The people of Burma made history in November 2015, voting in new, democratically-elected leadership headed by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Home to some of the world’s longest running civil wars since its independence from Britain in 1948, Burma was under military rule for nearly 60 years and endured protracted conflicts. In Kayin State, one of Burma’s 14 states and regions, tree-covered hills rise and fall, and caves, mountains, and pagodas dot the landscape. In October 2015, two armed groups representing the Karen, an ethnic nationality, signed a nationwide ceasefire agreement, paving the way for political negotiations to address longstanding grievances. Here, U.S. Ambassador to Burma Scot Marciel and I saw firsthand how our foreign assistance plays a critical role in building bridges to peace.
Our first stop took us to a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-supported community health worker training program, an eight-month maternal and child health training for ethnic health workers in this more remote part of the country. Here, community health workers are often the first point of contact for all health issues the people of Kayin face. As is the case in many communities, women are often the head of health for the entire family and dictate nutritional, sanitation, and vaccination practices. Providing high quality care and health education to new mothers has the power to impact entire families, subsequently strengthening the whole community.
A pioneering collaboration between the Government of Burma and ethnic service providers, this training represents important ongoing efforts in enhancing trust and relationship building between these two groups. Training participants expressed an interest in seeing this collaboration continue, and I am optimistic that this collaborative effort can become a model for future relationship-building between government and non-government service providers across the country.
We stopped for lunch at the Veranda Community Youth Café, a social enterprise opened by young entrepreneurs who want to stimulate the economy and improve livelihoods in Kayin. Over lunch, the Ambassador and I discussed the opportunities and challenges facing this next generation of innovators.
Many shared their desire for in-depth business education, such as accounting, financial management, and other classes. Other conversations included how to diversify the business landscape in Kayin by enhancing the capability of young entrepreneurs to make market-based assessments. We also discussed Kayin’s tremendous tourism potential. Sharing this stunning scenery with the world could kick-start the local economy and create jobs.
The Ambassador and I were also able to attend a Civil Society Roundtable, where we joined eight civil society organizations representing local communities and advocating on their behalf. Representatives from organizations focusing on human rights, women’s empowerment, education, and other interests joined the Roundtable as we discussed how we can work together to promote balanced and conflict-sensitive investment in southeastern Burma. USAID plans to continue assisting southeastern Burma as we work to improve the lives of the people of this country.
We wrapped up our day visiting the USAID-supported Defeat Malaria project in Kan Gyi Village. The entire village—more than 300 people!—welcomed the Ambassador and me. It is monsoon season in Burma, and the constant rain increases malaria infections in villages like Kan Gyi. To help protect the villagers from the threat of malaria, we presented more than 300 bed nets on behalf of the U.S. Government. In Kayin, the Defeat Malaria project provides critical malaria services to approximately 110,000 people in 170 villages and works in partnership with ethnic health organizations and government to provide services in hard-to-reach areas.
With U.S. support, the people of Burma are working to build a more peaceful and prosperous nation. U.S. assistance helps build trust through efforts that promote cooperation and collaboration to address health challenges, that listen to the voices of young entrepreneurs, and that provide a platform for civil society organizations to advocate for the people they represent. This trust lays the foundation for peace, and our foreign assistance and engagement are powerful tools that cement this groundwork. With our continued assistance, and with further collaboration and relationship building, we bolster Burma’s continued path toward a more peaceful and prosperous future that benefits us all.
About the Author: Teresa McGhie serves as the Mission Director of the USAID Mission to Burma.
Editor’s Note: This entry is also published on Medium.com/StateDept.