‘Everything is different now’: With integrated development, Myanmar communities transform

January 23, 2018

When she is asked what her life was like before, one day in particular comes immediately to mind for Khin Mar Cho.

It was raining out, and she’d just gone into labor with her fourth child. Her husband made a hurried trip to a stream more than a mile away, from which their family fetched all of its water – for drinking, cooking, farming and washing.

Khin Mar Cho tried her best to save some to clean herself and the baby after the birth, but her husband could only carry so much. By the time she’d washed everything she would need for the delivery, the water was gone.

Out came a little girl. As the storm outside continued, rain seeped through the thatched roof of the family’s one-room, self-built house. Like running water, it also lacked electricity. It soon grew dark. Khin Mar Cho cradled her daughter in her arms.

“I remember crying and crying,” she says.

Today, that little girl is 6 years old. She’s in a green and white school uniform, giggling and chasing after her new puppy in her family’s yard. She’s home for lunch from her newly renovated school, which is just up a nearby road that was also recently improved. The tiny house where she was born now serves as her family’s storage shed. Next to it stands a big new house, outfitted with a solar home system for electricity. Next to the house is a tall pile of clay pots that Khin Mar Cho made by hand – one of two profitable businesses she runs. Next to that, Khin Mar Cho’s husband is washing up at an outdoor spigot that began delivering water directly to their doorstep earlier this year.

“Our life is quite improved,” Khin Mar Cho, 48, says. 

Khin Mar Cho works on a clay pot at her family's home.

She credits all of it – the water, the power, the house, her business success, the school and road improvements and more – to Pact and its partners in Myanmar.

The truth, though, is that she and her neighbors in Gon Kon, a village of about 500 people in Myanmar’s Seik Phyu township, did almost all of it themselves.

In 2011, with funding from USAID, Pact launched the Shae Thot project – or, The Way Forward – in thousands of villages across Myanmar’s central, rural Dry Zone and Kayah state. Villages were chosen based on need. Most had received little international aid or development assistance in the past. Few had sufficient access to water. Child mortality, stunting and diarrheal disease rates were high, and nutrition and maternal health indicators were low. Access to credit and livelihoods opportunities were rare.

“The situation for most people was really quite desperate, especially in hard-to-reach communities,” says Sabine Joukes, Pact’s program director in Myanmar.

Shae Thot aimed to address villages’ most pressing needs, including maternal and child health, food security and livelihoods, and water, sanitation and hygiene. But its unique, integrated model – one focused on making holistic, systemic change and building strong local institutions and decision-making – would be the project’s real power.

At the center of Shae Thot are Village Development Committees, or VDCs, comprised of democratically elected village members. At the start of Shae Thot, Pact helped each village included in the project form its own VDC. Each village also received a small amount of money – generally between $50 and $200 – to start a Village Development Fund, or VDF, which communities had to match.

The fund serves two purposes. First, villages use it to make loans to community members. Most VDFs offer low-interest loans that villagers typically use to start or grow small business, as well as interest-free health loans, which may be used to cover expenses such as medical care and transportation to clinics.

“This alone makes a huge difference in communities where there was nothing like this before,” Joukes says.

Proceeds from loan interest go back into the fund, allowing it to sustainably grow and serve its other purpose: Villages use it to carry out their own development projects, from infrastructure improvements to social initiatives, that they decide on together under their VDC’s leadership. 

Village Development Committee members in Si Pin Thar village.

On top of training and mentorship to establish strong, transparent VDCs and VDFs, Pact and its Shae Thot partners layered other critical interventions.

In the area of maternal and child health, Pact has trained what it calls “health defenders,” mostly women volunteers who learn the basics of nutrition, hygiene and safe pregnancy and child birth, as well as how to diagnose and treat common childhood illnesses and decide when professional or emergency care should be sought. In addition to making home visits and checking in with expectant mothers throughout their pregnancies, health defenders lead mother’s groups, which meet regularly to read about and discuss health topics using Shae Thot-provided learning materials. Pact also helps villages host child feeding and baby weighing events, where kids under 5 are fed and tracked based on the health of their weight.

“Before, pregnant women didn’t know to take vitamins or to have their prenatal doctor visits or their iron injection, or to deliver at the hospital if they can,” says Myaing Myaing Maw, a health defender in Si Pin Thar village, in Meikhtila township. “Sometimes I go with women to the hospital if needed. It’s my responsibility to help them be healthy.” 

Health defender Myaing Myaing Maw and her two children.

A mother’s reading group meets in Ywar Thar Kone village, in Salin township.

In the area of livelihoods and food security, Pact has introduced its signature WORTH model to help women save money, access credit and start small businesses. And the Italian NGO Cesvi has provided technical education and mentorship in improved, climate-resistant agricultural practices, which has helped farmers boost their yields and incomes. Using demonstration plots, trained farmers now share their knowledge with their neighbors. Cesvi has also helped villages gain reliable access to improved seeds through seed banks, in which farmers receive quality seeds at no cost at the start of the season in exchange for “paying back” the seeds, plus extra, after their harvest. This ensures an ongoing, no-cost seed supply for all growers who want them. 

WORTH members in Gon Kon village make savings deposits.

Farmers in Shae Thot villages are using more systematic methods now, which has helped boost production, incomes and food security.

In the area of water, sanitation and hygiene, UN-Habitat has trained local carpenters and masons to build low-cost wells, bio-sand filters and other water infrastructure, and has trained community volunteers and teachers to promote proper hygiene practices across their villages.

Along the way, Pact brought in new partners, including corporate donors, to fill in gaps that emerged. For example, despite Shae Thot’s health efforts, some villages were simply too far away from professional medical care. So with funding from the international telecommunications company Ooredoo, Pact hired doctors and nurses and launched mobile clinics that visit remote villages every six weeks. 

A mobile health clinic serves villagers in Shin Hla, in Madaya township.

Communities also identified electricity as a major unmet need, so with funding from Chevron, Shell and other corporate partners, Pact launched its Ahlin Yaung, or “Light,” project, which is working to bring renewable energy to 1 million people in rural Myanmar by 2021, including through low-cost solar home systems that families pay for in manageable installments. Many people who have gained electricity through Ahlin Yaung use it to run their businesses later, boosting their income, or to allow their children to read and study past dark.

Villagers across the Dry Zone have gained access to affordable, clean energy with Pact’s help.

VDCs and VDFs have played a central role in all of these interventions. VDCs have worked with village energy committees to help coordinate efforts to bring power to villagers, and VDFs have helped fund water projects and buildings to house seed banks. Myaing Myaing Maw, the health defender in Si Pin Thar, suggested that her village use VDF money to buy a community vehicle to transport sick people to the hospital, which the community plans to do.

“Although our interventions have been wide-ranging, they’ve also been really integrated,” says Richard Harrison, Pact’s country director in Myanmar. “We’ve learned that integration – and specifically integrating access to finance – has a catalytic effect. We can educate the community all we want about health and agriculture and entrepreneurship, but it’s strong community institutions and access to resources that allows them to actually do something with that knowledge. Through integration and access to finance, we both accelerate and increase our results.”

Also critical, Joukes says, has been villages’ stake and ownership in their own development.

“Rather than material things, what we’ve mostly given these communities has been knowledge and capacity, which means they’re truly leading their own development. With their own resources and with systems that they’ve built up, they are making decisions about what they need and then doing it themselves. When it comes to sustainability, this is what matters. This is what means it will last after Pact leaves.”

Indeed, as Shae Thot nears its scheduled end after six and a half years, villages are running their VDCs, VDFs, health initiatives, seed banks, WORTH groups and more largely on their own.

In Gon Kon, besides road and school improvements, the village has used its VDF to build wells and a community funeral hall, to make improvements to the village’s pagoda, to buy a community van and to make small donations to villagers with tuberculosis.

Pact gave the village the equivalent of about $50 to start its fund in 2013. Today, the fund holds about $2,000.

In addition to three-month, interest-free health loans, Gon Kon’s VDF offers six-month, 3 percent loans to anyone who wants one. On its own, Gon Kon’s VDC recently revised its VDF’s rules and regulations to improve the fund’s management. 

A water tap built through Shae Thot.

Children attend class at Gon Kon’s recently improved elementary school.

“Since Pact gave us the information and process in 2013, we have learned it very well,” says U Myint Than, a member of the VDC’s agriculture committee. “Now we are just continuing. We have many activities, and the community is involved and trusts us.”

In Pyawbwe Lay, a village in Meikhtila township, the community has used its VDF to build a school, to make water infrastructure and road improvements, and to help families that are needy or struggling with health problems. Pact gave the village about $190 to start its fund in 2014, and by the following year, the community was running it mostly on its own, VDC members say.

“Everything is different now,” says U Win Maung, Pyawbwe Lay’s VDC president. “Before, we were far behind in every way, like transportation and education. The infant death rate was so high. In the old days, women gave birth by local people and cut the umbilical cord by sickle. We had to queue to get water, and sometimes fighting broke out due to some greedy people who tried to get more water. We encountered diarrhea and other health problems. Pact came in and founded a fund for the village. Day by day, the fund increased. We learned about the role of chairman, secretary and treasurer, and they showed us the roadmap and administration of the VDC on a vinyl poster. They guided and trained us to be able to manage and decide on our own.”

Today, U Win Maung says, his village is healthy, capable and thriving. 

U Win Maung

Since its start, Shae Thot has helped establish 1,645 VDCs, which oversee VDFs that now hold nearly $3 million in community funds. And 95 percent of VDFs have been found to remain active one or more years after Pact’s support ends.

The project has helped build or improve more than 71,000 water systems, has trained 1.5 million people in health and nutrition, and has taught improved agricultural techniques to 58,000 farmers. Under Ahlin Yaung, nearly 30,000 people have gained clean energy in their homes. 

It was VDF loans that set Khin Mar Cho on her path to a better life. She took out several to buy seeds and other supplies to expand her family’s farm. Slowly, her income grew, and she started her pottery business, boosting her income even more. She and her family then took and repaid several VDF loans to gradually buy the materials they’d need to build their new house.

Khin Mar Cho washes laundry using her family’s new water tap.

Khin Mar Cho works on a pot – one of two successful businesses she runs.

Before Pact, Khin Mar Cho says, her only option was to borrow money from rich people in neighboring villages who charged 20-percent interest and required collateral such as jewelry. She had so little back then that she had to borrow collateral items from friends, and she worried constantly about whether she would be able to pay back what she owed.

Through Shae Thot, Khin Mar Cho says, she learned how to take better care of her children when they’re sick. Through agricultural training, she learned more systematic farming methods and how to make natural fertilizer and pesticide, and from Gon Kon’s new seed bank, she obtained better seeds – all of which helped increase her production.

With more income, Khin Mar Cho says, her family is eating better and has what it needs, and whereas her two oldest children only attended school to the fourth grade, dropping out to help the family earn money, her younger two are enrolled and will remain so.

“I can say that there is significant change,” Khin Mar Cho says.

“So many changes.”

The Shae Thot project is supported by USAID and paid for by the American people.

Photos by Brian J. Clark for Pact.

Lead photo: Khin Mar Cho sits at the front of her family’s old house, now used as a shed.