The Wan Lark Foundation is one of 42 civil society organizations (CSOs) in Rakhine State which has so far received funding from The Livelihoods and Food Security Fund (LIFT)through its Small Grants Fund (SGF) managed by the Metta Development Foundation. LIFT is a multi-donor fund established in Myanmar in 2009, operating under the management of UNOPS. LIFT's Rakhine Communication Hub (RCH) conducted an interview with Khaing Kaung San, the Executive Director of the Wan Lark Foundation, for a project update and some further insights into working with different communities in Rakhine State.
RCH: Khaing Kaung San, could you give us a general description of the project you are running at the moment which was funded by LIFT through the Metta Development Foundation?
Khaing Kaung San: Sure. We are implementing a project named “Health is Life'' with the support of LIFT's Small Grant Fund. The project will run for three months from September to November 2021. The main objective of this project is to implement the COVID-19 response program among rural populations. Rakhine State had a higher death toll during the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic than in the first and second wave combined. Especially the rural population in Rakhine - with little access to information on the COVID-19 pandemic and preventive Items - was not at all ready to respond to the threat. As a result, local CSOs were trying to conduct COVID-19 awareness sessions and distribute COVID-19 preventive Items in rural areas and in IDP sites where many of the most vulnerable live. Under the name “Health is Life”, the project team of the Wan Lark Foundation is conducting COVID-19 awareness sessions and helps the formation of COVID-19 response committees in 15 villages and two IDP sites in Sittwe, Ponnagyun and Kyauktaw townships. The beneficiaries of this project are Rakhine, Muslims (Rohingya), That, Mro, Maramagyi and Thetkama living in these villages. We have 50 beneficiaries under this awareness program per village. As a result, 850 people from 15 villages and two refugee camps will directly benefit from the project.
RCH: What is the gender ratio of the rural people participating in your project?
Khaing Kaung San:As I said earlier, we have 50 beneficiaries per village. Out of these, the female participation rate is usually between 25% and 30%. We also calculate the number of beneficiaries based on our gender equality policy. The age limit is between 18 and 65 years old.
RCH: How did you conduct the COVID-19 awareness sessions and forming of COVID-19 response committees?
Khaing Kaung San: When we arrive in a village to conduct the awareness sessions, the previously invited 50 participants attend the session in a large open space since we are strictly following the official health guidelines to prevent COVID-19. Then we convey the basic COVID-19 awareness messages that everyone should know. We also have a Q&A session there so we can address questions from the participants directly and immediately. Towards the end of this section, we informed them that we would like to form a community-based COVID-19 response committee in their village. Then people who are interested in joining the committee submit their names. All committees have a total of nine members, including one leader. These committees have been set up everywhere we implement the project.
RCH: What are the criteria for selecting members of the committees? And what is the gender ratio there?
Khaing Kaung San: We set the basic criteria for the committee members. At least, every member must have basic education and be able to speak the Rakhine language fluently. This is because these committee members must be able to disseminate COVID-19 information to their communities promptly are not. For example, in case we tell them something important regarding the latest information about COVID-19 over the phone, they have to be able to fully understand it and pass it on to the community immediately. In terms of gender, we include three women in each committee.
RCH: How is the project perceived by the beneficiaries, are there differences between the different ethnic groups?
Khaing Kaung San: Most of the beneficiaries are very happy with the project and what they learn for themselves and the communities. They want everyone in every household to be able to participate as the beneficiaries. They think that limiting the number of people to 50 is a restriction on everyone's participation. This is because there has been very little awareness-raising in these villages in the third wave. The vast majority of organizations provide awareness-raising only in the more densely populated cities, so the awareness-raising sessions do not reach rural areas where the most vulnerable people live. Residents of a Muslim village in Sittwe Township told us that they have not seen any such COVID-19 activity in their village yet. We also thought that the Muslims living in villages in Sittwe are receiving COVID-19 education through the relevant INGOs. However, it was only during this project and after meeting with them that we learned that INGOs provide more support to Muslims living in IDP camps, but not so much to Muslims in the villages.
Generally speaking, it doesn’t depend on ethnicity that much how big the knowledge around COVID-19 is in the different communities. For example, looking at the Muslim villages, one village knows quite a bit about COVID-19 and accepts things as they are while another one does not believe in the COVID-19 pandemic at all. This is also seen in other communities, including Rakhine, and it really depends more on the individual access to information of each person. Some villages do not have good mobile phones / mobile phone connections to access the internet and some households do not even have a radio to get information regarding COVID-19. These are the realities on the ground.
RCH: What are the main challenges you have encountered so far?
Khaing Kaung San: We do face some challenges on the ground. One of them stems from gender issues. In some Muslim villages in Kyauktaw, women are not allowed to go out due to the prohibition of religion. Therefore, it is difficult for us to even invite women to participate in such awareness sessions. In this case, we have relied on help from local Muslim women who we have a closer relationship with already. We use them as interlocutors to invite Muslim women who don’t want to go out. This means that we have to take a very subtle approach based on diversity. We have made some efforts to achieve a better gender ratio in some Muslim villages. Another thing is that when we go to Muslim villages, we are often questioned by the security forces. But we still do not face the same restrictions as international organizations because as you know, we are a local organization.
RCH: How good or bad is the general knowledge of people in rural parts of Rakhine about COVID-19 and are there significant differences between the different ethnicities?
Khaing Kaung San: The level of knowledge of the beneficiaries is quite diverse since they all are different communities and they don’t have the same sources of information regarding COVID-19. But we stand on the principle of resolving differences peacefully. At the very least, we first study how much knowledge they have and where it came from and then approach it with the necessary sensitivity. This means, for example, we have to first explain to them the basics of what is COVID-19 and what is happening in Rakhine State regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. We have to explain to them that this virus is a global pandemic that affects every country in the world. Once this is accepted, the rest is easy to explain. Significantly, the Rakhine people do not accept the presence of COVID-19 in some villages.
RCH: How is the level of access to health care and COVID-19 prevention materials? Are there differences between the different groups?
Khaing Kaung San: Not everyone in our project area has access to health care from the State Health Department. And the health care system in Rakhine State has never been able to reach everyone. After the military coup, there was a shortage of health workers for medical treatment. Although not as prominently as the ‘mainland’, health workers in Rakhine State who came from other regions have joined the CDM (Civil Disobedience Movement). Some villages have rural dispensaries, but no health workers. In the more crowded places in the villages, in markets for example, our team members put up vinyls with messages related to COVID-19 and then they distribute COVID-19 prevention materials to reach the targeted beneficiaries. We distribute these items only after we demonstrate how to use them in our awareness sessions. Therefore, I would say we do not see any significant differences between the communities.
RCH: What languages do you use during the awareness sessions in different communities?
Khaing Kaung San: The Rakhine language is the main language used in our awareness sessions. Most people understand it quite well. However, in some Muslim villages some participants are not fluent in the Rakhine language. Whenever we realise there is a language barrier, we ask a Muslim participant who is fluent in the Rakhine language for help as a translator. This is not the case in every Muslim village though. The number of Muslims who do not understand the Rakhine language is very small in the villages where we implement our project.
RCH: How was the funding process in general? Was it easy to submit and get the proposal approved or was it difficult?
Khaing Kaung San: I don’t think it is very difficult to apply for this Small Grants Fund. We also have some experience in applying for funding for other projects with different organizations. Therefore, compared to other, smaller CSOs, it was quite simple for us to apply for LIFT's Small Grant Fund. And I also believe that even the smaller CSOs in Rakhine should be able to go through the application and funding process of the Small Grants Fund.
RCH: So, do you think the Small Grants Fund is a good initiative especially for the smaller CSOs?
Khaing Kaung San: Yes, I think so. Opportunities such as the Small Grant Fund are really important for CSOs in Rakhine. The ability of local CSOs is critical when the Ministry of Health is not able to effectively provide COVID-19 awareness and prevention materials. Small CSOs have the capacity and the motivation to do things, but they need the resources that come in the form of a small grant to really be able and reach the vulnerable communities in Rakhine. However, I would like to suggest that LIFT should expand on other sectors or topics with the Small Grants Fund. We think it would be great if LIFT was to support agricultural training and technology as well as disaster risk reduction through its Small Grants Fund.
RCH: What additional suggestions do you and Wan Lark Foundation have for the donor community?
Khaing Kaung San: International organizations believe that there are many civil society organizations in Rakhine. But some groups only do short-term philanthropy whenever something special occurs. Therefore, there are not that many organizations working with international organizations to implement projects. My advice to international donors in this regard is to develop a localization strategy that is in line with the relevant policies of the donors and can effectively meet the needs of local communities. I am saying this because some INGOs still have weak links with local CSOs. In recent years, local organizations have been discussing and setting up relevant frameworks for localization. But more needs to be done. This is especially important when certain restrictions kick in and only the local CSOs have direct access to the local population. Having said this, I am well aware of the fact that although localization requires the involvement of CSOs, the relevant international organizations will still need to ensure that each CSO meets the standards of the donors.