BY CHRIS BLOOD
Chris Blood is returning to finish his second year in the International Development program. He spent his summer internship with The Asia Foundation, a nonprofit international development organization, in Yangon, Myanmar.
The IDEV Summer Internship Series highlights the experiences of IDEV students participating in internships this past summer. Each year, IDEV students intern with various development organizations around the world. These internships are generously funded by SAIS donors, and offer valuable opportunities for students to gain real-world experience between their first and second years at SAIS. Chris's internship with The Asia Foundation was sponsored by Bernard L. Schwartz.
It is always nice when what you learn in the classroom really does play out in “real life.” This summer, working with The Asia Foundation in Myanmar, I was fortunate enough to be part of a group that worked with the Development Affairs Organization (DAO) of Taunggyi (capital of the Shan State in northeastern Myanmar) to enhance their service delivery. The experience reinforced what I learned in my IDEV courses at SAIS in terms of finding local solutions to local issues as an effective tool for delivering development assistance.
Within Myanmar’s highly centralized governance system, DAO’s stand out for the degree of autonomy they enjoy. DAO’s are the only fully decentralized government agencies under the exclusive control of states and regions, which means that, unlike other agencies, they do not have a corresponding line ministry at the federal level to report to. Every other sub-national governance actor receives its budget one way or another from the federal government, but the DAO’s are almost fully self-funded from township to township and have significant discretion over revenue use. DAO revenue is used to provide urban services that range from roads and bridges, water, sewage, and garbage collection to street lighting and drainage. Improving urban service delivery is increasingly important in a country where the urban population is growing faster than the country’s population as a whole.
During our Introduction to Development course at SAIS in the fall of 2016, we learned that top-down approaches by outsiders delivering development assistance are often met with poor results. A far better approach is one that acknowledges the local context and seeks to find local solutions to local problems. As someone who had spent time in developing countries trying to understand problems and solutions faced by local people, this approach resonated with me.
When I arrived in Myanmar, I was quite pleased to learn that The Asia Foundation employed an approach similar to the one I had been studying for the past year in the classroom. The approach, called Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA), seeks to ensure that solutions have strong government buy-in and are properly aimed at the specific problems and institutional context of the DAO’s.
Using this approach, the Taunggyi DAO, with the facilitation of The Asia Foundation, determined that one of the largest issues they faced was that property taxes were too low to deliver all their mandated services. The task was given to tax collectors to determine a way to solve this problem. After some research, it was determined that the DAO was using an outdated flat rate to collect taxes from government offices in Taunggyi. Instead, they should have been using an updated tax formulation, which takes a number of different factors into account when determining the amount of tax owed, including the building construction material, location, and number of floors. Updating the tax formulation meant that DAO tax revenue would increase by 13 percent, allowing the local government to provide more services to the public.
The efforts of the Taunggyi DAO and The Asia Foundation highlighted for me the importance of working together to solve problems, as opposed to coming in and telling people what they are doing wrong. It was an incredible opportunity to see that the theories you learn in the classroom can be practically applied in the field to produce results with a significant impact.
PHOTO CREDIT: Chris Blood
Below, the author and his colleagues at work in Myanmar.