Anyone who has ever worked with Congress knows how essential it is for an elected official to have a competent and capable staff. Politicians may be the ones who get the credit, but it is often the staff that handle the bulk of the research and preparation necessary for members to perform their duties as legislators. If staff do their job, the members are well informed and able to fulfill their duties (in theory, at least). If staff are unqualified or incompetent, the system starts to break down and people begin to take notice.
Good staffing is particularly relevant when the United States and other democracies export their systems of government abroad through foreign aid and development programs. The United States alone is expected to earmark $33.9 billion for foreign aid in the 2017 federal budget, which includes programs to promote democracy and good governance around the world, and yes, train budding legislators. While plenty of countries around the world could potentially benefit from these programs, the need is especially great in the nascent democracy of Myanmar.
Myanmar’s journey towards democracy has been long and arduous to say the least. Its democratic transition began in earnest in 2011 and paved a cautiously optimistic path for the country’s future. This process was reinforced further by the November 2015 elections, earning international recognition as the country’s first credible elections in over 50 years. The opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi won a sweeping victory over the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and now holds a majority in both houses of Parliament (Hluttaw). This triumph came with a robust mandate for change, placing high expectations on the NLD regardless of its capacity to meet them.
Over the past few years, and particularly following the NLD’s recent victory, Myanmar has seen an influx of foreign aid and assistance, with capacity-building initiatives to train members of parliament (MPs) being foremost among them. This aid was required largely because many incoming MPs lacked sufficient institutional knowledge and legislative experience relative to their predecessors. A lack of experience in the junta-led government may have helped many get elected, but it will soon pose significant challenges once the new parliament begins the arguably more difficult process of legislating.
Over the past few months, Aung San Suu Kyi herself has led crash-courses for newly elected MPs. Foreign politicians from Australia, Pakistan, and the Philippines have participated in similar training programs as well. While the United States has been invested in this endeavor since the very beginning of Myanmar’s opening through organizations such as the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), and the Asia Foundation, now may be a good time to reassess the focus of these programs. Rather than making grand attempts to train hundreds of new MPs, foreign assistance should instead shift focus to training a smaller number of parliamentary committee staff members for several reasons.
First, such an approach reduces the risk of public backlash. Xenophobia has always been pervasive in Myanmar. Once the post-election honeymoon period is over, the sense that NLD MPs are too close with foreign politicians may end up hurting the party’s chances of re-election the next time around, especially in states like Rakhine and Shan where anti-foreign sentiment is strong. Extremist nationalist organizations and actors have already taken to social media to push the rhetoric that through these courses, Myanmar MPs are beholden to foreign interests. Staffers are more insulated from the public spotlight, however, and are therefore less likely to be scrutinized for their association with foreigners.
Second, it adopts a focused, long-term view. While it is important for the current crop of MPs to be well rounded and educated on issues and challenges facing Myanmar and the world, there is a limit to their capacity to build expertise across multiple subject areas. MPs will simply be spread too thin attending numerous training workshops, participating in international conferences and delegation visits, and tending to the everyday needs of their constituents. Instead, resources should be focused on staff in key committees who can then play a behind-the-scenes role in helping shape their MP’s policies. In the long run, these individuals may even replace their bosses, by which time they’ll have the capacity and experience necessary to be even more successful legislators.
Third and lastly, it represents the best use of (limited) resources. Education is expensive, especially when it comes to teaching highly complex and technical issues. The Investment and Industrial Development Committee, for example, which works on initiatives to support the business environment and attract foreign investment, requires highly skilled staff members with an understanding of economics to be effective. The NLD has also pledged to strengthen the rule of law – no small feat in Myanmar – through the Bill Committee, which will require a team of legal experts to help implement reforms. Investing time and energy into training a few staff members to gain deeper understanding of such issues could prove much more effective and a better use of limited funds.
Just as a good businessman will invest money where he expects the greatest return, so too should a good foreign aid contributor. While the effects will not be felt overnight, donors can at least rest assured that next generation of democratically elected leaders in Myanmar will be well-served as they try to keep their many promises to the people who elected them. Aung San Suu Kyi and her party are riding a wave of optimism unlike anything Myanmar has seen in decades, but they must also overcome significant challenges that will be easily overcome. If the international community truly wants to help the new government succeed, it should focus on ensuring Myanmar has a team of well-trained men and women with the skills necessary to turn optimism into concrete results.
Dylan Kean is an Asia-Pacific Research Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. He also works at McLarty Associates, a strategic consulting firm based in Washington, D.C. The views expressed belong to the author alone, and do not represent the views of McLarty Associates. Hla Hpone “Jack” Myint is a research assistant at Inle Advisory Group, a Washington, D.C.-based boutique advisory firm focused on investment opportunities in Myanmar. He is also a Prospect Burma (Aung San Suu Kyi Nobel Peace Prize Fund) Scholar.