Shaping the future of Myanmar

“Every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession, a duty.”

John D. Rockefeller Jr


The highlight of our time in Myanmar was the opportunity to tie up with Daniel and the team from Child’s Dream, a charitable organisation focusing on education in the Mekong sub-delta region, and visit a couple of projects on the ground with them. It was incredibly instructive and enlightening visit, and it will remain a pivotal experience of this 7-month journey.

Visiting Myanmar at this juncture in the political and economic history of the country was a perfect timing and quite an experience. Never before had Alan and I had such a vivid impression that the history was being written before our eyes.

I first came to Myanmar in 1998; at that time, the suffocating oppression of the military junta was palpable. 17 years later, I arrived back in the country in the wake of the election of the National League for Democracy (“NLD”) and in the midst of power transition to democratic rule. Now the enthusiasm, the hope, the desire to take an active part in the country’s new chapter are equally palpable.

We met Child’s Dream through Wheel2Wheel in 2011 and we supported them since then – convinced about both the cause and the organisation’s execution and vision.

Founded in 2003 by two Swiss former bankers, Daniel Siegfried and Marc Jenni, the organisation’s mission is to foster education in Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand: “empowering underprivileged children, youth and communities to shape their own future”. In their own words, they “focus on education because it is proven to be one of the most important factors for sustained social and economic development. Education also promotes a culture of peace, tolerance and understanding and builds the foundation of diversity, human rights and freedom”.

In practice, they provide primary education to poor or hard-to-reach communities, access to higher education, tertiary education and vocational training. The highest aspirations of Child’s Dream are to groom agents of change in the community through university and teacher programmes, and to help students’ transition towards employment through learning programmes and vocational training.

Over 4 days and 3 different states, we visited representative projects that cover the span of Child’s Dream work: basic education, higher education, vocational training and alternative learning programmes, and educational capacity building.

Basic education – school building projects

We were honoured to attend a school opening in a remote village of the Kayin state (formerly called the Karen state).

This state is about 5 hours drive east of Yangon and shares a long border with Thailand. Home to the large Karen population of Myanmar (estimated between 6 and 7 million people), it has been embroiled in a fight for autonomy ever since the independence from the British in 1948 – the world’s longest internal conflict – with the civil population largely suffering the consequences. Forced labour, forced displacement, attacks on villages, extortion, arbitrary detention, torture and executions, perpetrated extensively by the state military but also by ethnic armed groups, were part of the daily life of the rural population. Ceasefire was signed in 2012 between the Burmese civilian government and the Karen National Union (KNU). The Karen National Liberation Army, the military arm of the KNU, continues to control large parts of the territory, as we experienced first hand on the way to the school opening. Even 3 years after the ceasefire and in the wake of the elections that seem to promise a transition towards democracy, the population still suffers regularly from abuses. The Karen Human Rights Group has documented the situation in rural Myanmar for more than 20 years and continues to raise awareness for the abuses that are still happening.

Though on a map it seems not that distant, the village of Kawpan Lan is remote and isolated. It took 2 ½ hours to reach the village from Hpa An: 1h drive on first on decent roads, then on dirt roads; after that, we all got onto a raft made of salvaged wood planks (that serves as the local car ferry) to cross a river; then we drove another 1h on bumpy dirt track to the village. As a so-called “black-zone”, the area is still restricted to foreigners. We had to pay some unofficial tolls along the way (revenue raising by local militia) and the Child’s Dream local team had carefully prepared for the arrival of foreigners before the school opening.

The school has about 350 students, from year 1 to 11. It is a monastic school run by Venerable Khemacara, a charismatic, energetic monk. He spoke with passion about how fortunate he was to have been given a chance to study abroad, in Sri Lanka, and then to practice as a monk in Malaysia, and how he has always felt drawn back to his village to help the community and to give to other children the opportunity he had himself of education.

In addition to the government schools, there is a pretty extensive Monastic education network, run by monasteries with the government approval and using the government curriculum. Each school is run by a monk headmaster but most teachers are lay people and usually paid by the government. Education is free. Most children are resident, their families oftentimes living far away. Living conditions are very basic, with dormitories sleeping up to 60 or 80 kids on wooden floor and that become a classroom or gathering room during daytime.

As the Kawpan Lan school is the only in the neighbourhood offering middle and high school classes, it has attracted more students every year and was way beyond capacity.

During the past year, Child’s Dream has built a new school building providing additional classrooms for years 10 and 11 and improved learning environment.

The whole village attended the opening, most wearing traditional Karen costumes, in what was clearly a special occasion for the community. The building had been badly needed for a while and long awaited; the villagers were so excited to have Child’s Dream’s support for the build that many contributed their time and labour. The village elders occupied the first rank, very dignified, their faces marked by time and by what must have been a harsh life.

A local famed singer read a poem and sang traditional songs. Ribbons were cut; balloons were released; speeches were made.

Then we were treated to the most amazing traditional Karen dance, performed by a group of 60 children wearing colourful costumes. This fast-paced dance must have been pretty tiring under the blazing sun, but the children were tireless and their energy and precision didn’t falter as the performance progressed.

Then came the celebratory lunch. In short, a feast of local produce, dozens of different dishes, presented beautifully. Villagers all contributed to it and we felt deeply honoured to be given such a reception.

Then we visited the school grounds: dormitories that sleep 80 in a room, communal dining room, teacher room, temple-like room that becomes a gathering room when needed, basic kitchen that cater for 400+ at a time. Some classrooms house classes of 90 children, some only have a hatch-roof over their heads. Most children are resident, some of them don’t have a chance to go back to their village for the duration of their studies and some parents cannot afford to visit.

Venerable Khemacara talked on several occasions about the children’s health and the role of sports in building a strong and healthy constitution. The daily practice of the traditional dance, which they performed for us, clearly trained for endurance. He was also very proud of his football team – selected to play in the U-14 state championship!

It was an amazing day. The warm hospitality of these villagers will remain a beautiful memory. There is no doubt that this community and the children attending the school from far-away villages have had a hard life and that their conditions remain difficult. But we could feel the sense of pride in their hard work to live dignified lives and provide better lives for the next generation.

Higher education – providing access to tertiary education and further studies

In addition to basic education (primary and high schools), Child’s Dream focuses on higher education through international university scholarships and post high-school academies. We visited 2 of those academies in Hpa An, capital of the Kayin state. The city is described by the guidebook as a “scruffy state capital” but I actually found it charming in its own way.

The MCAP-Hpa An academy gives post-secondary education to underprivileged youth. Three of the four semesters are in the classroom, learning English, Social Sciences, Community Development, Numeracy and IT. The last semester is an internship, usually in community work.

The Hpa An academy is one of 3 under the MCAP umbrella (Myanmar Community Academies Programme): a cluster of schools (currently 3 but with the plan to expand over time), which use the same curriculum, learn from each other’s experience, share best practices, exchange staff when appropriate. The MCAP approach is an illustration of the scale dimension that is infused in many Child’s Dream programmes: they lend themselves to potential scale benefits and are designed as such from the outset, not just as an afterthought.

The other programme which we visited, Zwekabin Myay Hpa An Education Project, is in the same vein. The school’s vision is “to nurture and develop Myanmar’s next generation of leaders”; its mission is to “motivate, enable and empower young adults by providing first-class higher education in an atmosphere of tolerance, respect and equality”. It is an intensive, residential, 8-month programme. It recruits from all over the country and has an explicit objective to have as a diversified representation of ethnicities and religions as possible. The core curriculum provides English, IT, Social Sciences, but there is a lot of flexibility to adapt the teaching based on the group and its dynamics. The courses as well as daily life are conducted exclusively in English.

We had an insightful session with the students, where they shared with the group their background, the motivation of their choice of this school and their aspiration for the future. It was amazing to see this group of late teens/early twenties articulating their motivation. The loudest message was a hunger for critical thinking: “at school we were not allowed to think, here we have to think by ourselves”. The topic of brainless repetition and rote learning at their former schools was brought up – a common criticism of the state education system we heard from many sources. The students welcomed the opportunity to live in complete English immersion. Most of them expressed a hope to work either as teachers or as NGO staffers, and we could also sense a burgeoning desire for entrepreneurship.

Most of the students we met are enrolled in a university programme concurrently. As they explained, the university system in Myanmar as of today is not particularly rigorous. At the beginning of the year, students are given a book to learn from and are then sent away to study on their own. They have to come back for only 10 days attendance after which they can sit their exam. Motivated students thus have time to attend an alternative course simultaneously, which gives them more useful content, while getting a government rubber-stamped university diploma also.

The higher education initiatives supported by Child’s Dream provide additional, practical skills that are very much in demand.

Vocational training – supporting initiatives for job skills training in rural communities

Child’s Dream also supports vocational training programmes that aim to create a bridge towards employment for a youth population who is often ill-prepared for work and for students to upgrade their skillset to get safer and better paid jobs.

In this domain, we visited Knowledge Zone in Bago and NEED in Yangon state.

EOS 100D_17079Knowledge Zone is a training centre that provides additional skill training for young people who may already have a job but wish to expand their skills in order to upgrade their job. It was initially set up in 2008 in Mae Sot, on the Thai side of the border with Myanmar, to cater for the needs of the refugee population in this area. It was led by a gentle but dedicated former political prisoner, Thet Naing. He came back to his native city of Bago only in late 2012 when the political climate started to make a return possible and he opened a second centre there.

Classes are offered in computer skills, English, sewing and “fashion design”, as well as Japanese and Korean in this region where many Japanese and Korean manufacturers are established. Knowledge Zone offers 20 classes a week and has approximately 900 students a term.

Network for Environment and Economic Development (NEED-Burma) tackles another part of the economy: the agricultural sector. It provides vocational training and raises awareness in the field of sustainable agriculture and land legal matters. Their motto is “Growing Food, Sharing Knowledge, Building Futures”.

We were welcomed by the founder, charismatic Khaing Dhu Wan, and the 30 students who make up the 2015-16 class.

NEED is attempting to act as a catalyst for progressive change within Burma. It is our belief that Burmese civil society, particularly youth, must be strengthened and empowered at the grassroots level, so that youth capacity for building a sustainable future is possible. Through ecological farming practices at our Model Farm, we are working to build a network of model organic, sustainable farms in Burma, to serve as learning centres for farmers and youth. […] Civil society in Burma, particularly farmers, possesses significant potential, and in fact is the primary motivator for change.”

NEED was founded in Chiang Mai in 2006. As with Knowledge Zone, it was transferred back to Myanmar in the Yangon prefecture when it became safe to do so, in 2013. Mr Wan, a political activist in the 1990s, had just managed to escape the regime and fled to Thailand. He had been since then on a black-list and had to obtain clearance to return before he could go back to his home country. He bought some land to build the facilities, rented some more for cultivation and launched the programme “onshore”.

The organisation runs 2 programmes:

Firstly, at the Eco Village Foundation we visited, students are trained in sustainable agriculture, environmental conservation and community-based economic development through the Model Farm Initiative programme, tested and proven in Chiang Mai. It offers a 10-month resident course for 30-35 students a year. We saw first-hand the mushroom growing barn, the banana planting, the rice after the harvest. The students also learn about seed saving, plant documentation, livestock breeding, natural mud-brick building. Sustainable agricultural practices are at the core of the learning. During the 10-month on the farm, the students learn to be as self-sufficient as possible, living from what gets harvested on the farm.

EOS 100D_17358Secondly, NEED runs a Land, Law and Economic Training programme. During this intense 3-month programme, students learn about Land Law, Land Rights, Presentation Skills and Advocacy, Globalization, Foreign Direct Investment, Micro and Macro Economics, Community Development Strategies, etc. In a country where land confiscation still occurs and where the flood gates of foreign investment have just opened, the programme aims to better prepare students to protect the rights of their communities and to help the local communities benefitting better from the sustained economic growth in their country. This programme was still too controversial to be repatriated in 2013 and this year is the first year that it is run out of Yangon.

Through those practices and better education of the new generation of farmers, NEED wants to restore better economic opportunities and sound livelihood in the farmers’ communities. Similar to the aspiration of Child’s Dream, NEED seeks to “help social change-makers overcome their fears and fulfil their responsibilities for the future of Burma”. They have an active alumni network to ensure the impact of the programme continues. Out of the 190 students who have so far graduated from the programme, 80% have gone back to work with their community, 20% have joined NGOs working to build a sustainable future.

Educational capacity building – community development projects that enhance the access to and quality of education

During our trip through the country, we heard frequent and consistent criticism of the state education system, even in our conversations with local people unrelated to Child’s Dream. The government may provide school buildings and pay teachers’ salaries, but the content of the curriculum is not designed to prepare students for socio-economic opportunities and a self-determined life. School education consists of learning by heart some content given by the teachers. There is only memorisation and repetition, no place for discussion, understanding or critical thinking. (Perhaps that suited the interests of the military regime?) But as the country is opening, it leaves a generation of youth ill-prepared, not only to benefit fairly from economic growth, but also to exercise their newly acquired civic rights constructively.

To that end, Mote Oo’s work is critical and timely. The organisation has two vocations:

First, it produces teacher- and student- training materials that will help students develop critical thinking skills and human & social science skills, topics that are currently not covered in the government curriculum. Publications include Active Citizenship, Democracy, Gender, History of Burma. This material is used in high schools and in higher education programmes, not only the ones run or supported by Child’s Dream, but in a large number of monastic schools. The aim is to further expand the distribution into schools but also start commercialisation in bookshops. Perusing the high quality teaching materials, I found that it could come handy for our girls and I took home some samples.

EOS 100D_17375Secondly, it conducts teacher-training programmes in specific topics that again, aren’t core to the government curriculum. For instance, they conduct a workshop on student-centred pedagogy.

We met the amazing team at Mote Oo at their Yangon office, about 20 staff in their late twenties, early thirties. The energy and enthusiasm was palpable and infectious! They explained their work, their background and their hopes for the future. They exude a sense of excitement to contribute to the historical changes in the country and determined to make a difference.

Child’s Dream also includes in its mission some health related programmes: sound health is a prerequisite for school attendance and progress.

We visited such a medical programme in Bago. A team of young private doctors who set up their private practice and give two days a week to the community: a day where they visit monastic schools to provide heath checks and treatments, and a day where they provide free care in their clinic.

Child’s Dream supports the first programme, helping those doctors deliver basic health care and awareness to more about 2,500 children a year in rural areas outside of Bago.

I attended a typical Friday with them: seeing more than 200 children in the morning. They set up 5 “stations”: size/weight/BMI, skin checks, respiratory checks, abdominal checks and ears/nose/throat checks. They administer medicine either preventatively (Vitamin A, deworming treatments) or curatively (fungus infections are very common, so are lung infections during the rainy season). This is run very effectively: the 200+ children are gathered in lines into a large room and attend each station in turn before visiting the on-the-site pharmacy. Doctors keep the medical records and visit each school usually twice a year. In a couple of hours, it is all done!

In the afternoon, they run a training programme, raising awareness in health matters, from personal hygiene, dental care (a real issue for this population), dengue fever protection, etc. Living conditions on site are very basic so in such an environment, matters of personal hygiene are key to avoid infections spreading.


Observations and Reflections

EOS 100D_17058Alan and I have been impressed by the community mindset of the people we met, not just during our visits with Child’s Dream but also in the course of our travels in different parts of the country.

On one hand, we met former political activists from the late 1980s. Involved in the 1988 uprising and the NLD at the time, they either spent time in prison for their stance against the military junta, or managed to escape to Thailand and fought in their own way for a better Myanmar from across the border. They may or may not be actively involved in politics and with the NLD now, but they are tirelessly working towards helping the new and next generations to get a better life not only economically, but also civically.

On the other hand, we also met active members of the younger generation, the ones who were not even born during the events of 1988, who have known only the military regime all their life. I found really striking that, despite the environment in which they grew up, there is a cohort of late teens/twenty-somethings whom have a heightened sense of civic duty, an acute awareness that they need to be educated to 1) participate in the economic growth opportunity that is being unlocked by the political transition towards democracy, and 2) most importantly, contribute to shaping the future of their country.

This is where I find that the work of Child’s Dream is so relevant and powerful. They tackle not only the bottom of the pyramid and “teach a child to fish”, but their focus on higher education and on grooming agents of change for their community is insightful and equally important. This is particular needed in Myanmar where the education system has been designed by the former regime to produce youth who aren’t encouraged to think critically, but just to follow the rules.

And the foresight of Child’s Dream to have initiated these projects not only from 2011 when the country started to open up but since 2006, is commendable. As a result, their organisation is already well established in Myanmar so that they can have an impact now, at the most critical time.

Another aspect was also striking to me as we discussed with those people who are involved in some shape or form in those community initiatives: their resolute focus on (and the crucial need for) greater religious and ethnic tolerance.

While the peaceful end of the oppressive military junta and so far a smooth transition towards a democratic system have been the focus of the international attention, very serious issues remain to be addressed. I also wonder if some of the deep-rooted issues were somewhat hidden by the even-worse military regime: now that this veil is lifted, other issues come up at the forefront of society. With more freedom of speech, Buddhist extremists have had more leeway to lead heinous campaigns against the Burmese Muslims. Now that the common enemy has gone away, some tensions between ethnic groups have flared up again.

To the end, the work that Mote Oo are doing and an interfaith programme that Child’s Dream has launched recently are a step in the right direction. But more needs to be done to shift mentalities throughout the country.

With the political transition, Myanmar faces another, important but sensitive, task: the return and re-assimilation of the refugee population.

For some of the persona non-grata of the 1990s who left the country at the time – most of them as refugees in Thailand – the transition towards a civilian government in 2011 made it possible for them to come back “home”. Not only is it possible, it is also critical that the displaced population return home and for the community leaders to set the example. However, this transition won’t be easy: the refugee communities have been in existence for around 30 years. For some refugees, that’s the only life they have ever known. For some, they don’t really have a community to go back to or prospects back “home”. Some come from ethnic groups that are still discriminated against, even today. As a result, there is some inherent inertia. But it can be done and we saw this in positive examples such as Knowledge Zone and NEED.

It was a really interesting experience to see the work that Child’s Dream does on the ground and to have hours of conversation with Daniel while on the road. We could see and hear first-hand the needs of the population at this time in their economic and political development. We could see the direct impact that Child’s Dream has in meeting those needs. I distinctly felt that the impact was not only through the financial support but also through the exchange of ideas with the staff, the discipline that is instilled in the programmes’ management, the network and best practices that the parent organisation provides. But it is still a difficult environment to navigate: there are so many issues to address that project selection is important, the speed of change is such that it takes foresight to build the right programmes, and the political landscape is complex.

For instance, while promoting religious and ethnic tolerance is paramount, work has to be done only progressively, sometimes quietly. As recently as early 2014, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Frontiers or MSF), one of the most impactful NGOs in the health sector in Myanmar, was ordered to suspend all activities in the country because the government perceived that it was too supportive of the Muslim population in Rakhine state (meaning, providing basic and emergency healthcare to a population that had no other access to it). MSF was only allowed to reopen its operations in early 2015.

While hopes and expectations are massive with the landslide victory of the NLD and Aung San Suu Ki at the November elections, the task that awaits them is equally massive: addressing religious divides and intolerance; resolving the ethnic tensions and calls for more independence or federation; reforming the education system so that the country will prosper, produce future leaders, and create a population that exercises their new acquired civic rights wisely.

Daniel and Marc often repeat that their philosophy is to put the beneficiary at the core of their work, that Child’s Dream is not about their legacy but the needs of young people. As a corollary, they say that they will happily stop the work when the need is fulfilled. When one sees the progress in Thailand over the past 3 decades and the progress in Laos more recently, one can hope that the work that Child’s Dream is doing in the Mekong sub-delta region won’t be necessary in one or two generations. But until that time it fulfils a critical, independent role, not only filling a gap, but leading change and building communities. And during that time, we are glad to support them, engage in thought-provoking conversations with them, and continue following their impact in these communities.



Author’s notes:

Why do we support Child’s Dream?

– Alan and I believe in the transformational power of education, and it is a gift we would like to share widely. The need is particularly great in Myanmar. Firstly, education is a sine-qua-none condition for fairer shared growth in countries that are undergoing transformational development and economic growth. Secondly, educated youth are better able to participate constructively in the civic life of a country undergoing political reform.

– We believe that the approach of Child’s Dream is very effective: engage with the communities, work closely with the government, focus on higher education in order to groom agents of change in the community. On the later point, in our experience, there are a lot more NGOs focusing on primary/secondary than higher education, but we are convinced that the impact has a multiplying effect at a higher level of education.

– We like Child’s Dream philosophy that the interests of the stakeholders are staunchly at the heart of the organisation’s work: they are happy to transition schools and programmes to the government or the community when it makes most sense. They don’t seek to exist for the sake of it and they are self-critical on their impact/performance.

– We believe that the ongoing relationship they nurture with the communities and the continued follow-up and evaluation of the programmes and schools they fund is critical. Just as an illustration, their school evaluation system has been adopted by the Laos Ministry of Education as it was so comprehensive.

– It is a very well run organisation (7% overhead costs only, transparency, clear strategy & execution, constant evaluation of the performance of the schools/programmes) in which we have complete trust.

– We find the dialogue with the Child’s Dream founders very easy and natural, we ‘speak the same language’. We appreciate the feedback we get, qualitative and quantitative, and the opportunities to engage with the work done in the field.

Please contact us if you want to discuss in more details about our experience.

Consult Child’s Dream website for further information about the strategy, the financials and the programmes. Note that my blog focuses on Myanmar as it is a reflection on our experience there; but Child’s Dream has significant activities in Laos and Cambodia, and to a lesser extend Thailand.

Or get in touch directly with Daniel and Marc for further questions.   and

Child’s Dream can receive tax-deductible donations in Australia, France, the UK, Hong Kong, Switzerland, USA and others.


More on the issues that Myanmar must address

For general human rights issues that Myanmar must address, the Amnesty International country page is an informative overview (the report is about a year old so it will be interesting to see the progress made in the past 12 months as I felt that changes were occurring at a fast pace).

The intolerance and violence again ethnic minorities and the Muslims in particular have escalated in the past couple of years. Reports have now established that the discrimination against the Rohingya population is pretty much institutionalised. The population of about 1.3 million Rohingya Muslims is often described as the most persecuted population in the world. On the topic of statelessness that I touched upon in my “Meeting at last” blog, this population has been rendered stateless by the Burmese nationality law enacted by General Ne Win’s government in 1982.

For more on the issues faced by the Rakhine state, the report from the Crisis Group is exhaustive and particularly well balanced.

For more on the topic of anti-Muslim violence, the report by Physicians for Human Rights is a very interesting – but a chilling – read.

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