After undertaking a few consultancies from my home in France in France in 2013 (please see CV for details), I considered where in the world was the most interesting development work taking place, in the hope of working there, rather than simply taking consultancies which were commercially available.
At that time, post Hurricane Nargis, pre-Aung San Su Xi election, Burma (or Myanmar) seemed to me to be the place where basic development issues were being faced in some cases for the first time, and the place where there was a chance of helping people to avoid the mistakes that had been made by so many others.
I applied for many advertised jobs in Myanmar, and got as far as a few interviews, but no further. I had visited the country 4 times for family visits (Clare had worked there for 4 months under UNICEF) and had sought placement opportunities for CUSO cooperants/volunteers. In many ways it had features in common with my experience of South Sudan – where many skilled people had left or been driven out of the country, and were now looking at the possibilities of returning from the diaspora to rebuild the country.
VSO advertised for a position of an organization development specialist for a programme run by the British Council called Amatae that supported nascent CSOs. I applied for it, and after going through an elaborately bureaucratic process at VSO, got it. It was, of course a volunteer position, with a salary about a twentieth of my World Bank salary, but this was a place where developing CSOs was, in my opinion, a fundamentally useful task, and I would be part of a new and exciting country.
A problem was that I had to have a visa and only certain CSOs were formally registered with the government, and thus able to apply for a visa for their foreign staff. Obviously the government/CSO lack of cooperation that I had experienced all over the world was alive and well in this new country. The result was that I was attached to a CSO called ECCDI, working in ecology and environment (because they were staffed by ex Civil servants who knew which strings to pull) 50% or the time, and 50% of the time with SPECTRUM, a much more innovative organization seeking policy change across a range of developmental topics.
Pretty soon it was clear that all CSOs were completely dependent on external donors and this unsatisfactory situation which I had argued against and trained in (see AKF’s Towards Financial Self-Reliance) was the norm in Myanmar, and that therefore my greatest value to local CSOs was as a writer of English Language proposals to donors.
Spectrum was very lively, but administratively messy as it was run by a very dedicated Australian and was not registered with the government, and operated very much hand to mouth as it managed to get small grants from time to time. Most donors were leery of small CSOs and gave their funds to larger CSOs which were very often structures that they had set up themselves in the vacuum that was Myanmar and thus could control.
ECCDI was run by ex-civil servants from the Dept of Forestry who were very keen to do the sort of things that they had not been able to do when they were controlled by the corrupt Forestry administration, but who still retained many of the hierarchical practices of the Myanmar civil service, even though they were a CSO.
It was difficult working in Myanmar as a foreigner – language being one of the greatest challenges, and I found myself unable to learn it, not helped by the unique and singular script. I was also working on a volunteer salary which was hard.
My expectations of numerous rebellious free spirits coming back to the beloved country with ideas of reform were soon tempered. Those to whom this applied were the freed political prisoners who were hugely admirable, but for whom development was all about human rights and the rule of law at the national level – not about useful sectoral programmes in health, agriculture, education etc. There were many similarities with East Timor where development was also seen as a matter of reforming human rights abuses. The other aspect of East Timor that echoed through Myanmar was that the new government was unenthusiastic about CSOs, preferring to recreate a hierarchical civil service that they controlled. The freed political prisoners were not invited to help Aung San Su Xi form a new government. Singularly in Myanmar there was the army behind everything and at the end of the day controlling, through their corporations, a large amount of the economy of the country.
The whole Rohingya issue was just starting at the time I left Myanmar and has left a sour taste in the mouth for anyone who was a champion of the new reform government of the country. The army was, of course, the worst, but the hatred and lack of sympathy of so many Myanmar people for the Rohingyas, coupled with their ready acceptance of the lies that were spread about the situation, has pushed me into a bitter disillusion with the country and its future.
This is is surprising, however, however, when I consider what I did after the years work with VSO and Amatae and ECCDI and SPECTRUM. I considered that I had not really given myself a chance to be useful to Myanmar because of the very limited possibilities of the two CSOs that I had worked with. I put my name around for a more positive job, and was recruited by a very interesting CSO called ALARM (which had been called ECODEV) who need a manager of the last year of a 3 year EU funded project to involve CSOs (with government and the private sector) in stopping (or reducing) illegal logging in the country. The CEO os the organization was the kind of person I had been looking for, returned from self-imposed exile in Thailand, and determined to shake up the Ministry of Forestry by working with village level CSOs. The picture was stark – the Ministry of Forestry was the greatest illegal logger in the country, along with the army and the timber export businesses, and this was supported by a crew of unpleasant timber importing firms in (mostly) European countries who closed their eyes to the wholesale destruction of the forests of Myanmar. It is a very complicated story, which involves strongly motivated people from the EU who, in the end, were not prepared to be bold enough in their principled attempts to reduce illegal logging.
ALARM had been awarded the three year contract, but the EU not managed the project outside the government. The Government soon found ALARM and its feisty director too antagonistic, and denounced it, refusing to work with it – and the EU stood by and let them take that unhelpful position. ALARM was in an invidious position, which inspired many who worked there to work harder to defeat the corrupt Ministry of Forestry, but this ran against the general trend of the new Government who were not interested in wholesale reform, but only intermittent attempts to make incremental changes.
I worked there for a year, being paid a regular salary, and enjoyed the work greatly. Many of ALARM’s staff came from the minority tribes (which was where the timber and the greatest illegal logging took place. It was very interesting to listen to a different perspective to the majority Bamar people.
It also gave me a very unique opportunity to take a dozen Myanmar CSOs to Indonesia to learn from Indonesian CSOs (and their collaborating government) about the new and very successful timber reforms in that country. I had the language and still many contacts in Indonesia, which made it a very successful event.