Even before a civil society organization (CSO) is awarded a grant from Paung Ku, the learning process has begun. For many of these CSOs, this is the first time they are applying for funds through a formal application process. As many CSOs are a reactionary force (say, to an increase in crime or a proposed dam), the group may have just formed recently, in which case the application might be the first thing they’ve done together as a group.
Sometimes, Paung Ku staff might see that a group has requested funds for the same type of project has neighboring communities, even if that project does not seem appropriate for them. Paung Ku staff will work with the group to understand if the project is what the group really desires to do, or if they thought they must do that project in order to get funding. This point is key. Rather than limiting projects to a certain scope, Paung Ku encourages groups to decide for themselves what is needed in their community. This is a fundamental component of empowerment. Listening to the local community and accepting that they know their needs better than anyone else give them the freedom to whole heartedly carry out their mission and not feel the need to compromise in order to get funding.
While the project is being carried out, Paung Ku provides necessary mentoring and support. Originally, the idea was to have various experts from a consortium of NGOs (led by Save the Children) serve as mentors in technical areas. This worked for a while but became increasingly difficult as Paung Ku grew and funded more CSOs. Now, Paung Ku staff receive training to act as mentors for organizational issues and they use their network of various technical professionals when technical assistance is needed (say, for a bridge building project).
An important aspect of this mentoring is that the mentors encourage and are receptive to home grown solutions. Paung Ku’s grant does not require an organization to be structured in a certain way. For example, if a CSO feels that the best way to handle money is by having the community’s most trusted monk hold onto it, they are allowed to do so. Instead of requiring the organization get a bank account (nearly impossible here) or create a more complex organizational structure, they allow the CSO to do what is best and most appropriate for their needs. On the other hand, if the CSO intends to become an established, registered organization, Paung Ku mentors them on internationally accepted financial procedures.
Paung Ku listens to each CSO and responds to demand. This demand driven development leads to incredible innovation that would not take place if non-locals were driving the ideas. A Paung Ku staff member explained it best by comparing the view of locals to that of looking over a cliff. The locals see the cliff; they know where it is. They know just how far and close they can go and not fall over. Outsiders are so far behind the cliff that they might not even see it, so, it is nearly impossible for them to get close to it. In the case of Myanmar, outsiders are not just foreigners. As regional governments are highly fragmented, what works in one area might not in another. It is essential to listen to and work with each community’s ideas.
Paung Ku’s approach seems very simple, but their philosophy and tactics assure that they are pushing the envelope and achieving results. Most often, the supplier (the funder or foreign NGO) decides how the money should be spent. By doing the reverse and responding to demand, Paung Ku is able to assure that they have full buy in from the CSO. This is important for long-term sustainability. In the next post, I will highlight the pioneering activities they fund and look at their preliminary results.