PEACE Project participants engage in a training session.
by Frederick T. Temple
A recently concluded project in Myanmar has demonstrated the importance of not only training civil society organizations to enhance their civic engagement capabilities, but also giving them opportunities to apply learnings to achieve the best results. Ultimately, this project was “very successful” in its efforts to “sustainably increase civic engagement in Myanmar,” according to a final evaluation of the work.
The Promoting Equitable and Accountable Civic Engagement (PEACE) project was implemented in Myanmar by the Local Resource Centre (LRC), in a consortium with Helvetas and the Partnership for Transparency Fund’s European affiliate (PTFeV) from August, 2016 to July, 2020. Funded by a grant from the European Union (EU) and contributions from Helvetas and PTF, the PEACE project aimed to “contribute to local civil society organizations’ (CSOs) participation and influence in the planning, implementation, and review of development projects, services delivery, and policies at the national and sub-national levels.” The project focused on enabling CSOs to increase and improve their involvement in activities to achieve more inclusive and equitable development in Myanmar. The project was implemented in Kayin, Mandalay, Mon, Northern Shan, and Tanintharyi, where LRC has local offices, as well as in Yangon, where LRC’s headquarters is located.
The PEACE project had four main components: (1) capacity building training of CSOs, (2) grants to CSOs to implement projects, (3) advocacy and networking for civic engagement, and (4) institutional development of LRC. However, the impact of this work has extended far beyond the official project’s conclusion.
Independent External Evaluation
An independent external evaluation of the PEACE project concluded that, “Overall, the PEACE project has been very successful. Its scope, scale, and outreach make it impressive, as does the wide range of positive and unexpected impacts.”
Further assessment stated:
“Regarding the [Organization for Economic Development’s Development Assistance Committee] OECD-DAC criteria, it is now possible to conclude that the PEACE project was very highly relevant and very efficient, notwithstanding the ambitious nature of targets set. The combination of capacity building, small grants, network-building and advocacy, and institution-building for LRC proved very effective. Indeed, given four years and a budget of approximately $2 million euro, it is difficult to imagine a better way in which to sustainably increase civic engagement in Myanmar. The project was also impactful far beyond the expected result areas. It seems likely that project results can be mostly sustained.”
The evaluation also observed that, “Project impacts expand well beyond the project outcomes. Indeed, many stories and examples of significant change are outside the framework of expected results and indicators established by the PEACE project.”
Overview of the Project
CSO Capacity Building Training: The project’s strategy to strengthen CSOs centered on training participating CSOs and giving them opportunities to apply what they learned. Training topics included civic engagement, organizational development, and grant project proposal, preparation, and management. Following the training, LRC awarded grants to competitively selected CSOs, enabling them to apply and deepen their understanding of the lessons by implementing projects they had designed. LRC employed a training-of-trainers technique to train fifty-two core trainers from fifty-two CSOs. These trainers, with support from LRC, then trained 451 CSO participants from 412 CSOs throughout Myanmar.
LRC training staff developed the curricula and training manuals for the CSO training, taking account of the findings of a CSO Needs Assessment, conducted at the outset of the project. PTF and Helvetas provided assistance to design the training on civic engagement and on conflict-sensitive project management and advocacy, respectively. LRC then developed two sets of inter-related curricula: one for the training of core trainers, and the other for the core trainers to use, with support from LRC, to train participants drawn from participating CSOs. LRC conducted the trainings in the project’s regional locations.
Grants to CSOs: Prior to the PEACE project, LRC had had limited experience providing grants to CSOs. During the project’s first year, a PTF adviser worked with LRC’s regionally based grant managers to draft a Grant Operations Manual and train them to manage the project’s grant component. During the remainder of the project, PTF continued to mentor the grant managers, visit CSO projects, and participate in the selection of grant awardees.
In four rounds of competitive selection of proposals, 179 grants were awarded to 136 CSOs, including 147 small grants (up to €3,000), 21 medium grants (up to €5,000). and 11 large grants (up to €15,000). The projects receiving these grants were divided among the following subjects: empowerment and protection of marginalized groups (31 percent); protecting legal rights (19 percent); ensuring the rights of marginalized groups (13 percent); addressing health and drug issues (12 percent); community development, civic education and engagement, and capacity building (16 percent); environmental protection (8 percent); and anti-corruption (2 percent). Ratings by LRC’s grant managers indicated that 70 percent of the projects fully or nearly achieved their objectives, 22 percent were substantially successful, 8 percent were partially successful, and none reported limited success.
Advocacy and Networking for Civic Engagement: The PEACE project’s advocacy component included training, support for the formation of regional networks, and advocacy activities. During project implementation, prioritized advocacy activities included those related to budget transparency, Myanmar’s Association Registration Law, and anti-corruption. The training-of-trainers approach used for CSO capacity building training was also employed for LRC training on advocacy (103 participants) and budget transparency (133 participants), with support from Helvetas. The project supported the creation or strengthening of existing civic engagement networks in the six project regions outside Yangon; 287 CSOs were involved in these networks by the end of the project. In addition to the three priority advocacy topics, the regional networks identified regional and location-specific priority topics. The regional networks were represented in and supported by a national network for civic engagement. LRC played an intermediary role by linking regional concerns to national and international advocacy activities.
LRC Institutional Development: Building on LRC organizational assessments prepared by PTF and Helvetas, an LRC institutional development plan (IDP) was prepared and implemented during the project, emphasizing administrative, human resources (HR), and financial management. Several LRC policy documents, including board members’ terms of reference, HR management policy, finance and core fund policies, and codes of conduct were revised. With support from Helvetas and PTF, they were formally adopted. LRC staff also received training from Helvetas and PTF on topics identified in the IDP. In particular, LRC’s financial sustainability received focused attention. Helvetas and PTF jointly conducted back-to-back workshops in Yangon on financial sustainability. Helvetas provided training on the identification of funding opportunities and the preparation of proposals, while PTF supported the preparation of a feasibility study and then a business plan to establish an LRC Academy. The Academy will provide fee-based training and services. While LRC adopted the plan, its implementation has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. LRC’s preparation and delivery of training under the project strengthened its training staff and created materials that can be used for future trainings. The implementation of the project’s grant component augmented LRC’s grant-management capacity, and this approach has already been applied to other projects.
Observations and Lessons Learned
What is it that made this project so successful, and how can its method be replicated? The following observations and lessons learned can be drawn from the experience of PEACE project activities in which PTF participated, and applied to future capacity-building projects:
- The combination of training and the practical experience gained from implementing grant projects was very effective. Training alone would not have been as effective as combining it with the experience of grant management. Further, many of the participating CSOs, especially those without prior project experience and in rural areas, would not have had the capacity to manage grant projects effectively without the training and support they received from LRC. The effectiveness of training of CSOs in projects can be increased by giving them opportunities to apply what they have been taught through grants or other arrangements. Prior training can improve the implementation of grants, especially by weaker and inexperienced CSOs.
- LRC’s decentralized mode of project implementation was an efficient, effective arrangement to support local CSOs, especially the approximately two-thirds of participating CSOs located in small towns and rural areas. The location of project staff in LRC’s regional offices made close contact with local CSOs possible, enabling them to better understand and respond to their needs. This was particularly important for the more remote CSOs. Supporting these groups from Yangon would have been less efficient and less effective. LRC’s decentralized structure responded to the CSOs’ extensive need for face-to-face attention. Geographic proximity of support from project staff located near CSOs responsible for implementing projects can improve performance, including by increasing responsiveness to local variations.
- A number of CSOs demonstrated a surprising ability to stretch small budgets. Notably, the small grants (€2,000) had an outsized effect on CSO development. In conclusion, micro grants can play a major role in CSO development projects.
- The initial training and ongoing support PTF provided to LRC’s regional grant managers contributed significantly to the success of the PEACE project’s grant component. If a project includes grants, the implementing agency’s capacity to manage them needs to be assessed. If necessary, external support should be provided to establish or strengthen this capacity.
- LRC’s effort to develop core trainers from the ranks of participating CSOs proved challenging. Not all of the trained trainers had the instincts to be effective trainers, and they lacked experience. In particular, concerns were expressed about the uneven quality of training. However, based on the skills acquired and continuing interest in LRC activities, LRC considers roughly forty-four core trainers as additions to its existing network of local change agents. If a project adopts a training-of-trainers approach, the trained trainers should not be expected to train on their own. They should be closely monitored and supported.
- With the support of the PEACE project, LRC modified or adopted new important organizational policies. However, no arrangements were made in the project to monitor and, if necessary, support the implementation of the policies. If a project supports the adoption of new or improved organizational policies by the implementing organization, provisions should be made to monitor and support the implementation of the policies.
- The PEACE project was implemented during the tenure of a government led by the National League for Democracy after its electoral victory in 2015, under a constitution which protected the military’s role in government and gave it considerable power. Given the history of distrust between the government and CSOs in Myanmar, building trust between these two groups was a crucial consideration. To improve relations, the project design called for a government representative to participate in the grant review and approval process. After government representatives personally participated in selecting projects in their region, they were much more supportive of CSO work. The military’s resumption of full power after a coup in January, 2021 has changed the political context in Myanmar and is likely to jeopardize the sustainability of the strengthening of civic engagement by CSOs achieved through the PEACE project. However, the ultimate impact of the coup on PEACE project activities, and civic space in Myanmar writ large, remains to be seen. From the earliest stages of program design, projects intended to strengthen civic engagement in strained political environments need to take that context into account, and implemented accordingly. If needed, activities should be adjusted to accommodate shifting political landscapes.
Frederick Temple is an adviser at the Partnership for Transparency. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policies of PTF.