Education in Transition:
A Preliminary Study of Capacity Development for Civil Society Actors in Burma/Myanmar
Burma/Myanmar is currently in a transition with important ramifications for capacity development efforts. The present preliminary study explores some of the critical issues at stake for capacity development activities in order to better understand how the field as a whole can continue to undertake effective trainings and evolve to adapt to current trends. Of particular interest to the researchers is the question of how to teach human rights and social sciences in complex settings such as in Burma/Myanmar and how this field may evolve. The preliminary research has two research interests: contemporary issues of concern in capacity development which need to be addressed by the current stakeholders; and the interaction between the stakeholders within the capacity development network (including Burma/Myanmar participants, Burma/Myanmar organizations, universities, Thai based organizations, political groups, and so on). As a preliminary study, this report seeks to give some first impressions of the current situation of the capacity development field during a period of change in Burma/Myanmar. This research does not attempt to quantify the field or undertake a mapping of it. Rather, the preliminary study intends to draw out issues and concerns expressed by stakeholders in capacity development which can guide future directions of activity, development, and research
The capacity development field is large, yet there has been limited analysis of how this field works and few studies of how stakeholders adapt to current changes. This report wishes to contribute to the understanding of capacity development in the field of human rights and social sciences in three specific ways:
· Understanding how and why young Myanmar people get involved in civil society activities.
· Understanding how the capacity development field is structured and how it operates.
· Understanding what organizational and quality concerns capacity development organizations should be addressing.
The report includes the viewpoints of students or participants in the capacity development field in order to gain a greater understanding of the paths and choices made by youth in Burma/Myanmar who want to work in civil society related areas.
Participants provided many reasons why they undertake civil society activities: some were drawn by the opportunity to be trained by trainers with education from abroad, by access to jobs in the civil society sector, by the opportunities to study abroad, or by being encouraged by their parents and other elders in the community. The students also voiced criticism of the public education system, including colleges and universities. Indeed, as one external observer noted, students in Burma/Myanmar seem to be grabbing at straws in order to make up for what the public system does not offer. For most of the respondents, capacity development by civil society groups, either in Burma/Myanmar or along the border and in neighboring countries, serves to replace a dysfunctional public system. Education plays an important role in the personal and social development of youth, and could also lay the foundation for a better future for Burma/Myanmar by encouraging a more democratic culture and active citizenship. At the same time, education can also be part of the problem if it becomes politicized and serves to reinforce antagonism between groups, or when it creates false expectations of work and better future without addressing the wider context. While many student informants started at a Burma/Myanmar university, there are few opportunities created by these institutions and the students were often forced to look for education elsewhere, either through alternative education (such degrees not recognized by the Myanmar Government available at Myanmar Institute of Theology or Myanmar Egress), or through other education organizations such as the American Centre or British Council. As detailed in the study, the weakness of the university sector contributes to shape the type of capacity development that civil society institutions provide.
The report explains the dynamics between the different sectors, mainly the larger NGOs, international organizations, the universities, political groups, and more grassroots actors in order to show the impact (or lack of impact) of these organizations on the development of civil society. It is difficult to accurately map or measure the field: there are a large number of trainings, and many are small in size. The number of capacity development providers keeps changing, and there is a lack of documentation perhaps because of security issues, but also due to limited capacity to fully document their activities. With more openness in Burma/Myanmar, however, the capacity to produce public reports could gradually increase. As an expert informant pointed out, this ability to document activities and produce reports increases may lead to increased funding and assistance.
In the field there is a distinction between Thai-based and Burma/Myanmar-based organizations. Those operating in Thailand face limitations in terms of accessing new participants and access to communities. Training can be dislocated from - and in the worse cases unrelated to - the situations where the impacts are expected to show up. Yet Thai-based organizations have more freedom to address root causes and political issues. They are able to provide participants an open, secure environment where topics can be discussed in a relatively frank and open manner, with high quality facilities and trainers. Burma/Myanmar-based organizations are able to influence the domestic landscape at the individual and community level. The general strength of those organizations operating inside Burma/Myanmar is that trainings can have direct community level impact. Recognizing that those who participate in capacity development can initiate their own activities, Burma/Myanmar based organizations have the potential to forge a greater role in multiplying the impact of training by ensuring that trained participants continue to work in the field. Security, however, is an ever present element in programming around capacity development. This may range from the protection of the identity of some participants, to the cautious distribution of training material which may contain documents considered to be risky. While this preliminary study set out to examine critical issues raised by individuals working on and around capacity development it would be misleading to ignore the many positive aspects of capacity development efforts such as the diversity, quality, and quantity of training.
Some simple lessons can be seen in the structure and development of this field. Firstly, trainings have been inexorably moving across the border to inside Burma/Myanmar for the past decade and this movement is set to continue. Secondly, gradual changes within Burma/Myanmar are providing more space for capacity development. While the solidity of these new freedoms is yet to be fully tested, there is enough of a critical mass inside Burma/Myanmar to show that capacity development will be a permanent feature. Finally, training organizations in Thailand will remain relevant because of their established experience, their easier access to education resources, and their high quality.
A major finding is that the ‘heart’ of capacity development is with the small ‘reading groups’ in Burma/Myanmar which engage in education activities, community level development, or provide a space for discussion and debate. Every student interviewed had been a member of one, most are still actively involved in them, and these groups are a major engine of growth and dynamism for Burma/Myanmar youth. Many actors gain their first experience of civil society work through them. It is difficult to determine how many groups there are because of their rapid proliferation. Most groups are small – numbering less than 20 or so core members – which means they are not large enough to attract attention, and if they do become too large they will break into two smaller groups. Their ad hoc structure allows them to adjust to infrequent funding, and sporadic changes in membership.
While Burma/Myanmar has a large number of universities and a large graduate cohort, universities are largely dysfunctional. Universities have poor infrastructure, they are often located miles from the city centre in Yangon, and are overtly cautious about innovation and change. Degree programs are overly technical, leaving little room for critical or analytical skills to develop. There are further structural issues such as the student admission process which locks in students to degrees, and there is little competition between university programs resulting in poor quality and reluctance to innovate. Teachers are teaching according to curriculums whose quality has not been assessed and teaching methods focus on rote learning. Social sciences that could encourage critical thinking are not taught. Universities tend to focus on quantity rather than quality. Though large numbers of students graduate, their knowledge of the discipline is often highly technical and rather basic. Many students go to university merely to sign their attendance sheet before leaving for other activities; if students stay for the lectures they describe these as watching their professors read from a book. Assessment comes in the form of a final course exam where cheating is common, and learning is based on memorization. The use of a system of additional tuition classes outside of the formal education system and normal class hours, upon requested by teachers is widespread. The impact of an underperforming university sector on capacity development is significant. It ranges from the structural issues of the burden on capacity development organizations, to the educational issues, such as a lack of space and lack of capacity to undertake research of a critical and analytical nature. Organizations felt they were taking on tasks which would normally be expected to be done by a university, such as basic education in political science, sociology, or research methodology. Organizations noted that they must devote time to develop knowledge which is normally expected of a university graduate, including basic critical analytical skills. Also, it adds a complexity to education policy and planning across all sectors because education standards and knowledge of staff in general is both diverse and little known.
The study lists ten areas of concern related to organizational and quality issues. These have been formulated as questions that those engaged in capacity development ought to be asking.