Political developments in Burma – Myanmar since the new government came to power in November 2010 have been overwhelming: Not since independence from Britain in 1948 has the outlook been so bright for the entire country. There is a promising future ahead, but the path is not yet clear. Myanmar is now faced with the great task of economic and societal rebuilding.
The people of Myanmar were left far behind as the rest of the world made significant economic and technological advances over the past five decades. Myanmar ranks in the lowest tier of countries on the United Nations Development Programme’s global Human Development Index. Reliable statistics for Myanmar are scant, but it is generally agreed that the country is among the poorest and least developed in the world, despite the country’s great natural resource wealth.
Peoples in Myanmar have a strong tradition of voluntarism to assist the most needy and can be unflinchingly generous to others despite their own modest means, as was clear in the massive public response to Cyclone Nargis when Myanmar groups and individuals—including our partners —distributed tons of rice, water, and relief equipment in the first few weeks after the cyclone made landfall, a critical time during which the government was not allowing large international agencies to reach the worst-affected areas.
Yet it is also the case that many of Myanmar’s peoples have splintered apart as large areas of the country remained in a state of conflict for decades. A key part of the process of building a democratic society in a fractured country is building trust and confidence among and between communities of different ethnic and religious identities. In addition, even as international agencies increase their funding and presence in Myanmar, experience in other countries has shown that isolated and vulnerable populations still face difficulties gaining access to improved social services despite influxes of aid nationally.
Our experience has taught us that lasting change occurs when community leaders are able to start small projects, using resources available locally, and slowly gain the community’s confidence and trust before tapping into external support. This type of leadership does not come through appointment or elite status. It arises from community innovators who recognize complex problems in their surroundings, develop possible solutions, and adapt their ideas until they are actually workable within their community contexts.
At Partners Asia, we back these energetic entrepreneurs.
Our team has seen poor migrant workers open learning centers for their children in Thailand, working alongside these centers for 10 years and encouraging them to grow with the communities, including with the Thai communities. In Myanmar, we have supported small ethnic groups as they have worked to retain government teachers in remote primary schools, so that for the first time ever children from these villages can take government high school matriculation exams and pursue secondary studies.
We find that Myanmar community organizations often seek integrated solutions to the development problems they face. Beginning one activity may naturally lead to starting a number of other activities, building upon initial successes and expanding a project’s reach and benefits. Activities are interdependent. Supporting a free school for the poorest children may involve not only improving upon what and how they learn, but also educating parents on basic developmental care for children; providing nutrition programs to counter inadequate diets; and constructing toilets, water filters, and hand-washing faucets to improve health and hygiene.
At Partners Asia, we accept that the problems facing these communities have many dimensions, and it follows that the solutions community leaders devise may also be multidimensional. We also acknowledge that due to these projects’ complexity, their true effectiveness is not always easily measured by basic statistical targets, such as ‘numbers of beneficiaries served’ or ‘cost per head’.
But we also acknowledge that an emergent community group will not have the technical skills to tackle all of these kinds of problems. That’s why Partners Asia plants the seeds to grow a network of community groups so that they may share their experiences and technical skills and even pool resources. For the people of Myanmar, generations of ethnic, religious, and class inequalities have shaped isolated and distrustful communities; for this reason, networking and experience-sharing is an important part of rebuilding civil society and social trust.