A humanitarian tragedy is currently unfolding in Myanmar, largely ignored by the global public opinion. The country, already weakened by the coronavirus pandemic, saw the military seize power, leading to nonviolent protests throughout the country and armed clashes. Since then, the economy has plummeted dramatically, and a large portion of the population has fallen into extreme poverty. Over a million people have been forced to flee their villages and towns, seeking refuge in other parts of the country as internally displaced persons.

In this context, many NGOs have left the country, leaving the vulnerable population at a time when they need assistance the most. Daniele Polini, the program manager in Myanmar, explains the motivations of SWISSAID to stay despite the crisis and the impact of their support on the affected populations.

What is the situation in the country?

Daniele Polini: The country is facing multiple political, economic, and social crises. Economically, the country’s situation is affecting trade with neighboring countries and driving away businesses. This has resulted in a decrease in the availability of goods and a significant increase in prices. Socially, there is a lot of migration to neighboring countries as well as internal displacement within the country. Tensions among the hundreds of ethnic groups living in the territory are resurfacing.

SWISSAID is one of the few NGOs remaining in the country, why?

The former slogan of SWISSAID was “Helping with Courage.” I believe it particularly applies to this situation and answers the question. Even in times of crisis, even when our work becomes difficult, we are ready to stay with the population. We help people in need, and they are even more in need in these moments. Furthermore, we cannot abandon our partners on the ground, who, given the difficulties associated with the national political situation, need external support to continue their work for the benefit of the populations.

So, are the SWISSAID projects continuing?

Yes! After a necessary pause for some activities during the pandemic, they have been able to resume and are functioning well. We are registered as an official NGO in the country and collaborate with numerous local civil society organizations implementing sustainable development projects as well as emergency relief activities.

What are the projects focused on?

The projects in Myanmar primarily focus on agroecology, gender equality, and women’s empowerment. The crises have highlighted the benefits of agroecology and have motivated the beneficiaries and partners. In the rural regions where we work, the residents are better off than in urban areas. Not only do their fields provide essential self-sufficiency during this period of scarcity, but the farmers do not have to spend their meager incomes on chemical inputs and industrial seeds, the prices of which have skyrocketed.

Gender activities have also resumed. Working on gender equality is more important than ever. Prior to the pandemic, it was mostly women who worked the land. With the lockdown and subsequent conflicts, men have had less mobility and have resumed their roles within the household. In this context, it is crucial to continue encouraging women to assert their position and take control of their activities. It is an opportunity to change mindsets. Men are, of course, included in this work, particularly through targeted awareness campaigns.