Be careful in the rush to help, experts caution

There is a lot of interest in donating money and energy to Myanmar. but donors must ensure they do not do more harm than good

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 March, 2013, 3:45am

Local charities and philanthropists are pushing into Myanmar to help with the country's development, but experts warn that people should learn from the mainland and Hong Kong's experience to avoid doing more harm than good.

"China and Hong Kong developed so fast that a lot of the beautiful old buildings are gone and many aspects of local cultures erased," said Peter Gautschi.

He is the founder of Studer Trust, a local charity that has raised funds to build primary schools in Myanmar for the past 10 years. "It would be a shame if that happened in Myanmar. Let's hope the heavyweights don't move in too quickly with their bulldozers, glass and steel."

The focus of international attention towards the country has remained strong since President Thein Sein took office and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi returned to politics in early 2011 - following decades of military rule.

A spokeswoman for the US Agency for International Development, which monitors and assists international aid efforts in Myanmar, has reported an "increasing interest" in the country among international NGOs and the private sector since 2011.

Prominent local socialite Loletta Chu Ling-ling, who was born in Myanmar and serves as honorary president of the Wai Yin Association, said: "We have definitely seen more interest recently from people asking us to help them give money to support Myanmar. But donors may not know how things operate in Myanmar, so we have to be careful to find reliable and accountable partners."

William Yu, chief executive officer of the Hong Kong-based World Green Organisation, said: "We see a lot of resistance in Hong Kong, which is already very developed, to make changes to benefit the environment, but in Myanmar, they are starting from scratch with very limited infrastructure. It's an opportunity for us to try to work with the developers and the government there to promote 'green city' planning."

Ian Holliday, an expert on Myanmar society and human security at the University of Hong Kong, agrees that it is most effective for global charities to work directly with locals in Myanmar.

"People in Hong Kong can't expect to donate a big amount of money next week without doing their homework," he said. "There has to be a process of engagement with the local civil society in Myanmar - with groups such as EcoDez and Paung Ku, which are really robust now.

"Aung San Suu Kyi has said on many occasions that the country has to stand on its own two feet. It needs to generate solutions on its own."

Cho Cho Lwin, a Myanmar native who manages Studer Trust's school-building initiatives in the country, said: "Help from the outside world to improve our education system means … locals are more likely to get jobs and work to improve our country's economic growth and standard of living."

Hong Kong University will host a conference on Myanmar in June, where local charities and philanthropists can meet delegates from the country to learn how they can best support sustainable development.