10 Years Journey of Naushawng Development Institute (NDI)
The 2009 to 2019 Journey of Naushawng Development Institute (NDI)
Winding back to 2009, both Kachin and Myanmar were vastly different places to what they are now. Myanmar was still severely internationally isolated where basic democratic freedoms were scarce, even more so in non-Bamar ethnic areas such as Kachin State. Civic engagement existed, but was muted. The internet was inaccessible for most people and educational opportunities stifled. Studying concepts such as civic engagement and democracy were practically impossible, due to the military’s restrictions. For many ethnic groups such as the Kachin, access to state education was further limited due to instruction being only in Burmese language, while education certificates from ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) were not recognised, thus posing a de facto barrier to higher education for many youth who studied outside of the mainstream system.
It was this context that drove many young people to seek opportunities abroad, whether it be activism, education and/or economic. This is where NDI sprung to life, with the combined efforts of nine activist students living in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Benefiting from opportunities outside Myanmar, yet recognising this privilege and with a strong desire to improve the situation in Myanmar, they debated the problems in Myanmar and how they could best address such expansive needs. Youth in remote parts of Kachin were identified as some of the most marginalised people in Myanmar (according to the Asia Pacific Scholarship Consortium, Kachin students received the second least number of international scholarships of all ethnic groups in Myanmar). The founders were not just interested in delivering education; they also wanted to instigate broader social change through supporting and cultivating emerging leaders. Naushawng Education Network (NSEN) was born on the 9th of April 2009.
During these early days, the founders’ analysis concluded that Kachin youth lacked access to study English, a common prerequisite for international study in many countries. It was decided that TOEFL preparation and civic education, the first of its kind in Kachin State, would be taught together, equipping students with analytical skills for civic engagement, while opening further opportunities through English language. The English classes were the first to be delivered, with 2010 the inaugural batch of students embarking on an eight-month intensive course. It was also agreed that NDI should be a secular organisation to maximise inclusivity, complement existing faith-based services and improve access to diversified funding sources.
At this time, resources were scarce and NDI depended on extensive voluntary contributions and the generous in-kind support of the Kachin Baptist Convention’s Youth Department (KBC- YD), where NDI was initially housed. KBC-YD’s support was absolutely critical, not just hosting NDI, but also providing accommodation for students and teachers, teaching space and more, thus enabling NDI to begin delivering programmes and build a positive reputation. Expecting civil society restrictions to ease following the 2010 elections, NDI intended to establish its own premise soon, while the KBC-YD support and networks enabled NDI to build up trust in the community and with other potential supporters. NDI still feels a deep sense of appreciation for KBC, as this initial support was so vital to prove NDI’s viability.
Considering military restrictions, operations were very much behind the scenes. Arbitrary detention, police raids and other forms of oppression were a constant threat, particularly for the NDI founders and leaders, who could face jail time. As one co-founder explains: “One cannot underestimate the psychological pressure we faced during that period. We lived in fear of arrest or worse, with no hope of justice.”
As 2010 came to a close, NDI had successfully established itself in Kachin, gaining significant community acceptance and experiencing high demand for the English courses. Historical elections were also held in November 2010, marking a significant turning point in Myanmar’s engagement with the international community and part transition to a more democratic system of governance. Keen to capitalise on this relative opening of space, NDI’s inaugural civic education was delivered in 2011, teaching students about democracy, elections, human rights, activism and other civic issues. Civic education was combined with the eight-month English course, where English was a big drawcard for youth and civic education helped cultivate a new generation of activists. Strategically, English skills also enabled graduates to better engage with the international community, which was often critical to raise awareness of injustices occurring within Kachin and broader Myanmar.
Demand for NDI’s education continued increasing, both a testament to what was being offered and indicative of youth in Kachin desiring education outside the narrow state curricula. KBC’s support remained instrumental for NDI to expand during this period, but the expansion also strained the relationship. Basic issues such as late access to the school created frustrations, while NDI’s desire for independence meant the situation had to change. As 2011 came to a close, the requisite steps were being taken for NDI to establish its own site. Considering still tight civic restrictions, this was not simply a matter of finding a suitable location. It also required careful navigation of state apparatus to avoid raising the military government’s alarm. This process also required NDI to professionalise further, as once they departed from KBC, they could no longer rely on the various administrative support available at KBC.
The year 2013 marked a major milestone for NDI, as it established its own campus separate from KBC and was truly standing on its own feet. The departure from KBC was amicable and also a testament to KBC’s willingness to provide support, while respecting NDI’s independence. NDI’s founders fondly recall those initial years of covert operations, recognising that many youth leaders from KBC-YD were instrumental in enabling NDI to establish a foothold. Many of these leaders took significant risks, as even senior KBC leader were largely kept in the dark about the incubation of NDI.
Demand for NDI’s eight-month course continued increasing, sparked further by word of mouth and the evidence of graduates taking up prominent civil society and other positions, in addition to overseas study. NDI’s new campus also increased the appeal. As NDI stabilised at its new campus, attention shifted towards achieving longer-term aspirations, particularly around being an academic and research institution. Considering the enhanced independence at the new location and gradual easing of tight military controls, NDI set to work establishing the Naushawng Community School (NCS) that was launched in 2014.
The NCS formalised and enhanced the existing English and civic education, by extending the course from eight to ten months, and providing full on-site boarding. This last component fundamentally improved access for young women and men living in remote areas, one of NDI’s key target groups, as they represent some of the most underserved communities in Myanmar. Providing board for young women was also particularly critical, as lack of appropriate accommodation is a major barrier to young women pursuing further education. From its inauguration in 2014, the NCS has gone from strength to strength.
The NCS is indicative of NDI’s approach. Its bottom up design meets what youth in Kachin want – skills to effectively engage in society and open up new opportunities. The impact of the NCS is expansive, graduates are now embedded across civil society organisations, working at international organisations, setup their own organisations, attending overseas education, organising collective activism and much more. The sense of camaraderie is palpable and five years on, the enthusiasm and energy at the NCS continues to grow. It’s truly difficult to capture the diversity of the NCS impact, where each young woman and man attendee could quite easily have gone on to a different trajectory, where Kachin is home to abundant risks such as armed conflict, high-risk mining and rampant drug use. Not only does the NCS steer youth way from such risks, graduates are emboldened to take action to solve many of the underlying problems.
In NDI’s short, but packed ten-year history, there has rarely been a dull moment. In 2015, the NCS curriculum was extended to ten-months due to student requests, a clear endorsement of NDI’s approach. An English Learning Centre was also established, creating educational access for youth that were not part of the ten-month NCS programme. Recognising that with such increasing demand, the NCS would soon outgrow its current location, three acres of land was purchased outside Myitkyina to build an upsized, modern campus for the NCS in coming years. This was made possible with individual contributions and operating on an extremely lean budget over preceding years, but was not without difficulty. The land price far exceeded saved funds, as Myitkyina experienced significant economic development. Fortunately, the land seller accepted payment in instalments over the ensuing years.
National elections were slated for November 2015 of which far more parties would participate than 2010, as freedoms increased. As international attention focused on Myanmar, NDI utilised its proven record in civic education to access significant funding for voter education in Kachin. For communities with little to no experience of elections, such education by a trusted organisation like NDI was critical for encouraging democratic participation. NDI’s engaging voter education, synthesising international concepts with local realities, directly reached thousands of people in Kachin and thousands more indirectly, as attendees were encouraged to spread the lessons learnt.
The Durable Peace Programme launched in 2015, of which NDI was one of over 25 consortium members. Although NDI’s funding allocation was small, it marked a significant moment as NDI launched two-week, mobile peace and civic education short courses.This was NDI’s first venture into peace education, which was desperately needed following the 2011 resumption of armed conflict in Kachin and protracted displacement of over 100,000 people, which in turn was increasing tensions between displaced and host communities. Building on NDI’s experience and success in civic education, the new peace and civic education short course proved a real hit, reaching thousands of people across Kachin state on-site, rather than at the NCS in Myitkyina. Not only was the course reaching people in remote, underserved areas, it also made concerted effort to reach displaced people that faced extensive discrimination, marginalisation and hardship.As this work continued into 2016, it would end up playing an influential role in opening further opportunities for NDI.
Consistent with NDI’s ambitions to realise its long-term vision as an academic and research institute, NDI established its own independent research department in 2015. The Research Department would focus on political and policy research, such as in relation to peace and democracy.
If the preceding two years were not busy enough, NDI achieved transformational change during 2017 and 2018. Following intense saving and fundraising, the new NCS was completed on the property purchased in 2015. The new, expanded campus provided vastly improved facilities, enabled larger student cohorts and quickly became a hive of activity. In true NDI style, extensive community and voluntary efforts enabled the construction of the new NCS, with many past and present students contributing.
Considering NDI’s continual expansion and the easing of some government restrictions in Myanmar, it was deemed time to become an officially registered CSO. This lengthy and complicated process meant a change of names from the Naushawng Education Network to Naushawng Development Institute, marking another turning point in the formalisation of an organisation that was only conceived eight years earlier by student activists in Chiang Mai. The term ‘meteoric rise’ is perhaps an apt description of these years with registration opening up the possibility for expanded and more direct funding opportunities from international actors.
Operating on lean budgets and heavily dependent on small donations and volunteers supplemented by ad hoc grants, 2017 saw this change. Following a highly competitive selection process, NDI received a three-year, nearly one million USD grant from the new multi-donor Joint Peace Fund. This funding was not only significant in its size, but also because it was awarded directly to NDI, bypassing international organisations, enabling greater independence, as well as the institutional development gained from solely managing a major grant. This funding supported NDI to substantially scale up and diversify its peace and civic education, matched with complementary activities including longer-term leadership activities, community peace initiatives, research on peace issues and more. Aside from the tangible activities enabled by the grant, it was also a testimony to NDI’s hard work and extensive achievements, solidifying the organisation as stalwart of civil society in Kachin.
During these two years, NDI’s Research Department expanded substantially, producing influential policy and research on a diversity of topics, such as peace and conflict dynamics, ethnicity and land issues facing displaced people. Only inaugurated in 2016, the Research Department was rapidly rising to the occasion, contributing towards NDI’s vision of being more than just education.
This period of rapid growth culminated in substantially expanded funding through the second phase of the Durable Peace Programme, and diversified geographical presence as NDI began activities in neighbouring northern Shan State.
That brings us to 2019, NDI’s ten-year anniversary. Looking back, there are many remarkable achievements in a short space of time. Born from an initial inspiration to support remote underserved communities in Kachin, NDI is now a significant and influential part of civil society in Kachin, and increasingly broader Myanmar. Despite this rapid growth, NDI remains grounded in its commitment to listening to and understanding local communities, ensuring their needs are met in the best possible way. This approach has been instrumental in shaping NDI, where English and civic education is maintained due to strong demand, while peace education has been introduced to meet a major gap and urgent need for communities in northern Myanmar. In 2019, diploma courses were introduced for politics and development studies, paving the way for NDI to offer university degrees in the near future.
As the years pass, NDI’s impact grows in an almost exponential way. Many NCS graduates that became activists now find themselves increasingly influential, others are taking up key civil society roles throughout Myanmar, and others still are engaged in international education opportunities. The underlying ethos of bottom up, community-focused approaches remains apparent, whether it’s in graduates or the NDI leadership and staff.
As NDI’s second decade begins, it is exciting times for the organisation with more regular and larger funding sources, and much of the groundwork laid for broader ambitions related to being a leading academic and research institute. It would be no surprise to be writing in ten years time about NDI’s establishment of a university that is producing accessible higher education to underserved communities and highly influential research. Nonetheless, challenges remain, not least of all an external context that while highlighting the importance of NDI’s work, also poses distinct challenges. Armed conflict and protracted displacement continue, civic space is rapidly shrinking and Kachin is a microcosm for many global issues – contested foreign investment epitomised by the Myitsone Dam, environmental destruction, mining and ‘the resource curse’, ethnic tensions and much more.
Although Kachin and Myanmar’s future is unclear, NDI’s experience to date, acceptance in local communities and proven success will be critical to ensuring expanded and sustained impact. Perhaps most importantly, is NDI’s approach that although grounded in a bottom up, community-driven ethos, it also identifies and addresses systemic causes of injustice. When civil society throughout the world often falls into the trap of delivering essential services, rather than holding power holders to account, NDI’s approach is timely and well directed. With each new graduate, piece of research and other initiatives, NDI is building momentum and progress towards a more equitable Kachin and Myanmar.