Perhaps one of the most difficult challenges Paung Ku has is determining whether their methods are working and if they are achieving their goal of building the capacity of civil society organizations. An evaluation of each group they worked with and their respective project can provide some insight. In these evaluations, Paung Ku’s methods seem to be working well. There are many stories of overwhelming success in both group strength and project accomplishment. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
First Five Impressions of Myanmar (some of these I knew about)
- The men wear skirts. Longyi is the traditional dress of the people and over 50 years of isolation means that Western clothing never really gained a foothold, even after British colonization. The younger generation is starting to wear pants more, but the longyi remains the dominant clothing of the masses.
- The steering wheel is on the right hand side (British side), but they also drive on the right hand side (American side). General Ne Win switched the driving side in 1970 (either because his astrologist told him he should or because he dreamed he should, it’s unclear which it is), but, of course, most of the cars remained the same, built for British roads.
- You would never know you were in a country known for its oppressive, military government at first glance. The last couple of years have really changed things around in terms of economic and other basic (like internet) freedoms. I was terrified while standing in the immigration line (“am I sure I got the right visa? What if they saw that I was already posting on this blog and think I lied about my past work history, maybe they think I’m an undercover journalist!”), it was actually a very quick, easy process. Exchanging money was no big deal (as it used to be). While the country is only beginning to have ATMs and accept credit cards, the scarcity of such conveniences only makes one think of a poor country that doesn’t see many tourists, not an oppressed one. No one has had any trouble talking to me about their “leader” Aung San Suu Kyi, even though I’ve never asked. I’m sure I will hear more stories of oppression later (and, of course, the human rights abuses are well documented), but at first glance, it is masked well.
- Inflation is going to be a problem (well, it already is). A guide book I saw from just a few years ago noted prices half of what they are today. When I was planning this trip a month ago the exchange rate was 850 kyat/ 1$, today it was 972 kyat / 1$. When I changed money at the airport, I walked away with bricks of kyat in a sack as if I’d just robbed a bank. I asked a few people how they felt about it and, honestly, besides property prices, they weren’t too concerned (even though food prices have nearly doubled in less than a decade). While things are still cheap compared to a developed country, they are rapidly reaching prices of neighboring ASEAN countries, even though it remains the poorest ASEAN country.
- This place is going to take some getting used to. Even though the country is seeing a huge influx of foreigners (tourists, INGO workers, and businessmen) from all over the world, this is a recent development. While it doesn’t feel as much “back in time” to me as I’ve heard from others, there is a distinct otherworldliness about it. I usually adapt to new places with lightening speed, but I think this country will take more than a few days.
While I haven’t yet arrived in Myanmar, I thought I would use this post to introduce my project, explain the topics I hope to cover, and give an update on where everything is at so far.
As you can read from the “Who We Are” page, I am travelling to Myanmar to research civil society development in the face of sweeping political changes. Myanmar (formally Burma, I will not get into the politics of the name change here) has recently started to move from a hardliner military government accused of many human rights abuses to a more free, open, and possibly democratic society. There are so many complex issues in the country stemming from its history, government, and various ethnic groups. I do not plan to use this platform to discuss each of these, however if I refer to any of them I will attempt to add a link to background information.
Even though many view the recent changes as superficial, there is a lot of excitement surrounding the possibility of a peaceful transition to a functioning democracy. Part of a peaceful transition and a functioning democracy will require a healthy, active civil society. As the previous administrations have cracked down on assembly, civil society must essentially be built from the ground up. This will require teaching citizens the tools and skills necessary to participate in an active civic group.
There are a few INGOs engaged in this work. I will primarily be working with Paung Ku, an INGO consortium comprised of several well known INGOs and led by Save the Children. I intend to interview their staff to understand their processes, programs, and preliminary outcomes. I will submit a blog post dedicated to each of these topics.
I arrive in Myanmar next week. In the meantime, I am in Thailand. I had to come here first in order to get a visa (it is possible to get a visa within the USA, but far easy to get it in Bangkok). As I had to be here anyway, I have taken advantage and seen much of what Bangkok has to offer, a trip to Ayutthaya, and will make my way to Chiang Mai for a couple days before my flight to Yangon (formally Rangoon) where I will be spending most of my time in Myanmar.