Paung Ku’s first objective (and the one I will focus on) is to build the capacity of civil society organizations. For the sake of simplicity, we will define civil society as a third sector between the government and private sectors. Often, one thinks of non-profits and church groups as civil society organizations, but it can be much less formal than that. For example, a group that forms to protest an environmental issue would be included, even though they are not a formal, registered group and will likely disband after the issue passes.
A strong civil society is important in a government system that is accountable to its people. Civil society should provide a voice to which a responsive government acts. It can also provide services where the government or private sector (for whatever reason) fail to do so. In Myanmar, the government is just beginning to become responsive to its people. While this does not mean that civil society did not exist in Myanmar before (in fact, it very much did, as we will see in the next segment), but it does bring about a new, bigger, and more effective space for civil society to fill.
In order to talk about the unique processes of Paung Ku, I will first explain how their program works. It is necessary to start with this because their program is set up very simply. In fact, programs like it exist elsewhere. However, the simplicity of their program allows for the process of learning and approaching challenges to be innovative and flexible.
Their program is one where experiential learning builds the capacity of both the civil society organization (CSO) and the individuals that compose it. They do this through a simple grant program. A CSO applies for a small grant (the majority less than $5,000) to complete a project within their community. This project can be just about anything the CSO determines to be important. It may be infrastructure, training on a new farming technique, emergency response, or an advocacy campaign.
Paung Ku has regional offices that evaluate each grant application from their respective region. Myanmar citizens who are familiar with a particular region staff regional offices. They have evaluation tools that facilitate the decision to fund the project. Importantly, their decision is not based on what project they think should be carried out in a particular village.
After deciding to award the grant, the real work starts. Paung Ku provides mentoring and facilitates other technical assistance as necessary. Mentors help groups according to their particular needs. As the group carries out the project, they learn by doing. They learn how to organize a group, communicate effectively, and create measures of accountability. They learn how to deal with internal conflict, debate openly, and advocate for their cause.
Then, they complete the project. And that’s it. Simple. Some groups continue to function, become registered as NGOs, and apply for grants elsewhere. Some groups never intended to be a formal institution and are more like ad hoc groups that came together to accomplish a goal. It sounds so simple, yet the flexible approach allows for innovation and accomplishment that few other programs achieve. The demand driven process definitively empowers local groups and recognizes that they are the ones who know best what their communities need to improve their situation. In the next post, I’ll talk about the learning process and the way Paung Ku approaches challenges. There, it will become obvious why their philosophy leads to results that few others have obtained.