After months of political transition, I am witnessing a dynamic and ambitious EITI in Myanmar. The key is getting the right people around the table, discussing tough issues. It reminds me very much of my time as the Philippines’ National Coordinator.
Transitioning to a new government always poses challenges – not least in the case of Myanmar where the change entailed an almost complete overhaul of the existing institutions.
The national elections in November 2015 resulted in a period of inactivity for the multi-satkeholder group (MSG). The MSG is composed of government, company and civil society representatives and is the main decision-making body for implementing the transparency standard. The phase of inactivity was triggered by the repeal of the presidential decree creating the MSG when the new government took office.
But it was perhaps a testament to the stakeholders’ commitment to the EITI that informal activities continued. By the time the new MSG was appointed in January 2017, it did not take long to resume the process.
In a matter of weeks, preparations for the next EITI Report were underway, a beneficial ownership roadmap was approved, and plans for expanding the scope of the EITI process to include forestry and jade and gems sector were agreed.
I had the privilege of witnessing first-hand how all these decisions took shape, and in a sense, it was reminiscent of my days as a National Coordinator in the Philippines.
If there is something I learned from my experience then as National Coordinator of my own country, and now as Regional Director overseeing the EITI process in Myanmar, it is that a strong multi-stakeholder process is the cornerstone of a successful EITI implementation.
Getting the right people around the table
There has been a strong push in recent years for the EITI to move away from simply producing EITI Reports to actually introducing reforms. For this to happen, important discussions need to take place within the MSG.
This requires having the right people at the table. In Myanmar, MSG members are actively involved in discussions around reforms in the jade and gems sector. When the government created a multi-stakeholder committee to work on new policies, representatives in the MSG from government, civil society and companies were tapped for this task, enabling easier coordination among policy makers and EITI stakeholders.
The challenge now is for the MSG to use EITI data for an evidence-based approach to policy-making and to assess how the findings of the EITI Report regarding gaps in existing systems could improve extractive sector governance. This is similar to the approach taken in the Philippines where government representatives in the MSG are part of the Mining Industry Coordinating Council and therefore take part in discussions on mining fiscal policies.
Discussing the right issues
In countries with polarised positions in mining, the need for a sustained discussion of relevant issues is more pronounced. Unfortunately, these discussions are sometimes watered down in an effort to publish a report that often focuses too much on reconciling figures.
It is therefore encouraging when a country like Myanmar, despite a hiatus while transitioning to a new government, does not lose sight of relevant issues and insists on addressing them in the EITI Report.
Proof of this is the MSG’s agreement to expand the scope of its report on the jade and gems sector despite data limitations. The first EITI Report only covered sales from transactions made within Myanmar’s annual gems emporium. Recognising that this was not sufficient to capture the country’s actual revenues, the MSG agreed to report sales made outside the emporium, and to extend this further, conduct a spot check to compare revenue data with production data.
One has to understand the context in gem-producing regions to appreciate the complexity of this undertaking. Conflict is prevalent in such areas, particularly in Kachin. It is challenging to gather information, especially considering the capacity constraints and limitations on data availability.
But the MSG realises that it has to start somewhere. Civil society representatives recognize that disclosing as much data as possible is important to depict an accurate picture of the sector. The Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability (MATA) which represents the CSOs in the MSG emphasises the link between natural resource governance and the ongoing peace talks in Myanmar, stating that “if there is to be meaningful progress towards a lasting end to ethnic armed conflict, it is crucial that attention turns to agreeing a new approach to the management of the country’s precious natural riches.”
This is indicative of how linking resource governance to wider reforms appears to be high on Myanmar’s EITI agenda. Cultivating this mindset should be further encouraged by the MSG.
Setting the bar high
The MSG’s beneficial ownership roadmap identifies the challenges that should be addressed to enable publishing the real owners of extractive companies, including capacity constraints and political sensitivity.
It also outlines numerous agencies that need to be engaged and mentions long-term actions that would require wider stakeholder engagement and enormous technical support for activities like creating a register of beneficial owners, enacting specific legislation on beneficial ownership, and scrutinising data accuracy.
Some might argue that the roadmap is ambitious, and perhaps too much for a country to implement.
What gets lost in this argument, however, is the value of the process that the stakeholders went through to produce and approve the roadmap.
From the initial discussions on beneficial ownership that were conducted in May last year, to the workshops led by NRGI in December, to the final approval of the roadmap in March, one can see how the discussions have evolved and how trust is built among stakeholders in the process.
During the workshop, one CSO representative observed that it was encouraging to hear the government acknowledge the need for political support to disclosing beneficial owners. Government was delighted to see the companies’ cooperation. Companies welcome the open discussions they have with civil society.
Rather than considering the roadmap as ambitious, I see it as a product of extensive discussions where the multi-stakeholders recognise the complexity of the issues and agree on ways to unravel these complexities.
In a sense, this was again reminiscent of when the Philippines was first deciding the scope of its EITI process and there were sentiments that it had an ambitious work plan. Fortunately, it bode well for the country in the long run.
What I consider as one of the most interesting parts of my job is observing the dynamics of multi-stakeholder groups and their consensus building processes.
What I find particularly interesting in Myanmar is how the level of engagement among MSG members is sustained despite initial disagreements, both on technical and governance issues.
As Myanmar now faces the herculean tasks of producing two reports by March 2018 (that will even include the forestry sector), implementing its beneficial ownership roadmap, and pushing for the recommendations from its first EITI Report, it will be interesting to see how the MSG will continue to navigate contentious and politically sensitive discussions.
The process is of course far from perfect, but it works.
Seeing how a decision can emerge in the end is a reward in itself and a reminder that the multi-stakeholder process is alive and well in Myanmar.
Gay Ordenes is the Regional Director for South East Asia and Asia Pacific.
Image credit: Myanmar EITI, workshop on beneficial ownership, March 2017.