Peter Batchelor | Address at the Launch of the Myanmar Civil Service Reform Strategic Action Plan

Jul 10, 2017

Excellency Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor; Excellency U Myint Swe, Vice-President, Speakers of the Pyithu and Amyotha Hluttaws, Chairman of the Constitutional Tribunal, Chairman of the Union Election Commission, Union Ministers, Union Attorney General, Union Auditor General, Excellency Dr. Win Thein, Chairman of the Union Civil Service Board, Chairman of Nay Pyi Taw Council, Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, Chief Ministers and Ministers of States and Regions, Honorable Members of Parliament, Senior Officials, Ambassadors, colleagues from the international community and the United Nations, ASEAN representatives, Civil Society Organizations, distinguished participants.

It is an honour to be here at the launch of the Civil Service Reform Strategic Action Plan. I take this opportunity to congratulate the Union Civil Service Board for its leadership in developing this Plan, a process which UNDP has been privileged to support. I would also like to congratulate the many public officials, civil servants, Members of Parliament and civil society representatives who over the last twelve months have spoken up about their expectations of the civil service, and the challenges they face in ensuring that Myanmar’s civil service transforms to meet these high, but crucially important, expectations. It is thanks to the vision of the Union Civil Service Board, and the ideas of civil servants and public officials from Myanmar, ASEAN, and as far away as New Zealand, that we have before us such a robust Plan, on which Myanmar’s hopes for civil service excellence can rest.

Any country’s civil service should represent a country’s diversity in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, language, geography and any other factors that can divide rather than unite. The civil service should also embody the highest standards of ethical behavior, professionalism, meritocracy, impartiality, and a commitment to public service excellence.

A more inclusive and representative civil service (in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, language) can be a key element in supporting Myanmar’s peace process and the government’s stated commitment to national reconciliation. As Her Excellency, the State Counsellor noted at the second meeting of the Union Peace Conference - 21st Century Panglong in May this year, for nearly 70 years peace, stability and development in Myanmar have fallen victim to conflict, and therefore only through peace will Myanmar ‘escape from the trap of poverty and conflict’. She also noted that the principle of national reconciliation is a key element of the peace process, and will be important in helping to realize the goal of a ‘democratic federal union’. If Myanmar wishes to see the emergence of a genuine democratic federal Union’, then the principle of national reconciliation, including a commitment to a more inclusive and representative civil service, must be vigorously pursued.
In addition to being a proud UN civil servant, I am also a proud South African, and had the chance to participate in South Africa’s democratic transition in the 1990s as an advisor to President Nelson Mandela. In that role, I had the chance to see first-hand how the efforts to transform the ‘apartheid’ state into a more diverse and inclusive entity were so crucial to our democratic transition, and our process of national reconciliation.

Since 1994, South Africa has transformed itself from a racially divided country into one which celebrates diversity, inclusiveness and equality. Our transformation as a society in the last 20 years has also been reflected in the transformation in our civil service. For example between 1991 and 1999, the number of black civil service managers climbed from less than four percent (4%) to forty one percent (41%). In 1994, at the time of our democratic transition there were no women in senior positions in our civil service; by 2014, 38% of public sector leaders were women, and South Africa came third out of all G20 countries for gender equality in the public service. South Africa is also ranked 10th in the world in terms of the percentage of women MPs (41.5%) While our civil service reform journey is far from over, South Africa’s civil service is today much more representative of the gender, racial and ethnic diversity of our country than ever before. There is no doubt that this process of civil service transformation has been essential to our journey of national reconciliation.

In recent years, Myanmar’s civil service has made efforts to become more representative. For example, women’s representation in government departments has been slowly but steadily growing since 2005, and women have increasingly occupied more senior positions than before. In 2014, the latest data which we have, an average of 52% of all civil servants were women; of all civil servants at Deputy Director and above, 39% were women. Despite this very positive figure, USCB’s research suggests that there is still some way to go to ensure women can reach their full potential in the civil service.

The civil servant perception survey launched in December last year showed that women feel that their prospects for promotion and career advancement are still limited in several ways. First, they do not always have equal access to the postings and other job opportunities which help their male colleagues climb the ladder faster- either because they don’t know the right people, or because they are deliberately excluded on the grounds of their gender. Second, women often shoulder more responsibility for caring for family members young and old: this may affect their work, but it certainly also affects the time and resources they have to foster the personal connections which 25% of civil servants say are still needed to advance. Old glass ceilings linked to military service may have been smashed, but glass ceilings linked to gender and ethnic identity remain, especially at the higher levels of the civil service.

Smashing gender glass ceilings can lead to better decision making in both the public and the private sector. Research by the Organization for Economic Cooperation for Development, or OECD, in Paris notes that diversity and gender equality in the civil service, and civil service leadership, can lead to policy development which is more inclusive and equitable. This in turn contributes to enhanced equality of opportunity in society, and increased trust in state institutions. Both equality of opportunity and trust in the state will be critical for peace and development in Myanmar.

Meanwhile, in the private sector, research by McKinsey, shows that in advanced economies, market share is shifting towards companies which are more diverse in the boardroom, and throughout their workforce. Research also shows that companies that are committed to diversity are better able to retain a competitive advantage in a fast-changing global economy than those which aren’t, and the same can be said of the civil service.

Countries which have made the most efforts to establish gender equality in political participation and decision making tend to be world leaders in terms of economic growth, social cohesion, peace and human development. It is no coincidence that most of the top fifteen countries in the Human Development Index- including Norway, New Zealand, and Sweden- are also top of the list in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, which measures how well countries are eliminating gender gaps, irrespective of their national wealth.
Countries such as Rwanda, the Philippines, and South Africa, all appear in the top ranks globally in terms of closing gender equality gaps: these are also among the fastest growing developing economies in the world. These figures underline the importance of Myanmar’s focus on making the civil service more inclusive and representative. By ensuring that women and those from different ethnic backgrounds, races and religions can compete on an equal basis for jobs and promotions, Myanmar can ensure that its civil service is more reflective of the country it represents, and that it is making use of the best available talent.

One of UNDP’s key roles is to share global experiences with Myanmar on civil service reform. One of the main lessons from this global experience is that it is not enough to promote diversity by simply ‘counting the numbers’, it is also important to ‘make the numbers count’.

Increasing the absolute numbers of women or ethnic minorities in the civil service will not guarantee that the benefits of increased diversity will be truly felt. Global practice suggests that public services benefit the most from efforts to increase diversity when they are founded in a true desire to accommodate difference (in views and perspectives not just in numbers)- when, in other words, they are founded in the same spirit of diversity, empathy and solidarity which are underpinning Myanmar’s national reconciliation efforts.

With this Strategic Plan, Myanmar can not only ensure a more inclusive and representative civil service, it can also promote diversity for the benefit of the country and all its peoples.

The USCB’s efforts to enhance civil service leadership and management will also help to transform the culture of the civil service so that talented women and men from a variety of social and ethnic backgrounds face fewer barriers to progress. Myanmar’s civil service leaders, among them women, can send a consistent message in support of achieving greater diversity, and model the new types of behavior required to see it through.

From their leaders, Myanmar’s civil servants can learn how best to accommodate and nurture different views, different working styles and encourage collaboration amongst people with very different technical and social backgrounds.

Diversity, and respect for diversity, at leadership level can also have a profound impact on dealing with corruption and combating impunity. Fifty six percent (56%) of civil servants surveyed by UNDP and the UCSB in the Perception Survey felt that some of their fellow civil servants ask for additional payments to do their work. They also said that bribery and nepotism take place in recruitment and promotion.

Research from other countries suggests that a greater diversity of staff (and views), combined with clear and strong ethical standards, can be critical to reducing corruption. Setting new and higher standards, and ensuring that accountability mechanisms are in place to flag corrupt practices, are key elements of the Strategic Plan. Upholding the principles of ethics and integrity will be the responsibility of all Myanmar’s civil servants going forward, and we know that the more diverse an organisation is at the top, the more likely it is to stick to those standards.

Reforming Myanmar’s civil service will not be easy, and this Strategic Plan is only the first step in what may be a long and difficult process. However, the experience of other countries shows us that change is possible but that real change requires patience and political will. 

Myanmar can achieve success if the same civil servants who dedicated their time and energy to developing the Plan, also dedicate themselves to applying the principles of ethics, diversity and meritocracy contained in the plan, to the civil service.

I am sure that with the commitment of all the people in this room, including the State Counsellor herself, that in a few years’ time, we could be presented with the inspiring story of a civil service which learnt how to celebrate the great diversity of this country and its people. A civil service whose strength is in its ability to embrace diversity in thought, to accept new ideas, and ensure that anyone, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, language, disability or any other difference, can reach their full potential in the public sector. Through a diverse, ethical and inclusive civil service, people from all walks of life can contribute to national efforts to achieve sustainable development, national reconciliation, and lasting peace.

We, as UNDP, wish you every success with this endeavor, and stand ready to support you on every step of this important journey.


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