A small programme was established in Myanmar in 2001 following several missions, starting in 1999, by the Asia Director and the Regional Coordinator responsible for New Country Initiatives. The programme was based on the strong belief that influencing real change within the country could only be nurtured from inside.
Work in Myanmar was focused initially on Kachin state in 2001 and later expanded to Kayah and Rakhine states and the Ayeyerwaddy Division in 2007. These areas were mostly characterised by a high concentration of minority ethnic communities, affected by conflict, and disaster. The decision to focus on these areas was driven in part by the need to accommodate strong voices outside Myanmar who opposed the military rule , and who viewed work in government controlled areas as an implicit endorsement of the regime. In addition poverty, vulnerability and marginalisation in these areas were (and are) very high, not least because of internal conflict, internal population displacement and the human rights violations that accompany conflict.
Events from 2008 onwards have dramatically changed both the external and internal context in Myanmar and thus changed the context in which ActionAid is operating in the country. Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, the constitutional reform process with national elections in 2010, ongoing changes in the political-economy within and outside of Myanmar, and the thawing of the international communitys’ relations towards the Myanmar government are all events which open up spaces and opportunities in Myanmar which have hitherto been absent. On the other side, ActionAid’s work since 2001 and particularly its high quality response to cyclone Nargis have greatly expanded ActionAid’s political and social networks, visibility and recognition, and ActionAid’s operational capability.
The central approach of ActionAid in Myanmar is supporting local organisations through intensive training and deployment of ‘change-makers’ (youth leaders) in target communities. Change makers mobilise and organise local communities and facilitate their analysis of community problems, and to undertake participatory planning, promote democratic norms and forms of decision-making, mobilise community resources (including that of local government), and facilitate the implementation of community prioritised action points. This is a non-prescriptive, needs/rights driven program, where potential achievements are diverse and span a range of areas including social cohesion, community capacity building and organizing, education, health, livelihoods, infrastructure, environment, and women’s empowerment, with an equally wide range of activities within each thematic area. ActionAid believes that change doesn’t happen as and when development agencies want it to happen. Different opportunities present themselves to different communities at different times. By investing over a long period of time in young, motivated, capable individuals (Fellows), who come from and live in the village itself, opportunities can be seized to engage in the processes of community driven change.