New grants and fellowships aim to raise local voices from the Mekong region
It was a regular Wednesday morning in Bangkok. Pact’s Thailand staff, working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic, kept an eye on the Zoom chat as the screen began to fill with faces. Participants from around the Mekong region posted introductions and greetings.
The event was the first of two ‘virtual roadshows’—open online sessions—for civil society in the region to hear about grant and fellowship opportunities under Pact’s new Mekong Connections program. The Zoom event, on August 25, attracted 27 participants from Thailand, Cambodia, Lao PDR and Viet Nam.
The event was also a chance to hear what was foremost on people’s minds. For example, could the Covid pandemic be causing a spike in wildlife trafficking? One participant, from an NGO engaged in wildlife protection, described how Cambodian rangers at her organization are finding and removing many more snares than before. An increase in animal trapping, she guessed, could be one unanticipated outcome of the global pandemic, as migrant workers returning home adopt new ways to make a living.
Making the connections
Grassroot experiences can often be overlooked in policy formation, as civil society organizations (CSOs) working with poor communities remain on the fringes of critical conversations that influence key decision makers. CSOs are also often targeted by political authorities for criticizing government policies.
While national CSO networks and coalitions do exist in Mekong countries, regional coordination remains a challenge because of the region’s diverse ethnic, linguistic and political landscape. Additionally, restrictions placed by some governments may hamper civil society’s efforts to collaborate across the region. Thus, even large-scale trends (such as a spike in wildlife trapping) may be missed, as the civil society groups working with local communities do not have opportunities to communicate with each other—much less to advocate on issues of shared concern.
The Mekong Connections program, supported by the U.S. Department of State, aims to remedy this by supporting civil society to make connections across the region. Participants in the program will receive support to conduct or share their research and observations, and to develop policy and advocacy messages to governments and businesses. The purpose of the program is ultimately to strengthen governance and increase transparency in public decision making by countries in the Lower Mekong region.
The program is currently inviting applications from civil society organizations for grants, and from early- and mid-career professionals for Mekong Policy Fellowships. These opportunities are focused on tackling transboundary challenges in three key areas: water, wildlife and health security.
Water, wildlife and health security
The Mekong and Ayeyarwaddy Rivers are the region’s lifeblood. The Lower Mekong fishery produces an estimated 4.4 million tons of fish each year, worth US$17 billion—3% of the annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam (Mekong River Commission figures cited in The Diplomat, January 4, 2016). The governance of water and water-related ecosystems, including decisions about activities such as hydropower, sand mining and fishing, have implications for the health and livelihoods of all Mekong people.
Along with the flow of water throughout the region is a darker flow of trade. Wildlife trafficking for the trade of exotic pets, wild meats, and black-market animal products used in traditional medicines and amulets, is disrupting ecosystems, and risking species extinction as well as the crossover of infectious diseases from animals to humans. The improper handling of wildlife and domestic animals has been linked with the spread of Ebola, avian flu and now Covid-19, among other impacts.
Increasing the Mekong region’s ability to prevent, detect and respond to the threats of infectious diseases will mean recognizing the links between human, animal and ecosystem health—the ‘One Health’ approach. Scientists and researchers in these areas may hold the key to preventing another global pandemic.
Synchronizing the outcomes
Under the Mekong Connections program, civil society grants to the value of US$24,999 will enable groups working with local communities to undertake 12-month research or policy-oriented projects on any one, or more, of these issues. The grants will enable community perspectives to inform public debate and policy.
The Mekong Policy Fellowships for professionals will provide mentoring and training opportunities for Fellows to develop their research into policy messages and opinion editorials. Fellows will also receive a one-time honorarium of US$2,000.
Participants in the first virtual roadshow on August 25 recognized the value of working together on policy positions across the region. “It is a good way to synchronize the outcomes from different projects,” one participant said. Another commented, “It is really worth doing this. It will enable a large group of students to benefit through action research and learning.”
Applications for grants and fellowships are open until September 30, 2021. The complete application package can be found at the Pact Thailand website. A second virtual roadshow will take place August 30, 2021, 1 p.m. Indochina time for the Civil Society Grants at https://zoom.us/j/97149403755, and 2 p.m. for Health Security Fellowships at https://zoom.us/j/99506743746.