Study Tour on Two Wheels with Partners Asia

John H., this post’s author, went on Partners Asia’s donor biking trip in January and February 2013. Once a Seattleite, John has lived and worked in Thailand for the past several years. You can also check out John’s other posts about this trip here and here.

Here is our daily routine on this wonderful Partners Asia tour of pastoral bicycle routes and bootstrap community-based organizations (CBOs) in southeastern Myanmar – Burma:

Wake up early, breakfast at the hotel, bike alongside rivers and among rice fields until noon, lunch at roadside restaurant, meet with inspirational community leaders about the kinds of work they’ve been doing without any outside help, rest, repeat. Such a nice schedule!

Our visits to CBOs in Hpa-an, Karen State, strive to create relationships built on common understanding. The topics of discussion are issues of concern to Myanmar people, and how those issues can best be addressed. None of the CBOs has met with Partners Asia before; they may not even have existed six months ago. We likely couldn’t have arranged permission to get together openly until the very recent past.

M Charity photo by John H.

The first stop we make is at a converted three-story shop house that has become home to the M Charity, a multi-purpose mutual assistance organization that has taken on several challenges during the past several years.

Initially M’s charter centered on providing money for respectful funerals. Collections were taken up among those with means so that no people would be denied a proper cremation, regardless of their families’ circumstances. This effort funded even the construction of a new crematorium.

Later the organization tackled the lack of a local blood bank. Rather than store refrigerated supplies for possible transfusions, the group arranges so-called “live donations” — a donor’s blood is used immediately. Such a system bypasses the problems of cold chain, transportation, and storage, but it necessitates an accurate and constantly updated database containing willing donors, their blood types and HIV status, and reliable contact information.

M Charity proved effective with both initiatives. The CBO moved on to the education arena, where they had identified a problem affecting a substantial majority of their children: dropping out of school and/or failing to pass the final, all-important high school exam.

Particularly in Karen State, which borders Thailand (the major crossing point is about 100 miles by road from Hpa-an), many young people leave the country in search of opportunity. Myanmar’s failure to educate the next generation may compromise the success of the country’s current opening-up. M Charity began offering free after-school enrichment classes for final-year students.

We watched two groups of 50 kids each sit in classrooms at the shop house. Written on the whiteboards were complicated arithmetic problems. Our visit was the first time foreigners had dropped by the CBO. The volunteer teachers stepped aside as we fielded questions from the students.

The next day we met a few of the charity’s leaders, along with several other Hpa-an educators and a handful of businesspeople, who in late 2013 banded together to form a CBO focused on improving education around Hpa-an. It aims to fund facilities improvements at area schools lacking such basics as tables, blackboards, and bathrooms. In three months it has outfitted seven schools, using donations collected locally. M Charity gets its funding in a similar way—essentially door-to-door campaigning, appealing to neighbors’ sense of their duty to share with those in need.

Will Partners Asia ever make grants to either of these organizations, or to a large monastery school we visited, where the head monk appeared to be one of the region’s major power brokers? Right now it’s hard to say. Trust would need to be built up. Both the grantee and Partners would need to understand better why the other exists.

What’s clear is that any connection going forward between Partners Asia and the CBOs of Hpa-an will revolve around local people who are leading projects that already have a successful track record. Partners Asia’s support only furthers ongoing work; it never initiates. Community-based organizations that have concrete plans and know what they need to achieve their goals stand a better chance of collaborating with Partners Asia than do groups that wait for the government or international aid groups to propose an idea or a project.