[Alumni Reflection] Erin Van Sickle: “A culture of service in Vietnam and Myanmar”
One of the reasons I was particularly excited to travel to Vietnam and Myanmar was to learn about the ways in which nonprofits, business communities, and governments leverage volunteers to meet critical needs in both countries. Through this exchange, I’ve learned that volunteers play a critical role in the development of civil society, from helping neighbors in times of need or as spontaneous responders to disaster.
To be clear, as a communist country, the Vietnamese government can compel people to “volunteer” through its many unions (youth union, women’s union, etc.) But there are also many examples of national NGOs and small nonprofits that have stepped in to serve the people of Vietnam. Operation Smile—which provides free, life-changing surgery to children with facial deformities—is celebrating 20 years of service in Vietnam. We learned this while meeting with Nguyen Dung, a surgeon and vice chairman of the People’s Committee of Thua Thien Hue Province. In addition to providing medical care, Operation Smile builds public-private partnerships to advocate for better healthcare in Vietnam. This is a theme we saw over and over in Vietnam and Myanmar: service organizations recognizing that their success depends on building capacity one volunteer and one donor at a time.
In Myanmar, we attended the Second Annual Social Enterprise Expo hosted by USAid, Project Hub, and the British Council. The Social Enterprise Expo was packed with impressive groups led primarily by young people, focusing on community development and civic engagement. There seemed to be a particular interest in empowering women and children by providing women with vocational training so that they can generate income for their families. The effect is twofold: women receive training to develop, produce, and market their products, and the host organization benefits from sales—giving both stakeholders an incentive to research and produce better products.
A few months ago, in conjunction with President Obama’s visit to Myanmar, the US announced that it was establishing a Peace Corps program in Myanmar. The Peace Corps will train volunteers to serve at work sites for two years. A White House statement said there is no better way for the U.S. to demonstrate its commitment to Myanmar than through such “people-to-people connections at a grassroots level.”
Organizations empowering volunteers and promoting service play a huge role in these countries. One such organization, ActionAid Myanmar, equips Fellows in villages across the country with the tools they need to create sustainable local development. The Fellows are volunteers, and the majority of them are women who gain the skills, knowledge, and confidence they need to create change in their communities, while also engaging other volunteers. Further, the International Republican Institute (IRI), a nonpartisan organization committed to advancing freedom and democracy worldwide, is very active in Myanmar. IRI builds capacity by organizing volunteers for international training and missions. In Myanmar, IRI has supported pro-democracy political leaders, activists and groups.
We also had the opportunity to meet Wa Lone, a young volunteer and senior reporter with the Myanmar Times, who works with about 70 young people in several of the major cities in Myanmar. Every month, the group (comprised of about 20 regional organizations under the umbrella of the Benevolent Youth Organization) meets to determine which needs are greatest and the projects they can implement to meet those needs. While I was visiting, the group was focused on fundraising and gathering supplies for schools for the winter. Myanmar schools have vastly different needs than what we typically think about when we think of school supplies: Wa Lone specifically mentioned warm clothes, drinking water, and toilets in addition to the more traditional needs of books, desks, and paper.
Wa Lone talked to us about the Benevolent Youth Organization and how it was gearing up for International Volunteer Day on December 7. Navigating the Myanmar government structure can be tricky. To promote a culture of service in the country, the group doesn’t ask the government for permission, but rather it engages government officials by explaining the projects, inviting them to participate, and keeping them up to date on progress. “We’ve survived for five years like this,” Wa Lone says. “And the work the volunteers do – it’s priceless.”
Erin Van Sickle is the External Affairs Director for Volunteer Florida