VSO is an international NGO fighting poverty through volunteering. Theoretically volunteers live and work side by side with some of the poorest people to improve lives.
Myanmar is a country of significant and rapid change. The county’s transition to democracy after years of military rule has heightened expectations of political transformation and quality of life.
However, Myanmar remains one of the world’s least developed nations despite being a fertile country, rich in natural resources. The 2014 census found that 29% of people in rural areas – where 71% of the population resides – live below the poverty threshold, in urban areas the poverty incidence is estimated at 15%. The county is ranked 148 out of 188 on the Human Development Index.
VSO has a three-pronged strategy to support the transition to a more equitable, open and accountable society by:
- Improving education services
- Improving healthcare provision
- Promoting civil society and social accountability – especially in terms of engaging women’s voices.
My role is within the civil society programme – working to help develop the capacity of a number of small community based organisations and medium sized NGOs as well as Intermediate Support Organisations. Civil society organisations play a vital role in holding government to account, demanding better services, and representing the interests of different stakeholders. In Myanmar the space for civil society to operate has been strictly limited in recent decades but this is changing. I hope to contribute to creating a vibrant and diverse civil society – connecting communities and building social inclusion.
VSO recruited me but my post is part of a much wider civil society strengthening initiative by FHI360, resourced through USAID and I now work within FHI360. FHI360 is an American human development organisation that operates in more than 60 countries. The name FHI360 reflects the integrated approach to human development challenges believing that everything is connected, health, education, nutrition, environment, economic development, civil society, gender, youth, research and technology.
In reality it seems like a strange double life. As you can see the FHI360 offices are modern and well equipped employing a great team of mainly local staff but with a smattering of other nationalities as well. There are currently 4 VSO volunteers working within the technical team and our status is slightly strange. VSO gets paid to provide the volunteers, the volunteers receive a living allowance from VSO, we work within FHI360 but are not technically part of FHI360 as we are not employed by them. So whilst others have their company cars and live in nice houses, the VSO team travel by bus and live on the other side of the tracks in tiny apartments.
When working in the field the conditions are very different as illustrated by a visit to Myitkyina last week. Myitkyina is in the far north of Myanmar in Kachin state some 1480 kms from Yangon so the easiest way to get there is to fly via Mandalay. The climate is much more pleasant than Yangon, it is cooler and on two of the days was overcast so that it felt like a really good summers day in UK. The town has a population of 200,000 but you wouldn’t know it as all the buildings are low rise and there is so much green that buildings just disappear.
Unlike Yangon where they are banned, local transport is predominately motor bike – at last an opportunity to use the helmet I brought all the way from UK! The training took place in a typical wooden single roomed stilted building and we relied on low tech training aids and mostly worked on the floor. The evaluation has encouraged us to return to help the local team finalise some detailed planning.
On our half day off Addy our interpreter/Mr Fixit borrowed motor bikes and we had a brilliant day out wondering around the local countryside including the confluence of the Mali and N’mai rivers that flow to make the Ayeyarwady – so its not all work.