Can Myanmar bounce back?

An explainer on UNDP's approach

June 7, 2024
Boy carrying water bottle on shoulder

Myanmar's once-promising economy, with rapid growth and declining poverty, now faces profound social and economic crises. Women and children are disproportionately affected.

Photo: UNDP Myanmar/Bejamin Small

Myanmar stands at a critical crossroads. Its civil war is rapidly unravelling years of steady economic growth and social progress. All vulnerable communities, irrespective of where they are, or who controls the territory where they live, need urgent support. 

Responding to the exponentially growing need is challenging, but it is possible. UNDP has already reached more than two million people.

The once-promising economy with rapid growth and declining poverty, now faces profound social and economic crises as highlighted by our recent research. The middle class, a cornerstone of any strong economy, is rapidly disappearing and has shrunk by 50 percent in just three years. A staggering 75 percent of the country, or approximately 42 million people live near to, or well below subsistence levels. Three million people are internally displaced.

Yet Myanmar remains a forgotten crisis. From 2020 to 2022, development aid through the UN decreased by over 40 percent, from US$243 million to $143 million. At the same time, the humanitarian response plans remain woefully underfunded.

A decade of gains wiped out

A staggering 13.3 million people, or 23 percent of the population face acute food insecurity. Research on the household economy and food security show traditional coping mechanisms have collapsed, and that access to food is about affordability rather than lack of food, leaving millions struggling to survive.

The military takeover in February 2021 exacerbated the economic slowdown, erasing a decade of progress that had brought the poverty rate down from over 50 percent in 2005 to just under 25 percent in 2017. Today, poverty has surged back to nearly 50 percent. 

Unlike its neighbours, Myanmar shows no signs of post-pandemic economic recovery, with GDP contracting by 17.9 percent in 2021 and stagnating since.

Women, children, and those in conflict zones are disproportionately affected. Child poverty is on the rise. 

Woman sits surrounded by food baskets at market

Direct support to local businesses, continuing education, and skill-building initiatives are vital to restoring local markets and supply chains.

Photo: UNDP Myanmar

Vulnerabilities are deepening 

The rapid economic decline has exacerbated existing inequalities. Seventy-six percent of the population live below subsistence level. 

The plight of nearly three million internally displaced people has reached critical levels. Fleeing widespread insecurity, many are making their way from rural areas to cities in hopes of finding safety and security.

Rural areas, historically grappling with prevalent poverty, are now seeing it spread to once-stable urban centres due, together with economic stagnation, to this mass internal displacement. Urban regions around Yangon and Mandalay are overwhelmed by an influx of displaced people, straining resources, limiting job opportunities, and hindering basic needs. Border regions like Rakhine, Kachin, Shan, and Chin face escalating violence and economic hardship, with extremely inadequate social services.

Local governance in Myanmar has traditionally been decentralized, requiring area-specific solutions. International support must be tailored to meet the nuanced needs of various regions and populations, given the enormous variation in capacities to deliver public services such as health, education, and civil registry across the country.

Basic services such as education and healthcare are critical. Many urgently require job and livelihood. Direct support to local businesses, continuing education, and skill-building initiatives are vital to restoring local markets and supply chains. Food security is also paramount.

UNDP, along with local and international partners, is taking a community-first approach. But overcoming these challenges requires a significant increase in international support and unprecedented investment.

A reimagined approach

In the face of Myanmar’s complex challenges, UNDP has reimagined its approach to aid and development. 

  1. Community-first focus. UNDP now reaches vulnerable communities wherever they are, irrespective of geography. Localized, community-led initiatives are at the forefront, focusing on food security, resilience, livelihoods, and immediate aid. Empowering locals in decision-making and providing necessary resources are key. This ground-up approach strengthens local agriculture, food distribution, and access to critical services.
  2. Expanding partnerships for implementation, with grassroots and civil society organizations. UNDP is enlarging its network of implementation partners to include local civil society organizations (CSOs) that operate with and within different communities. These grassroots organizations are crucial for understanding and meeting local needs. In Kachin State partnerships with CSOs and other UN agencies have assisted nearly 100,000 people since 2022. 
  3. Economic and financial data. UNDP is focused on advocating for rebuilding the middle class and supporting local economies with a conflict-sensitive lens. Immediate relief needs to come with long-term strategies to protect livelihoods and promote human development. Research and policy advocacy include inclusive, gender-responsive services to prevent backsliding on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
  4. Nexus-based solutions. UNDP provides partners and communities an integrated approach which aligns immediate humanitarian aid with long-term development and peace-building. This strategy addresses both immediate needs and underlying issues. After Cyclone Mocha in Rakhine, cash-for-work programmes and support for farmers and fishers benefited 700,000 people in 2023 alone.


Woman sits next to four goats

UNDP offers technical support to local farmers. Training in pest management, and climate-resilient techniques is helping protect farmers’ incomes.

Photo: UNDP Myanmar

Community-first explained

UNDP’s focus is squarely on people. We ensure that development initiatives are tailored to meet local needs. 

Cash-for-work programmes address immediate needs and improve food access by building essential infrastructure such as watersheds, irrigation canals, and access roads. 

UNDP promotes restorative agricultural models like the System of Rice Intensification to improve food security. 

We offer technical support and capacity-building for local farmers. Training in pest management, and climate-resilient techniques is helping protect farmers’ incomes. 

We improve food access and reduce food prices and projects focused on transparency, food quality, and small-scale markets create diversified incomes.

Livelihood programmes in livestock and small-scale agriculture empower women, with special attention to women-headed households, which face higher poverty rates. 

Improving sustainable energy sources is another critical component and UNDP works to provide communities with renewable energy such as solar panels and clean cooking stoves. 

Strengthening community support systems is vital. UNDP encourages the revival of cultural practices that help the most vulnerable, drawing inspiration from Myanmar's tradition of communal support.

The core principle guiding international support for Myanmar should be the safety and well-being of its people, regardless of geographical location or political authority. This means ensuring aid reaches those most vulnerable, even in remote or conflict-ridden areas as well as in areas of growing pockets of poverty and vulnerability. 

We thank our international partners such as Switzerland, Norway, Republic of Korea and Australia, but efforts need to be scaled up, and we invite more to join us. We have reached two million already and we aim to reach up to eight million by the end of 2025.