Beads - Passion for Facilitation

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Civil Society Strengthening - "Leading from behind" in Myanmar

I have been home for a few days now, but I am still in awe of civil society in Myanmar.

When I lived there until five years ago, I was involved with an INGO that worked with small grants and mentoring for community based organizations. Other INGOs were inspired by the work that proved possible ‘under the radar’ at grassroots level. I witnessed the development of a consortium that aimed to bridge between the INGOs and grassroots initiative: Paung Ku (Burmese for bridge). The idea was that INGO staff would learn how to mentor emerging community organizations that received a small grant for their initiatives, in such a way that these organizations could “learn-by-doing” and gradually learn to do more for community development. In return, the mentors could apply their learning in the INGO projects that they were hired for.

At the time, organizational strengthening was very sensitive in Myanmar and INGOs only received permission for humanitarian work. This changed somewhat the year after deadly cyclone Nargis (2008), when relief operations moved into rehabilitation and development. Like many other organizations, Paung Ku had grown fast after Nargis. It had proven difficult for NGO staff to combine mentoring work with their project obligations, so the civil society strengthening programme moved to directly hiring mentors. Today the Paung Ku has over 35 staff, including 6 decentralised teams of facilitators who virtually cover the whole country, including areas still in conflict. Some of the NGO mentors have returned to their communities and now serve as volunteer mentors. I was invited to assist in the evaluation of this program which is transitioning to become a Myanmar NGO.

With the political changes in the country in 2010, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi shortly after, and the gradual release of political prisoners, civil society strengthening has taken on completely new dimensions. Initially, community based organisations and their networks worked for community development and services, but the emphasis has shifted very fast to rights based issues such as land rights, fishing rights, peace and fair investment. The amazing thing is that civil society leaders, organizations and networks are actually driving these changes at scale, with the CSO program “leading from behind”.

Here is my ten point list of the critical Paung Ku civil society strengthening activities:

  1. Network extensively and intensively with opinion leaders
  2. Support genuine local initiatives, agenda’s and issues: trust your gut feelings!
  3. Facilitate productive interactions and deep reflection towards thoughtful action that balances rights and duties
  4. Bring organisations with similar issues together
  5. Bring organisations in touch with resource persons who can inform, educate, train, research...
  6. Bring organisations and networks in touch with the media, artists and members of parliament to influence public opinion and political process 
  7. Provide remote groups with the means to communicate (i.e. mobile phone)
  8. Provide grants, so that organizations can pay for 4-6 above, and monitor downward accountability to the members – don’t overdo it: organizations can mobilize local resources! 
  9. Offer facilitation/mentoring separately from grant making, so that ‘learning by doing’ is not polluted by grant management concerns
  10. Stay out of the way and let the civil society leaders, organizations and networks get on with it: lead from behind.

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