Donor-driven agendas and the need to move beyond a capacity building focus in Myanmar’s research ecosystem by Jana Rué Glutting and Anders Lee

Localization has become a buzzword among promoters of development aid following a recent shift in focus to the sustainability of development projects after the withdrawal of donors from contexts where projects have been initiated. But why don’t aid interventions also focus on the localization of research? This blog post intends to stress the importance of critically assessing the localization strategies of the international community in the research space in Myanmar, requiring an honest introspection in how social science research is being conducted and funded, and who are the actors at play and its implications.

The localization of aid has gained considerable attention in both the humanitarian and development spaces over the last few years (Kumar 2015). The conventional definition has been criticized for being too narrow, centred on channelling more aid directly to local state and non-state actors without a focus on supporting their capacity to effectively absorb and manage more aid. While donor and UN agencies have been pursuing greater localization of their funding, in practice, it has merely been operationalized as a set of best practices for them to better engage with local stakeholders.

With the renewed engagement of the international community since its 2010 democratic transition, Myanmar research actors have been catering to the rising demand for donor-driven knowledge production. Recently, we completed a study with the Global Development Network, funded by the International Development Research Centre, to assess the social science research ecosystem in Myanmar. The study found that the vast majority of donor-funded research places little decision-making power in the hands of local research actors, where local researchers are often relegated to liaisons or assistant roles in research projects. It is mainly justified on the grounds of allocating roles based on current levels of expertise, and few Myanmar researchers have experience to match the required level of expertise or experience.

The need to critically assess localization efforts in the development industry is important and urgent. Similar to the debate within humanitarian aid, more direct funding from donors into local research systems can contribute to increased capacity, promote independent research that produces longer-term research studies, and shape ‘big ideas’ of the country. At present, the research ecosystem in Myanmar can only be optimistically described as nascent. Its current state is the result of deliberate actions undertaken by the successive socialist government and military rule (following the 1988 Uprising, initiated by university students) to dismantle the higher education system.

Universities today are severely under-resourced – teaching is based on top-down rote learning, while professors are poorly paid and have little financial support or incentives to undertake independent and high-quality research. What further compounds the issue is ‘anade’, a sociocultural value still prevalent in Myanmar that prevents students from speaking out or raising questions to their professors in fear of offending them. These factors severely limit the development of analytical and critical thinking skills among young graduates.

The gap left by universities in research production is then filled by international NGOs, think tanks, development consultancies, and market research firms, which are largely funded by donors. In fact, donors have been very successful in controlling the ‘value chain’, guiding what is problematized and which research is commodified in the marketplace of ideas (McCombs & Shaw 1993). While the abovementioned dynamics could be considered successful localization practices, understood in the conventional sense as practices to channel direct aid to local actors and a focus on capacity building, this reality also shines light on the complexity of these collaborations.

In Myanmar, we have found that funding is often concentrated on specific areas that are in line with the priority areas that donors deem important for the country’s development. During our in-depth interviews, local researchers frequently complained about the lack of power in deciding the research topic and research design. They stressed that they were often relegated to positions of boots-on-the-ground or local partners, typically as data collectors, translators, or liaison officers. On the other hand, analytical tasks and report writing were assigned to bigger international NGOs or international consultants.

Amid the lack of supply of experienced researchers in Myanmar[1], donors have focused on building capacity to meet the standards required for the localization of aid, mainly by adding short-term capacity building workshops in their projects. However, such an approach is myopic because it merely focuses on enhancing research skills sufficient to contribute to their commissioned studies. Moreover, power dynamics inherent in the aid-donor relations accord considerable leverage for the uptake of these donor-driven research studies, which can reduce the space for local researchers to explore thematic and methodological options in their pursuit of their research endeavours. Instead, local researchers are constrained in providing single-minded policy responses to overstretched policymakers. As aid practitioners, we have to critically assess these approaches and ask, how “local” is “the local”?

At present,  social science research continues to be driven by the international community who sets its own agenda, with localization merely a tick on the checklist to ensure that the local context and participation are acknowledged. Such research is not co-developed or nationally owned, nor does it incentivize the government to pursue a longer-term strategy to build up the research system.

The discussion presented here does not suggest that donor-funded research cannot contribute to the development of a stronger research and policy-making environment. Rather, we argue that the narrow definition and application of the localization principle when it comes to pursuing research agendas is overly focused on achieving targeted narrow programmatic outcomes. This has been justified through partnerships with and training of local researchers to contribute to the strengthening of overall research capacities of Myanmar.

[1] According to UNESCO UIS, Myanmar had 29.07 full-time equivalent researchers (per million inhabitants) in 2017 (UNESCO UIS n.d.)

Capie, D. (2012). The Responsibility to Protect Norm in Southeast Asia: Framing, Resistance and the Localization Myth. The Pacific Review, 25(1), 75–93.
Kumar, R. (2015). What’s new with localization. [online] Devex. Available at: [Accessed 17 Jan. 2020].
McCombs, M. E., & Shaw, D. L. (1993). The evolution of agenda-setting research: Twenty-five years in the marketplace of ideas. Journal of communication, 43(2), 58-67.
UNESCO UIS. (n.d.). Data for Sustainable Development Goals – Myanmar. Available at: [Accessed 16 Mar. 2020].


About the authors:

JanaJana-Chin Rué Glutting is a Research Associate at the Centre for Economic and Social Development. She is an MA graduate in Economics of Development Studies at The Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University. She is interested in industry policy research in Myanmar, and currently engaged in various projects related to the garment sector, trade and macroeconomic research, and social research systems.



Anders Lee is a researcher at the Centre for Economic and Social Development, and Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. He is currently working on research projects looking at political violence in China and Hong Kong, and internal and international migration in Myanmar. He holds a Master’s degree in Development Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.


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