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When Compliance Does Harm: Impacts of International Frameworks on Local Aid Workers and Systems in Myanmar

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Executive Summary

In complex emergencies like Myanmar’s, local aid workers and systems are essential to ensure life-saving aid for civilian populations, whilst also contributing to longer-term civil society strengthening, community development, and peacebuilding. As well as being accountable to the communities they serve, local aid workers and systems must meet the compliance requirements of international funding agencies. But although compliance systems are important to ensure the accountability and effectiveness of internationally funded aid programs, international compliance frameworks are commonly experienced by local actors as top-down, overly rigid, and unsuited to highly volatile and politically complex crises—and this despite commitments made in the Grand Bargain to localise aid systems and to simplify and streamline requirements like reporting.

Evidence from local actors in Myanmar demonstrates that, while established with good intentions, international agencies’ frameworks and requirements can have unintended negative consequences, causing harm for local systems and actors: they can impede funding flows for essential aid delivery; they are often unfeasible in complex and unstable contexts; they can undermine and divert essential resources from emergency responses; they can increase security risks for local aid workers and vulnerable communities; they can preclude local procurement and responses that strengthen local economies; they can erode trust in aid partnerships; and they can push local actors toward ‘unethical’ practices. These dynamics can in turn result in a situation where the primary imperative to ‘do no harm’ ends up being subordinated to the compliance systems and fiduciary risk management of international agencies. Additionally, top-down compliance systems can perpetuate unequal and unjust aid relationships—ultimately, going against international commitments to localise aid systems and practices. As such, there is an urgent need for international agencies to apply a Do No Harm approach in reviewing and imposing compliance requirements, to be more flexible, and to work with local actors in developing compliance frameworks that strengthen rather than undermine local systems and approaches.

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