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How (repressive) Burma-Myanmar promoted grassroots aid strategy

Golden Pagoda in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), Myanmar (formerly and still Burma)
Google Maps

My initial goal: Describe a local organization, Partners Asia, led by some interesting Seattle folks who have long been working to assist vulnerable populations in Myanmar, aka Burma. 

Delayed by confusion: I’m not sure what to make of the celebrated political reforms. Nobel Laureate activist Aung San Suu Kyi is finally free and speaking out. US Sec. of State Hillary Clinton declares the country open for business. Still, nobody agrees on which name to use, UN staffers get thrown in jail and Buddhist monks are accused of inciting riots. Is this place really, fundamentally changing? I don’t think anyone really knows yet.  

But humanitarians working ‘off the pitch’ under the oppressive regime offer some valuable lessons.

NOTE: A series of Seattle lectures on Myanmar/Burma featuring Partners Asia starts Sept. 22


Ancient Bagan in Burma-Myanmar
Flickr, jmhullot

As the Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi starts her celebrated U.S. tour this week, the story line on the country variously known as Burma or Myanmar is that it is undergoing major democratic reforms.

Dissidents have been freed from prison, opposition politicians have been elected, some members of the previous military junta have been demoted and replaced by civilians, press censorship has been relaxed, labor unions are now allowed and, most recently, as Voice of America reported, Burma releases partial list of names trimmed from Blacklist.

So wait, is it Burma or Myanmar?

“We use both,”  said Paula Bock, a former Seattle Times journalist who now devotes her time to working with the poor and disenfranchised in Burma-Myanmar through the Seattle-based organization Partners Asia.

“To make a real difference here, you have to learn how to get along. We work with everybody, on both sides of the border, and we don’t want to exclude or antagonize anyone. Burma, Myanmar — I’m happy to use whatever name it takes to get things done. “

Yeah, well, it’s lot more complicated than that.

This is a story about Partners Asia, and why I think their approach should be of interest to everyone in the aid and development community, but first I need to talk about me.

Paula Bock and girl in Burma-Myanmar
Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett

I had approached Bock, who I’ve known since the days when we were both regular newspaper hacks and the mainstream media was financially healthy, to ask about Burma-Myanmar, and about what her organization does there. As I learned more, it seemed to me they had an important lesson for the entire aid and development community. I’ll get to that in a second.

But writing about aid in Burma-Myanmar turned out to be difficult for me, in part because I knew so little about the place, the news out of Burma-Myanmar kept shifting – and also because Paula and her colleagues operate, uh, unofficially there.

The people they often work with, many of them refugees or troubled ethnic communities along the borders, also have to keep their collaboration away from official eyes.

Paula and her colleagues have to be careful and didn’t want me to use words like “covert” or “secretly,” preferring I describe what they do as “discreet” or “out of the spotlight.”

Teaching migrant children on Thai-Burma border
Partners Asia, Prasit Phasomsap

Paula and I have talked about their many projects aimed at improving health, education and welfare in poor communities, most of the residents being refugees or victims of conflict. But I often couldn’t name names or give too much identifying information, I was told. Concern about government reprisal hasn’t declined in the rural areas.

Yet the news reports these days about this peculiar, poverty stricken, fascinating and dysfunctional Southeast Asian nation are mostly celebrating the changes, the push for reform. The stories often start out with lingo something along the lines of Myanmar-also-known-as-Burma or, conversely, Burma-also-known-as-Myanmar.

How about a compromise – BurMyanmar? (The alternative ‘Myanurma’ sounds like an intestinal or emotional problem.)

The name given top billing in the news story (Burma or Myanmar) usually depends upon how hostile the writer, news organization or speaker is to the military regime that has – or had, if you believe the claimed political power shift is real — oppressively ruled over the nation since a 1962 coup. In 1989, as authoritarians and revolutionaries are often wont to do, the ruling powers changed the name from Burma to Myanmar.

Or, as they say in Burmese: Myanmar long form.svg

Many governments (like ours) still call it Burma to signify opposition to the authoritarian government. Others accept Myanmar and some try to fairly use both. I tend to like Burma just because it’s easier to say. Hillary Clinton, on her hand-shaking, sanctions-ending visit a few months ago, refused to use either name and just referred to it generically as “this nation” or the like.

The sensitivity and disagreement on the ‘naming problem’ is worth emphasizing, I think, because it’s a hint of just how weird and difficult this place can be, especially for Western humanitarian organizations trying to help the poor and disenfranchised.

And it is the weird, difficult and sometimes dangerous nature of trying to help people in this nation that has led Partners Asia to adopt a strategy that I believe the entire aid and development community — working anywhere in the world, under any conditions — probably should consider adopting as well.

Finally, the point of this story

Therese Caouette
U. Washington

“You can’t accomplish real change without building up civil society,” said Therese Caouette, executive director of Partners Asia. “And the best way to build up civil society is from the ground up, helping people help themselves.”

Almost everybody in the aid and development community says this kind of thing, of course. It’s a cliché – helping people help themselves.

But as I listened to Caouette, it became clear that Partners Asia actually had no choice. This was not the standard aid organization giving lip service to an ideal seldom practiced in reality.

They’ve HAD to teach the people of Burma (or Myanmar, whatever) to help themselves because – for most of their history of doing humanitarian work in this country. It was too dangerous to do it any other way.

Therese Caouette in class
Prasit Phasomsap, Partners Asia

Some NGOs were allowed, under the government’s watchful eye, in the cities. But they couldn’t be seen in the rural areas. Most foreign humanitarian organizations were banned and anyone working with them faced arrest, or worse. They had to sneak in and ‘discreetly’ train the locals what to do – how to provide education to kids of families on the run, how to prevent disease or improve water safety.

“It’s a very different approach that requires trust and an ongoing relationship,” Caouette said. As an aid organization, she said, it can be very frustrating and difficult to manage because you truly have to turn over control to the local community.

“And they sometimes fail,” she said. “They have to learn by their failures. Our motto is ‘fail forward.’ ”

Most donors and aid agencies prefer to fund simple, proven paths to success, Caouette said, with clear measures of impact. The approach of Partners Asia is frequently perceived as both riskier (because Westerners can’t control the process) and difficult to measure.

“That’s why we’ve stayed small,” Caouette said. “But we’ve seen that if you let people in a community lead their own programs, they eventually do a much better job than we ever can…. And it’s more sustainable because, really, all we’re doing is mentoring them.”

A woman with the alias ‘Rose,’ here speaking to a class of children, also works with shunned HIV-infected people in remote Myanmar
Partners Asia, Prasit Phasomsap

From Partners Asia: A report and case studies on their work helping communities deal with HIV-AIDS

Helping a displaced community get water, grow food and teach its children

Educating around conflict

But the question some might ask is: Given Burma-Myanmar’s new, celebrated political and social reforms, is the ‘discreet’ approach taken by Partners Asia still necessary?

Or can the people of Burma now expect their government to begin allowing in even more of the typical, large-scale initiatives of Western aid and development? The humanitarian organizations that had stayed outside, and uninvolved, during the dark days of military oppression are now lining up to come in and do their thing.

“There’s definitely real change happening in the big cities like Yangoon and Mandalay,” said Caouette. “But if you drive just one hour outside the city, the people we work with say nothing’s changed.”

People in rural areas, especially the displaced ethnic minorities (of which this populous nation has many), still fear government reprisal if they challenge the old authoritarian ways.

The concern many have in the aid and development community is that Burma-Myanmar’s reforms will be limited to big cities and those populations of interest to the international business community. This nation has long financially depended on China, a relationship that has reportedly gone sour lately.

“Many of us are concerned that it will just go the same way as Cambodia,” said Caouette, who previously worked there as well on humanitarian initiatives. The brutal and despotic Khmer Rouge was replaced by a new government, she said, but Cambodians have seen little progress in democracy or development. The reforms improved some things, but were largely political window dressing.

So, no, it’s probably still too early for Partners Asia to start operating in full sunshine.

But even if they could change their approach, Caouette doesn’t think they would.

“We think we’ve really hit on something here,” she said. “The key to success in helping people has to start small-scale, at the community level, with an emphasis on mentoring rather than having some aid organization come in and try to make change top down.

“It’s easy to say but actually quite hard to do,” Caouette said. Traditional funders or donors also find it difficult to support, she said, because what’s usually needed are small amounts of flexible funding given to community organizations to use as they will. The local groups do report back and are held accountable, she emphasized, but progress has to be measured in a more qualitative way.

“That’s why we’ve stayed small,” Caouette said. “But I think what we’ve learned, our approach, is now more important than ever.”

Empowering the people of Burma-Myanmar, rather than simply coming to their aid to fight disease, teach kids or dig wells, will determine the true pace of reform and progress. Partners Asia, by necessity, has already learned how.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.