Extra tuition, early childhood development, professional skills training and capacity building: the role of NGOs, community-based organisations and individuals

Commercial as well as non-profit ‘learning centres’ that provide extra tuition have become a common part of the urban landscape. A number of local NGOs and engaged individuals, often university students, run free or low-cost extra tuition programs in order to help children who have problems at government schools but are unable to pay for extra tuition. Many of these programs focus on English or help students prepare for their matriculation examination. While free or low-cost extra tuition often constitutes a valuable support for poor children, it should be noted that it can also be counterproductive. The quality of these programs is often quite inadequate and the volunteers who give lessons are often insufficiently qualified and have usually not been trained as teachers. As in the public schools, learning is mostly by rote. Moreover, classes tend to be large (up to 100 students) and quite often students from different grades—ranging from primary to high-school level—are taught together. What is more, with the state-run education system deteriorating, it has become common practice for parents to have their children take extra tuition. As a result, some 10-year-old children interviewed spent almost all of their day in class, going to the government school in the morning, to extra tuition with costs in the afternoon and to another, free extra tuition in the evening—sometimes as late as nine or ten o’clock. With the absorptive capacity of a 10-year-old child unquestionably limited and the quality of the tuition often inadequate, the educational impact of some of these programs becomes questionable. It is also noteworthy that in many instances of extra tuition, the line between civil society, the State and corruption has become blurred. As teachers usually cannot live on their meagre salaries, many have resorted to extra tuition as a way to supplement their income. Some of these extra-tuition programs run by professional teachers operate at low cost and might constitute a valuable complement to regular tuition where classes are usually too big for teachers to be able to respond to individual students. In some problematic cases, however, teachers have stopped teaching the subject matters most relevant for passing the final exams in regular class and have transferred these teaching units to the extra-tuition courses instead. Some teachers even provide the notes, or handouts, on which the exams are based through paid tuition classes only.[17]

Limited space also exists for community-based and NGO activities in the early childhood development (ECD) sector, which is aimed at children up to five. At the village level, these initiatives are often informal and conducted by local community leaders. Some of the registered local NGOs run more formally organised nursery or pre-primary schools, which operate on a larger scale. According to an NGO worker, pre-primary schoolteachers usually try to stimulate creative thinking in children, play and sing songs with them and start to teach them the Burmese/Myanmar and the English alphabets. Some foreign as well as local church-based NGOs also focus on capacity building for local, unregistered community-based organisations that already have their own ECD programs in place but lack knowledge in child-centred teaching methods. The fact that several international NGOs have also managed to engage in ECD indicates that this sector is generally a bit more open than the education sector as a whole. Interestingly, it is the Ministry of Social Welfare (MSW) and not the MOE that is in charge of ECD. This seems to provide a small window of opportunity for enhanced civil-society engagement. As a local staff member of an international NGO active in ECD stressed, on an individual level, cooperation between NGO members and MSW officials sometimes worked quite well. What is still lacking, however, is a bridging system between non-state ECD programs and the state-run primary school system. According to a local employee of an international NGO that works in the ECD sector, once children transfer from an ECD program into the rigid state-run education system, they are often confused by the contrast in approach.

Another field of local NGO engagement is vocational-skills training. The ‘Myanmar Professional Skills Training Association’ in Yangon,[18] for example, offers courses in different fields including nursing, gardening and financial accounting. It also has a few computers and offers training that focuses on basic office skills. Most of the courses charge a small attendance fee and are thus unlikely to reach the hard-core poor. This NGO, however—like others in this field—faces financial constraints itself. The computer classes, for instance, are often interrupted by electricity cuts as the organisation cannot afford a generator. Moreover, this association usually relies on the voluntary engagement of its teachers and trainers, who are often local pensioners.

Some unregistered community-based organisations have also set up ‘training centres’ that offer post-high school education and target ill-educated school leavers. Teachers, ex-teachers or non-professional volunteers from the local community often conduct courses. Some of these training centres have received financial support and capacity building from international NGOs. Nevertheless, in most cases, teacher training is still a major need.[19] As a rule, NGO vocational training programs cannot provide students with an officially recognised degree. Some NGOs, however, maintain contacts with local enterprises and also help their graduates by writing recommendation letters to possible future employers. As the government is wary of all initiatives that might contribute to empowerment, a number of local NGOs do not engage in education directly, but have opted instead to engage in less controversial education support activities. Some give grants to poor parents whose children are enrolled in government schools. Others have established free hostels for poor children or young adults who leave their remote rural areas in order to seek education and training in the cities.

Local NGOs and community-based organisations also make important contributions in the field of capacity building for development-oriented work. This includes training activities in project management, proposal writing, financial accounting, community organising, leadership skills, conflict management and English. Basically, these programs target three different groups of people: first, (future) staff members of local NGOs; second, local community leaders such as pastors, village elders or socially engaged local businessmen who can later pass their skills on to their respective local communities—or potentially even establish their own informal skills-training centres; and third, (future) local staff members of international aid organisations. The ‘Local Capacity Mobilising Initiative’ in Bagan,[20] for example, provides a self-study program that requires applied thinking and a high degree of discipline. The course has more than 10 modules, including socially relevant issues such as community organising and conflict management. Students basically work through the materials themselves but come together for regular group discussions. Starting from Bagan, the organisers have managed to extend the program to two other cities. In order to have a sustainable impact on local communities, the organisers are seeking ways to establish alumni groups of graduates, which they plan to link up with already existing community-based organisation and NGO welfare programs in different towns and villages. The certificates that students can acquire after completing NGO and community-based organisation capacity-building courses are not recognised by the government. At least one community-based organisation visited, however, had its certificates accredited by an international educational institution. Moreover, community-based organisation and NGO certificates are often recognised by the local and international aid organisations active in Burma/Myanmar for which community-based organisation and NGO capacity-building courses have come to serve as pools from which they recruit their staff.

Community-based schools in rural areas

In rural areas where there are no public schools, community-based schools (CBS) are often crucial as a means for providing village children with a primary education. Such CBS are established and organised in a variety of patterns. In cases where there is a public school building in the village, but the local government cannot pay for a teacher, local communities frequently establish informal groups and collect money to pay the village teacher themselves. If no professional teacher is prepared to work in the village, community-based organisations sometimes even choose a teacher from among themselves. Mostly, these makeshift teachers are community leaders who are respected people and who have a certain education as well as certain skills, but who have never been trained as teachers. If the next government school is too far away from the village—for example, in a neighbouring village or town—local community-based organisations sometimes even construct the school building on their own and then either share the teacher with a nearby government school or recruit and pay the teacher themselves. Officially, the government mostly declares CBS of this kind ‘extensions’ to the government schools nearest to them. In reality, however, the respective local communities themselves have made all the efforts and expenses to establish and run these schools. If the local government does not choose the strategy of cooption, but rather seeks to prevent the establishment of CBS, these schools often operate under religious umbrellas. In Christian communities, CBS are usually connected to the local church (see the Christian education section below), while in Buddhist communities they tend to take the form of Buddhist monasteries.[21]

CBS constitute a perfect example of how local civil-society groups try to bridge the accessibility gap that exists in the formal education system. The problem of the lack of educational quality usually persists, however, as the ‘teachers’ who volunteer at local CBS have often not been trained. Nevertheless, CBS also offer a wide range of advantages. As they are rooted in the local communities, they often provide work and life skills that are particularly needed in the respective locality, such as training in agricultural cultivation methods or basic veterinary skills. In some cases, such skills-training measures are even linked to income-generating activities. CBS also serve important communication purposes and can constitute forums in which environmental as well as health and preventive health issues—for example, in the field of HIV/AIDS—can be discussed. Often such health training is conducted by using various forms of traditional arts such as puppet shows (UNESCO 2002). The ‘Community Learning Centre’ project of the UN Development Program (UNDP) and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), which started in 1994, has promoted CBS as centres for the provision of non-formal education. A report that summarised the experiences stressed that, due to poverty, insufficient enrolment and high drop-out rates, ‘non-formal education will continue to be a necessity’ in the future and models such as CBS will be needed ‘to provide the population with complementary opportunities for basic education and life-long learning’ (UNESCO 2002:30).

Civil society-based education systems in cease-fire areas

Because of the remoteness of many ethnic areas, the systematic neglect of the ethnic minorities by the central government and the legacy of armed conflict, the welfare system of the central state is particularly weak in Burma/Myanmar’s ethnic minority regions. As for education in particular, the situation is often further aggravated by the regime’s rigid and discriminatory language policies. For example, in several cases, the central government has established schools in ethnic areas but insisted that tuition be conducted in Burmese/Myanmar and it has hired teachers who do not even understand the local ethnic language. As a consequence, ethnic children who do not speak Burmese/Myanmar do not benefit, and some parents even refuse to send their children to school.

Since 1989, the regime has negotiated cease-fires with most of the armed ethnic resistance groups and granted them some degree of autonomy, which in some cases extends to language and education. As a consequence, various armed groups and their affiliated ethnic political parties, but particularly the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and the New Mon State Party (NMSP), are running their own school systems. Even though these education systems often predate the cease-fires, they have extended considerably since the cease-fires.[22] In Special Region 4 in Eastern Shan State, schools run by the central government exist alongside Chinese schools and so-called ‘self-reliance schools’, which operate under the authority of the education department of the National Democratic Alliance Army–Eastern Shan State (NDAA–ESS). The KIO, which has wide-ranging administrative autonomy over its area, is also allowed to have its own department for education and runs a teacher-training school (ICG 2003:9). The Kachin education system has about 1000 teachers. Most Kachin schools operate at the primary level, but there are also some Kachin middle and high schools.[23] The NMSP also runs its own education department, which, since the 1995 cease-fire, has even managed to extend its programs to Mon communities in government-controlled areas (South 2007:164ff.). In 2003, the NMSP ran as many as 187 Mon national schools as well as 186 ‘mixed’ schools—that is, schools shared with the public school system, in which minority languages are still banned (South 2007). Even the youngest of the cease-fire groups, the KNU/KNLA Peace Council (KPC),[24] has already set up its own department of education. Although these para-statal administrative bodies and school systems do not constitute civil society-based education models as such, they are noteworthy because the line between the education system run by the central government and the alternative education systems provided by ethnic actors is gradually becoming blurred. This tendency is also evident among civil-society groups that have established alternative education programs in ethnic areas. Despite the highly ambivalent political character of most of the cease-fires, in some ethnic regions the resulting increase in ethnic autonomy has led to the emergence or enlargement of spaces for civil-society activities in the welfare sector in general and in the education sector in particular (Smith 1999; Purcell 1999; South 2004).

Christian education

Christian missionaries first introduced Christian education and church-run schools to Burma/Myanmar (for example, Zoellner 2007b). Even before British colonial times, a number of missionary schools were active in the country, and the first high school was in fact established by missionaries in 1872 (Tin 2004). After independence in 1948, the influence of the Christian schools was gradually pushed back as the U Nu government started to establish a secular national education system as part of its project of nation building. As in many post-independence contexts, education was considered crucial for the construction of an independent national identity (see, for example, Zoellner 2007a). Nevertheless, various Christian denominations continued to run their own officially registered schools up to high-school level. After the military coup in 1962, however, these schools were either nationalised or closed down. The Christian churches have been prohibited from running officially recognised (primary and secondary) schools or registering any other formal education programs with the MOE ever since. Nevertheless, some big and well-established tertiary education institutions such as the Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT) continue to run their programs up to the present day, even though they are recognised primarily not as educational but as religious institutions (see later in this section). Moreover, various community-based educational initiatives that are highly informal but are tolerated by the government still exist under the umbrella of the churches today, particularly in the ethnic cease-fire areas where the majority of the Christian population lives. In cease-fire areas and ethnic areas of continuing armed conflict, church-based education programs often go hand in hand with community-based initiatives such as the establishment of CBS, which is also taking place in government-controlled areas. As Daw May Oo (2004) puts it:

There are several things the church organisations do. Certainly one is to address the social needs in society…for example, the schools in remote areas. Churches send teachers to volunteer in a community because the government does not have a system and any kind of infrastructure does not exist…Then communities will build the school on their own and the teachers most of the time will be provided by the churches, or even by the bible schools…So these fundamental needs like education…most of the time in remote areas, will be addressed by the church organisations, instead of the government having a program or a system.

Other church-based education support activities, for public and community-based schools alike, include the donation of schoolbooks and other teaching materials, teacher training and the provision of school-cost scholarships for poor children, which cover fees, books and uniforms. Some Christian churches also maintain hostels that are free of any charges. For many children from remote ethnic areas, this support is crucial, because poverty means they can afford to attend secondary school only if there is a free, church-run hostel in the town where the school is located. Most of the student hostels also offer homework supervision and extra-tuition programs, which are conducted either by staff members of local church organisations or by private volunteers for whose activities the local churches provide protective umbrellas.

Some Catholic dioceses use lay missionaries—‘zetamans’ in the local language—in order to reach remote ethnic communities. Usually, it is the pastor who recruits the prospective zetamans from the young people in the diocese. Before sending them to the remote target areas, he trains them not only in bible studies but in basic secular educational and professional skills. After completing a preparation course, two zetamans at a time are sent to one remote community, where they are supposed to teach children basic literacy and numeracy skills, conduct training in agricultural methods as well as health education classes, and provide basic healthcare services for one year. The purpose of these teaching activities is, of course, not only welfare oriented, but to evangelise local communities (Geiger 2007).

Furthermore, according to a leading church official, the Christian churches run about 1500 pre-primary schools all over the country and in ethnic minority areas specifically. Interestingly, up to now, church-based pre-primary schools have been relatively free to formulate their own curriculum as long as they refrain from criticising the regime. Around 2006, however, the government announced it was going to develop national guidelines for the curricula of the church-based pre-primary schools. As jurisdiction over this matter seem to be divided (or even disputed) between the MOE and the MSW, however, this plan still seems to exist on paper only. Moreover, according to a church official, the government has announced that, in the future, teachers working at church-based pre-primary schools need to be trained by the government. The same church worker also said, however, that his/her organisation did not really worry about this plan, since the government had the capacity necessary to train only 50 pre-primary schoolteachers a year. Given the 1500 church-run pre-primary schools already in existence, this is totally insufficient.

Moreover, various Christian denominations run colleges—or so-called seminaries—that offer Christian education at a tertiary level and can be attended after matriculation. All in all, there seem to be about 30 seminaries across the country, but particularly in ethnic minority areas. Their prime ostensible mission is to teach bible studies, but as most of the books they use are in English, they also impart good spoken and written English skills. Many seminaries are highly self-organised and students often live in a compound. The ‘Saint Markus Baptist College’ in Lashio[25] is one such example. In theory, all important decisions are supposed to be made by the principal. He/she, however, usually has to travel a lot and thus, in practice, a committee of teachers administers the college. Some of the younger teachers have international teaching experience and contacts with churches abroad. Moreover, there is a students’ council, which organises community activities such as sports competitions. Asked whether and how the organisation was controlled by the government, a teacher said, ‘They are watching us from a distance…We feel afraid. So this means, we are controlled.’ The Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT) in Yangon serves as a Christian university and issues bachelor and masters’ degrees. Even though it provides tertiary education, it is registered as a religious and not an educational institution and operates under the MRA. Students at MIT can study not just theology, but a limited number of secular subjects including English and economics. The degrees that students can earn from the seminaries and from MIT are not recognised by the government. They are, however, mostly recognised within the national Christian community within which most of the students seek employment after completing their education.

In addition, several local churches as well as the Myanmar Council of Churches (MCC), a national umbrella association, have scholarship programs that enable gifted students and young church community leaders to attend university either in Burma/Myanmar or abroad. International partner churches provide financial support to some of these programs. Since in the past scholarship holders have often stayed abroad, some church organisations have now inserted clauses into their scholarship application guidelines that commit beneficiaries to return to Burma/Myanmar and work in their local communities for a certain period. Some scholarship programs have been quite successful. Recently, for example, a group of university graduates founded the ‘Scholarship Alumni Association’ in Myitkina,[26] after returning from abroad. The association runs a church-based boarding school that targets local high-school graduates as well as the coordinators of the surrounding local churches’ youth groups. Courses last for two years and focus on English, computer training and various professional skills including trade, management, accounting and agriculture. All boarding-school students are obligated to take part in ‘social outreach activities’ such as education and training programs aimed at the broader local community. Moreover, they have to pay visits to orphanages, hospitals and neighbouring villages. In order to promote creative thinking, the curriculum encompasses sports activities, teamwork, brainstorming, discussions and role-plays. The guidelines of the association also provide for a ‘seniority system’, which is specified as meaning that the older members—who are assumed to have more education and experience—must be respected and followed by their younger fellows.

Unlike the Sangha, Burma/Myanmar’s Christian civil society often has rudimentarily institutionalised contacts with churches and even with international NGOs abroad. Such cooperation is, however, rarely coordinated and happens mostly on the basis of one church or NGO from abroad supporting one specific project or church within Burma/Myanmar. As a consequence, even international churches and organisations who have been working with churches in Burma/Myanmar for years usually do not have a coherent picture of the state of Christian civil society on the ground.

NGO and community-based organisation education and education support activities

Non-religious education and education support initiatives in ethnic cease-fire areas range from registered NGOs to highly informal community-based organisations. What all of them seem to have in common, however, is that in one way or another they are linked to the structures of the respective local ethnic cease-fire party.

The ‘Alternative Local Learning Centre’ in Kachin State,[27] which started operating in 2005, provides a good example of a rather informal community-based organisation initiative in the education sector. It offers capacity building and informal training in the analysis of social problems, project management, proposal writing and accounting. The centre focuses on the training of trainers and its final goal is to promote the formation of new, self-reliant NGOs. (It started by training 20 participants in 2005.) Moreover, its founders have put enormous effort into the establishment of a library with literature on community development and other social issues. In order to reach an informal agreement with the local cease-fire party, the organisers had to prove that their project was apolitical and would provide capacities that were essential to economic development. According to one of the organisers, the centre is not registered but ‘tolerated’ by the local ethnic authorities.

Other NGOs and community-based organisations have linked their education and education support activities even more closely to the local ethnic-party structures. The Metta Development Foundation,[28] for example, has developed a strategic partnership with the Mon Women’s Organisation and supported the latter’s adult literacy and capacity-building programs (South 2007). One of the biggest Kachin NGOs provides planning support and child-centred teacher training to the KIO and its school system. Even in the Wa Special Region, where independent civil-society organisations are still rare, NGOs in partnership with local communities have established schools in areas in which schools have not existed before. In the Wa Special Region, such initiatives have often been supported by international NGOs as part of their drug-eradication programs. In most other ethnic areas, however, international support for ethnic NGO and community-based organisation activities often remains scarce and the lack of funding seems to pose the biggest obstacle to the further expansion of ethnic civil-society activities in the education sector.[29]

Culture and literature committees

Culture and Literature Committees (CLCs), which focus on the preservation and promotion of a specific ethnic language and culture, have a long tradition in Burma/Myanmar’s ethnic minority areas. In the case of the Mon ethnic community, for example, South traces the emergence of cultural groups back to the 1930s and 1940s. The Mon Literature and Culture Committee (MLCC), which still exists today, started its ethnic literacy training in the 1950s (South 2007). In the same period, CLCs served as the backbone of ethnic nationalist movements in various ethnic states. Due to repression by the regime and civil war, ethnic activities in the fields of culture and literature were largely dormant from 1962 until the 1990s. Since the conclusion of cease-fires in the 1990s, however, the regime has allowed various ethnic parties to issue publications in their own ethnic tongues (ICG 2003). As a consequence, many traditional CLCs re-emerged and several new ones came into being. Moreover, in reaction to the failure of the state-run education system, many of them have started to go beyond their traditional task of cultural preservation. Today, most CLCs focus on basic literacy and teach children and illiterate adults important spoken and written language skills. Most CLCs teach the local ethnic language and rely on community education approaches such as informal education programs and summer schools. Some of them, however, already seem to have incorporated Burmese/Myanmar language and other non-culture-related subjects such as numeracy into their curriculum. According to a UN representative, some CLCs are even able to engage in formal education and have adopted the government curriculum, especially in Mon State. Most of these CLCs are active at the primary level; however, there also seem to be some that teach at a higher level and impart a number of skills. The role of the CLCs is particularly important in ethnic regions where children do not speak Burmese/Myanmar. Here, tuition in the local ethnic tongue might often constitute the only way children can acquire basic skills.

As CLCs are legal organisations that exist in almost every ethnic village, many different activities take place under their umbrella. For instance, some CLCs not only provide education, they conduct important community organisation and preventive health activities such as raising awareness about HIV/AIDS. For such specific purposes, CLCs seem to cooperate with other local and sometimes even international non-state actors. In Christian areas, for example, they sometimes cooperate with the local churches and in predominantly Buddhist regions they sometimes work with the Sangha. Mon monks, for instance, give language and literacy training courses at the MLCC (South 2007). According to a local staff member of an international aid organisation, his/her organisation sometimes relies on the local CLCs for the publication of its information materials on HIV/AIDS in remote ethnic areas. The head office of the aid organisation in Yangon usually publishes the information brochures in Burmese/Myanmar or English; subsequently, it is the local CLCs that translate them into the ethnic languages of the target regions, but they sometimes encounter problems when they seek censorship approval to publish such materials. On the whole, the international donor community does not seem to have a lot of contact with the CLCs, and detailed knowledge about their activities is still rather scarce. While CLCs impart highly valuable language skills and perform other important welfare functions, at least some of them tend to exclude members of other ethnic groups. Consequently, they also bear the risk of being culturally divisive, thereby reinforcing ethnic cleavages.




[17] Confidential communication with Alan Smith, April 2008.

[18] Organisation known to the author; name and place changed for safety reasons.

[19] Confidential communication with Alan Smith, April 2008.

[20] Organisation known to the author; name and place changed for safety reasons.

[21] Confidential communication with Alan Smith, April 2008.

[22] Email conversation with South, 16 November 2006. According to South, the Karen National Union (KNU), the best-known insurgent group, which is still fighting the central government, also runs its own education system, albeit on a smaller scale.

[23] Confidential communication with Alan Smith, April 2008.

[24] KNLA stands for Karen National Liberation Army; the KNLA is the armed wing of the KNU.

[25] Organisation known to the author; name and place changed for safety reasons.

[26] Organisation mentioned in Geiger (2007); name and place changed for safety reasons.

[27] Organisation known to the author; name and place changed for safety reasons.

[28] Established in 1998, Metta is the biggest registered independent NGO in Burma/Myanmar. It grew out of the Kachin cease-fire, but in recent years it has managed to extend its scope of action to other cease-fire areas as well.

[29] Confidential communication with Alan Smith, April 2008.