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VSO Myanmar embraces change: a long time coming

Daniel Burwood, VSO global monitoring and evaluation (M&E) adviser, witnesses the rapid changes taking place in this fascinating country following his assignment to VSO Myanmar to establish M&E processes to measure the impact of our work

Primary school children, Myanmar Maro Verli

School children, Myanmar

The November 2015 general election was a pivotal moment in Myanmar’s recent history. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy had been declared illegal after boycotting the 2010 election, and so its landslide victory just five years later marked a significant breakthrough for the pro-democracy movement.

Change, however, does not happen overnight; violent conflict continues across parts of the country, the Tatmadaw armed forces retain their control over the constitution, and it was well into March 2016 before the newly-elected parliament could even name their president.

I was fortunate enough to spend two months based in VSO’s Yangon office during this de facto interregnum, and the overwhelming sense was of expectation and reserved optimism. People speculated openly about what the new government might do first: would they allow bicycles back onto the streets of Yangon? Might they even move the capital back here from the ghost town of Naypyidaw? After all the campaign rhetoric, what would be the priorities in health and education?

Meanwhile, VSO and other non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) NGOs tried to find the firm ground in the shifting sands. Two memories will stay with me beyond the friendliness of the people, the majesty of the pagodas and the horrors of downtown traffic.

The first is the sheer amount of effort required by the VSO team to bring each and every international volunteer into the country. Myanmar has been steadily opening to the outside world ever since Cyclone Nargis but the relative ease with which a UK resident can now visit as a tourist has not yet fully translated into change for NGOs.

For VSO, which aims to share the knowledge and experience of highly-skilled people by embedding them within local institutions, the challenge required to bring our team together sometimes appeared insurmountable.Witnessing my colleagues’ back-and-forth with an ever-changing cast of ministry officials for all the requisite approval letters, entry visas, travel permissions and other symbols of authorisation brought to mind a modern-day Sisyphus, building a Jacob’s ladder of paperwork to the heavens. 

Still, miraculously, new VSO volunteers kept arriving. As a VSO staff member, meeting with the skilled professionals who have chosen to spend months or years of their lives away from their friends and family, selflessly sharing their knowledge and energy to help develop communities other than their own, is always one of the most humbling and inspiring parts of my job. 

The second lasting memory that will stick with me is the passion and diversity of the local organisations that VSO volunteers work with. Among those I met with was a women’s leadership organisation who had been appointed a national observer of the 2015 elections. In the run-up to the election they held academies all over the country training women how to get involved in politics; a remarkable 47 of their trainees decided to stand as candidates, and 23 were elected.

Another group I encountered had their offices in unmarked rooms above a gym: run entirely by former political prisoners, they had grown used to moving offices frequently and having their activities curtailed by laws on freedom of association. Unfazed, they have developed a Masters course in political science to be offered to students at Yangon University, and are arranging for academics from outside Myanmar to come and lecture. Two of their directors and ten former students have now been elected MPs.

Women at a meeting, Myanmar VSO

Women at a community meeting, Myanmar

These two organisations reflect Myanmar’s vibrant civil society space, which has been opening up in parallel with the country’s international face. A similar story emerged from all those I met with: a tale of organisations formed less than ten years ago which have played an activist role with enthusiasm and often little else, and who have recently recognised a need to professionalise.

Where consultants may have come to visit these groups for a few weeks and deliver a set of English-language one-size-fits-all HR and finance policies, VSO volunteers worked for at least a year with each of the above organisations to ensure that new policies were developed and owned by the appropriate people. They have helped the leaders of civil society organisations to write their own strategies and plans, based on wider contexts of funding opportunities and on conversations with the communities they are working with.

Perhaps most importantly, VSO volunteers have supported civil society to make the cultural changes that turn good practice into a reality and prevent it from just being written on paper and left on a shelf.

Change may be slow, but the expectation is there and with it the energy and enthusiasm to develop something different to a half-century of isolation. Thanks to the dedication of a small group of thoughtful and committed citizens, VSO can do more than just wait and see.

Find out more about volunteering in Myanmar

Find out about our work in Myanmar