The Memorandum of Understanding comes as Australia announced this week it will put $AUS15 million dollars into education programs that hope to reach 160,000 children.
Interviewer: Liam Cochrane
Speaker: Peter Baxter, Director General of AusAID
BAXTER; OK, what it does is it affects the platform for a direct relationship between AusAID and the Government of Myanmar. We've been providing assistance in Myanmar for many years, but we have done so through non-government organisations and largely UN agencies. And that's because, of course, of our concerns about the political and human rights situation within this country. But the reforms over the last two years have really transformed the operating environment for us and we see an enormous window of opportunity here to get behind the national reforms that the government is implementing and to strengthen those reform processes and by doing so, help improve the living standards of the many people here in Myanmar that live in poverty.
COCHRANE: There have been dramatic and rapid reforms in the country, but the government is still largely made up of members of the former military regime. In terms of the the way that Australian money is used and specifically corruption, do you think it's wise to be pouring money directly into their hands?
BAXTER: Well, we don't pour money directly in the government. What this MOU does is set the platform for an ongoing dialogue with the government about its reform priorities. But at this moment, all of our funding goes still through non-government organisations and through multi-lateral organisations, whether it be UNICEF, the World Health Organisation or others. So we're not moving at a rapid pace to start channelling our money through the government and indeed, the government doesn't have a system which would allow us to do that even if we wanted to, given that the fairly rudimentary nature of the administration here.
As you know Liam, we're moving from a basically a military regime, a military dictatorship to a democratic form of government with an election, a presidential election due in 2015. Sixty years of isolation and military rule has meant that the systems of government in Myanmar are very undeveloped, and, so as I say, we will be very cautious about how put money to government systems and I don't see that happening in the immediate future. But what we want to do is to have a dialogue with the government so that we can align the programs that we are implementing with our partners that we've worked with for many years, with the key reforms that the government wants to bring in.
I was able to visit the Parliament and meet with the Speaker of Parliament, and I heard of the work that they're doing, including with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to set up committees that will help guide other aspects of the reform process over the period between now and the presidential election. So we see the MOU as being a fundamental element of our increasing engagement with the country. And the government is, our government, the Australian Government, is committed to increasing our program in Myanmar to $100 million by 2016 and it's important that we use the growth in our program to try and underpin the democratic reforms that are taking place and the improvements that the government here, in Myanmar, wants to bring to the living standard of its people, particularly in key areas, like health and education.
COCHRANE: And, I do want to elaborate in just a moment, especially the education component of that. But just to clarify on the talks and the dialogue that the two governments will be having. I mean there have been aid-related talks in Cambodia, nearby to try to improve the progress towards development goals. They have been pretty much useless. They have not got anywhere and they have not really helped the country and have not helped the donors who, to hold Cambodia accountable for the money that goes to it. How will these talks with the Burmese Government be different?
BAXTER: Well as I said, what we're looking at is getting behind the national reform efforts and it's very, it's difficult to over-estimate the nature of the challenges that this country faces. If you look historically in Burma, the government has had the lowest government expenditure as a proportion of this country's GDP on health and education of any country in the world. So you're starting from an incredibly low base here. Our objective is to use our program to help the people of this country to lift themselves out of poverty and the government is not really experienced in dealing with the international donor community and so, we're going to take this step-by-step and use the discussions that we'll have with the government under the MOU to understand better what their priorities and challenges are, but also to inform the government of the way in which we deliver aid and the different kinds of accountability and transparency requirements that we require.
COCHRANE: And one of the requirement areas that that will take place is in education as far as Australia's aid priorities in Burma. Tell us a little bit about the newly announced $15 million program over I think it's four years in coordination with the United Kingdom to try and improve education in the country?
BAXTER: One of the things I've done this week is I've been travelling with my UK counterpart, the head of the Department for International Development in London and we've made a joint visit and we opened a joint office in the capital, Naypyidaw, earlier this week, and so AusAID and GFID will be working in very close cooperation to try and strengthen a number of sectors, but with a particular focus on education. As I said, less than two per cent of GDP of this country has been spent on education and there's a real need, particularly in rural and regional areas to do more to give the poorest of the poor access to education. Only just over half of all children in this country complete five years of primary school, a very, very low percentage compared to the rest of this region. And so we're going to use the new Myanmar education consortium to target those poorest of the poor, particularly children who are going to monastic schools, because for poor families here, they often can't afford to send their children to government schools, to buy the uniforms, to buy the textbooks etc. that they need to send their children to those schools. So they send those children to monastic schools and we'll be focusing this program on those schools that provide services to the poorest of the poor by training teachers, by providing better materials and by helping create better infrastructure.
COCHRANE: Now Australia's also providing $AUS600,000 to help civilians affected by the conflict in Kachin State and we've been reporting quite a lot over the last week or two about the ongoing fighting there and the displacement of civilians. Now, I understand Australia will be focusing on water and hygiene supplies as far as it's contribution. How will you be delivering that assistance to this area which is still part of quite a hot conflict?
BAXTER: This is an issue that I've discussed with relevant ministers in the government and we are pressing the government and the authorities in Kachin State to move quickly to a ceasefire arrangement similar to that which has been negotiated with ten other ethnic groups in the country. But we are very concerned about the impact of the conflict on people in that area. We'll be working primarily with groups like the International Committee of the Red Cross and NGOs to ensure that we can provide humanitarian support to people affected by the conflict. The government has committed to providing that humanitarian access and both in Kachin State and in other areas where there has been unrest, like in Rakhine State. We remain committed to providing humanitarian aid.
COCHRANE: And Peter Baxter, for yourself, on a personal note. I mean is this the first time that you've visited Burma, have you been there before, noticed any changes? Can you give us some personal reflections on your visit?
BAXTER: OK. This is my first time visiting Myanmar and I think the thing that strikes, there are a couple of points I'd make. Firstly, I think the national reform effort is genuine and I've met with a wide range of people here, ministers in the government, members of parliament, the leaders of most of the main ethnic groups and I think there is a consensus that the direction in which reform is heading is the right one. There are a wide variety of views about the nature of reform and the pace of reform. But what really strikes you Liam here, is the magnitude of the challenge that lies ahead. The government is trying to bring about simultaneously political reform to create a democratic system of government, economic reform to open the country to investments and to try and promote economic growth and at the same time, deal with long running conflicts, some of which have gone for six decades, with a wide variety of different ethnic groups, so to bring about national reconciliation with the different, the different ethnic groups that make up the population of this country.
I can't think of a more challenging environment that a country is facing than Myanmar at the moment. And this is going to be a long term process and our commitment as Australia is to be a long term partner through that reform process. So this is really unprecedented in terms of recent history in this part of the world and there is a window of opportunity for countries like Australia to get in behind the national reform effort and to try and help the government to steer it in a direction that really does provide widespread benefits to the population of the country.
If you look at the system of government here, most people have been used to following orders basically. And now, suddenly, members of the government, members of the parliament, members of the bureaucracy, civil society are being asked to make choices and are being asked to make decisions for themselves when they've never had that opportunity before. So it really is quite an extraordinary period in the history of this country and if the reform process stays on track, and if the community provides the right kind of assistance to support the reformers, I think you'll see dramatic changes here, but those changes will take time and the road will not always be smooth.