Since the military coup in Myanmar in February 2021, multifactional armed conflict has escalated and spread to most of the country, creating a protracted humanitarian crisis in a highly constrained operational environment where formal humanitarian aid is tightly controlled and relegated to a shrinking portion of the country.
As the international aid actors debate the ethics of operating in junta-controlled areas and grapple with deficits of funding and information, rural communities in Myanmar have managed to prevent dire outcomes through highly localised, informal, and community-based aid.
The results of a survey of affected people across the country, and interviews with national and international aid actors, show that, in contrast with many other access-constrained conflict contexts:
- in most regions, the primary aid providers are community volunteer groups and local busi- nesses, with international aid entities and national NGOs much less present
- working through local civil society groups, often covertly, local organisations have been able to maintain some access to populations in conflict-affected and non-junta controlled areas
- in these low-profile and highly localised aid models, the use of cash and cooperation with commercial actors are key to delivering assistance under the radar. This is reflected in a higher than usual percentage of cash and vouchers reported by survey respondents among the types of aid they received.
To some unquantifiable degree, some of these localised efforts receive support from the formal aid sector’s international-national-local organisation supply chains. However, most formal international humanitarian response is limited to junta-controlled areas and official camps for internally displaced people (IDPs), and international organisations are currently prevented from providing an independent, impartial response across the country. At the same time, low-profile networks for the movement of cash and goods throughout the opposition- held and contested areas are fuelled by diaspora and solidarist organisations operating from across the Thai border.
The ethical dilemma faced by international aid actors is real and has created a heated debate as to the right course of action, and whatever the decisions taken by individual agencies to work with the formal or informal/cross-border response, millions of people currently depend on both sets of efforts, while millions more are going without any assistance. Donors and formal aid actors have an opportunity to increase support for the informal response, which appears to have more scope for scaling up – but this would have to be done in a more flexible way than their typical monitoring and compliance systems demand. Agencies choosing to remain registered with the authorities to work in junta-controlled parts of Myanmar must be transparent about their operational limitations and vigilant about the potential for their programmes to be exploited for military objectives.