such as the Five Whys method. In this process, preconceived solutions should be put to one side (this is much harder than it sounds). The full range of people affected by the problem should participate in the analysis, in order to build a complete picture of the problem and cultivate their ownership of proposed solutions. This all sounds obvious. But we’ve run this exercise with government, CSOs, and Asia Foundation staff, and all struggled to step away from defining problems as the absence of their own preferred solutions. “Why is crime rising?” we asked. “Because we don’t have enough closed-circuit TV,” came the response—from a traffic-control office enthused about their new closed-circuit TV.

Don’t neglect policy implementation

Across the country, existing laws and regulations are routinely unenforced. Our personal favorite example is a township where staff threaten to take people to court for breaking the rules: they have never followed through in over 16 years!

These gaps between intentions and actual practice are common across the developing world. No reform ever works as intended, because policy is about changing people’s behavior, and people are complicated. Yet there are things that can make eventual success more likely.

First, greater realism is needed. Design policies to work within the actual capabilities of those who will implement them, not their imagined or wished-for capabilities. To take the measure of those capabilities, consult with others who have tried similar reforms, preferably within the same country. If those examples don’t exist, create them by conducting small-scale pilot programs. Finally, commit to a schedule of periodic reflection and evaluation with stakeholders to check on what’s working and what isn’t. And build-in the ability to adapt policy design to this new information.

Communicate, communicate, communicate 

Policy change creates winners and losers. If the losers are more powerful than the winners, change will be hard. While many in government are conscious of this arithmetic, they take it as relatively fixed. Yet behavioral science has shown that people are heavily influenced by how information is presented to them. Present it in one way, and they may oppose reform. Present it in another, and they may favor it.

We’ve seen first-hand evidence of this in Mon State, where one municipality ran a communication campaign to support big changes in tax collections. They used evidence from surveys and focus groups to change the way they talked to the public about taxpaying—instead of lecturing people on their constitutional duties, they asked for their help in making the city a better place to live. Thirty-five hundred residents had the chance to talk about the proposed changes—the first 1,500 enjoyed a free cup of tea—and few argued against them, thanks in part to a clearer understanding of the reasons behind them.

Mawlamyine’s tea-shop tax campaign thanked over 3,500 people for their increased contributions to the city’s development. The first lucky 1,500 got a free cup of “pote man,” Myanmar’s favorite milk tea!

Failure to take communication seriously can expose even the most technically sound and sensible policy to public backlash. In 2015, negative media coverage of a commercial tax on mobile top-up cards delayed the bill for over a year, costing the government much-needed revenues. Was the lesson learned from this experience?

Partially. On June 26, 2019, the Ministry of Electricity and Energy announced that electricity tariffs would jump in five days’ time. A typical domestic user would see a price rise of 72 percent. Businesses across the country had to reevaluate their plans and investments. Government departments, caught unaware, scrambled to modify budget lines. Small-scale protests broke out in cities across the country.

But a repeat of the mass candlelight protests of 2013 was avoided. This time, the public was alerted in advance that reform was coming, and a strong rationale was presented. Talks with business representatives in January 2019 delivered the stark message that Myanmar had the lowest electrical rates in ASEAN and that this was costing the country more than $320 million annually. While the large and sudden changes caught people by surprise, opposition has not been widespread, and prominent figures have endorsed the changes. Could more have been done? Sure, but this is a step forward in government communications in the service of policymaking.

Policy reform can be a long and difficult grind, and we’ve had the privilege of working with visionary Myanmar reformers who are extraordinarily persistent and committed to success. We believe these three lessons—analyze root causes; pay attention to policy implementation; and communicate, communicate, communicate—could be of value to the current cast of reformers and political parties as they work to develop their policy manifestos for the 2020 elections.

Next month, The Asia Foundation and the Renaissance Institute will release three new policy notes cataloguing a variety of municipal reforms taking place across Myanmar and sharing the lessons learned from them.

James Owen is program manager for the Asia Foundation’s urban program in Myanmar, and Dan Jollans is an ODI fellow at the Renaissance Institute, a local policy organization. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Myanmar
Related programs: Good Governance


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