Op-ed by:

  • Peter Batchelor, UNDP Myanmar Resident Representative
  • Staffan Herrström, Swedish Ambassador to Myanmar

Sweden and UNDP-working together to build a more equal, inclusive and responsive civil service in Myanmar

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Myanmar is a country in transition – from war to peace, military rule to democracy, and from a closed to an open, free-market economy. These transitions are occurring in a complex and rapidly changing development context. Sweden and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) have both been present in Myanmar for many years, and together are working to support to these multiple transitions.

Since coming to power in 2016, the National League for Democracy (NLD) – led government has continually stressed the need to establish an “efficient government”, which would work for the “benefit of the people” and strengthen the “rule of law” and “establish a society free of corruption”.

In response, Sweden and UNDP’s partnership in Myanmar over the last few years has focused on strengthening key democratic governance institutions (e.g. parliament), and enhancing the quality of public service delivery, including through reform of the civil service. Myanmar, with technical support from Sweden and UNDP, has recently finalised a Civil Service Reform Strategic Action Plan (2017-2020) which incorporates the principles of transparency, accountability, responsiveness, inclusiveness and equality. To help guide these reforms, we are partnering with the Government to conduct the first ever survey on ‘Public Perceptions of Government Services.

Sweden and UNDP are particularly interested in the position of women in Myanmar’s civil service, given our respective longstanding commitments to gender equality and women’s empowerment. This commitment was again confirmed in 2014 when Sweden adopted a feminist foreign policy which informs all its development assistance in Myanmar. We believe that gender equality matters, both for development outcomes and the quality of policy making. We also believe that the equal representation, and leadership, of women in Myanmar’s civil service are critical for promoting a truly inclusive and responsive public sector, that is people-centred. This is clearly also the Government’s vision for the future of the civil service in Myanmar.

Myanmar has more than 1 million civil servants. Based on a recent study commissioned by UNDP we now have data disaggregated by sex for Myanmar’s civil servants. Based on the initial findings from the research, women currently make up nearly 63% of Myanmar’s civil servants. While women are in the majority in the civil service, they tend to be under-represented at the higher levels of the civil service (i.e. the level of Director General and Deputy Director General), although there are exceptions like the Office of the Auditor General. At the Union level men hold 63% of all DG positions and 50% of all Deputy DG positions.

What explains this situation? The answer cannot be found in Myanmar’s constitution, since it and many national laws and policies emphasise non-discrimination and equal opportunities for men and women. What occurs in practice however is that processes related to recruitment, transfers, and promotions often tend to favour men over women, particularly for more senior positions. In addition, cultural and social norms and values (and the traditional view of women as wives, care-givers and mothers) also tend to limit women’s career opportunities.

Given this situation, what can be done to promote gender equality in the civil service? Sweden and UNDP have a specific focus on equality and inclusiveness in the technical support we are providing to the Union Civil Service Board, which is charged with implementing the 2017 Action Plan. This support incorporates specific interventions that address any possible discriminatory practices – for example through a new competency framework based on the criteria of fairness and ethics for selection, promotion and transfer in the upper ranks of the civil service. However, we know that norms and values are not easily changed by regulations or rules. Thus, additional solutions will be required to get rid of discriminatory practices that work against women’s equal access to job and promotion opportunities within the civil service.

The good news is that the Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan (MSDP) has a specific action plan under Goal 1 (Peace, National Reconciliation, Security and Good Governance) which aims to ‘place equity, inclusivity and gender empowerment at the centre of development strategies and policies at all levels and in all sectors’. If this action plan is fully operationalised across all ministries and in all states/regions, it would significantly enhance action on gender equality in the civil service. We would highly welcome this approach.

Furthermore, Myanmar has a National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women (2013-2022) that aims to ensure that all women in Myanmar are empowered and able to fully enjoy their rights. However, to date, implementation of the plan has been rather slow. Sweden and UNDP believe that now is a good time to review and update this plan with a focus on promoting gender equality in the civil service by reforming systems, structures and practices.  This can certainly help advance democracy and development in Myanmar, and will make the plan consistent with the spirit of the MSDP. Sweden and UNDP stand ready to support this process.

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