Elisabeth Olivius and Jenny Hedström: critical development research is needed to make it more difficult to ignore the everyday realities of the people affected by development.
As the military coup d’etat in Myanmar on 1 February 2021 deposed the elected government and introduced direct military rule, external observers widely perceived this as the end of a decade of development in Myanmar. From the perspective of donors and the international community, Myanmar had for years been on an upwards, if somewhat shaky, trajectory towards successful economic and political development: elections had been held, peace negotiations were taking place, foreign direct investments had exploded, and overall poverty rates were decreasing. The coup put a stop to all of this. International aid was largely suspended, and the peace negotiations halted. The economy was severely disrupted as large-scale protests and civil disobedience rendered the military State Administrative Council effectively unable to govern the country. Thus, as the new junta appears intent on violently repressing protests and clinging to power at any cost, previous processes of development have not only been interrupted, but Myanmar is quickly spiralling towards economic and political collapse. While it is important to highlight and resist the disastrous effects of the coup, to understand the current situation in Myanmar it is also important to critically assess the kind of development that has taken place in the past decade and listen to the people who never really saw any benefits from it.
A key task for development researchers is to examine how development policies and programmes actually affect people’s lives. Well-intentioned as these agendas and efforts may be, they usually generate a complex mix of expected and unexpected outcomes, which are unavoidably shaped by already existing power dynamics and inequalities. To learn about how development processes unfold on the ground, we argue that it is essential to hear directly from the people who are affected by them.
Rather than benefitting from development, these women perceived development as a new form of threat to their livelihoods in the aftermath of war.
In 2018 and 2019, we studied how women in Kayah state, a rural, conflict-affected region of Myanmar, experienced ongoing processes of economic reforms and development in their everyday lives. In Kayah state, development mostly manifested in the shape of large-scale infrastructure, energy and agribusiness projects. Notably, the Myanmar military is deeply involved in these types of projects, and development has thereby continued to underpin the military’s power in the period leading up to the 2021 coup. As we spoke to women villagers, farmers, activists and laborers in the informal economy, a surprisingly coherent narrative emerged. Most of our respondents did not know much about overall political and economic reforms or development agendas in the country. However, all of them spoke about their fear, or actual experiences, of losing their land due to the expansion of foreign investment and development projects. In addition, development projects were often accompanied by increased militarization, allegedly to provide security for investors, which further created everyday insecurity for rural women. Rather than benefitting from development, these women perceived development as a new form of threat to their livelihoods in the aftermath of war.
It became clear to us that Myanmar’s “reform momentum”, to use World Bank lingo, had made rural women especially vulnerable to new insecurities such as land-grabbing and development-induced displacement. New land legislation seeking to appropriate customary land for commercial purposes, followed by an increase in development projects, meant that women who previously had access to land through customary provisions had lost this access; others had been left waiting for their formal land claims to be verified. To achieve formal recognition as owners of land is especially difficult for women, which is problematic in a context where many men have left – previously to fight in or flee from war; more recently to find work elsewhere. All women we met depended on the land for their livelihood, yet no one owned the land they worked on. In addition, efforts to bring illegal war economies, such as opium production, under state control have taken away livelihoods in the informal sector, which is dominated by women.
Our research with rural women pointed to the enduring power of gendered divisions of labor during the war to restrict women’s opportunities to benefit from post-war reforms and development processes. During decades of war, women have shouldered the immense burden of keeping families alive, navigating the demands of various armed groups, and staying behind in fields and villages as men have fled or fought. In the persistent absence of state welfare provisioning, women’s unpaid care work still remains essential to the everyday survival and well-being of children and the elderly. As a result, many of the women we spoke to had not been able to access education or acquire the language skills needed to take advantage of new job opportunities created by development projects. The time and resources this requires prevents women from partaking in more formal opportunities.
This lack of political awareness generally, and lack of gender analysis specifically, leads development efforts to inadvertently reproduce existing gender inequalities.
Thus, by taking the everyday experiences of rural women seriously as sources of knowledge, our research uncovered how development strategies in Myanmar disproportionately affected women negatively. These gender dynamics are produced by the interaction between persistent legacies of war, and new agendas for economic development after war. Learning from women who are largely unable to inform ongoing development efforts in the country, yet whose lives are intimately affected by them, allows us to better understand these dynamics. And while these uneven gendered effects are not intentional outcomes of development projects, they nevertheless point to the failure of development planners, investors and donors in Myanmar and beyond to understand the context in which development interventions are carried out. This lack of political awareness generally, and lack of gender analysis specifically, leads development efforts to inadvertently reproduce existing gender inequalities. This is why critical development research is needed – it can make it more difficult to ignore the everyday realities of the people whose lives are affected by development.
Elisabeth Olivius, Department of Political science, Umeå University
Jenny Hedström, Department of Security, Strategy and Leadership, Swedish Defense University