In 2013, the EU and Pyoe Pin, through a Non State Actor (NSA) project, and the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) started issuing calls for proposals for local NGOs in Myanmar. IUCN manages both grant-making programs in cooperation with the Myanmar Environment Rehabilitation-conservation Network (MERN). The experience after the first two rounds of grant making was disappointing. Compared to other countries in the region, both the number and quality of the proposals received were poor, despite efforts to introduce the programs to potential applicants and to encourage applications.
This can be explained by a range of reasons, but an important one is that applicants were not investing sufficient time and effort in designing good proposals. There was often little clarity about what the problem was, who the intended beneficiaries were, what had been learned from previous experience, and what could be done to improve the situation.
In other countries, IUCN runs project cycle management (PCM) courses for shortlisted applicants at which log frames, activities, and budgets are reviewed. This normally results in the submission of proposals of acceptable quality. But in Myanmar, it was clear that the PCM training was too late: if the basic project concept was flawed or if the applicant simply didn't understand the context, no amount of fine tuning was going to result in viable proposals. This was particularly the case when it came to proposals that involved investments in potentially high return but high risk aquaculture.
It was this realization that led IUCN to hire Greg Martin, who had worked extensively with local NGOs in Cambodia and the Pacific and had been based at MERN for a year as an Australian government funded advisor, to organize three 3-day project design and proposal writing workshops.
These workshops took place in October-December 2015 and attracted 54 staff from 40 local NGOs including many who are not MERN members. Most of these NGOs are based outside of Yangon in Rakhine, Chin, Mandalay, Shan, Nay Pyi Taw, Tanintharyi, Kachin, Mon, and Karen Regions. Most of the participants were young field officers and project managers with limited experience. The training program culminated in a review workshop in Yangon to assess progress.
The first part of each workshop focused on broad development topics including sessions on how development aid is funded and flows through to local levels, common donor requirements (i.e., governance, monitoring and evaluation, and reporting) and why these are necessary, participatory approaches, gender, and examples of best practice.
Considerable time was spent on the importance of the “change” to the situation that a project should bring.
Of particular note was the presentation by the Karen Women Empowerment Group during the second workshop on the development of their organization in governance, policies, guidelines, and project management. This showed that small local organizations can develop successfully in these areas if they have the leadership and the will to do so. There was an enthusiastic response by participants who wanted to improve their own organizations despite fact that it would require a lot of hard work.
The presentation on gender mainstreaming in the second and third workshops was well received, with many of the participants (especially the younger ones) saying they would willingly put into action many of the ideas and suggestions.
The first and second workshops included a field trips so that participants could assess the local situation and discuss a range of project design and implementation issues. These took place near Gwa in southern Rakhine State, and Moeyungyi Ramsar site in Bago State.
The second part of each workshop was used to put theory into practice using an 8 step project design and proposal writing template. This is intended to capture the basic information needed to design a project, and ensure that the proposal is written in a clear and logical manner. This is especially important when proposals may not be submitted in “perfect English”.
The 8 steps are a simple way by which participants can teach others in their organization (important for remoter organizations that often lack outside training opportunities) and provides a disciplined and repeatable process for consultations.
The 8 steps are:
1. What is the problem or situation?
2. What are the negative impacts of the problem or situation?
3. What are the causes of the problem or situation?
4. What is the solution?
5. What are the positive impacts from the solution?
6. What can be done to fix the problem or situation?
7. What will you do to fix the problem or situation?
8. What are the positive changes from what you will do?
After demonstrating the 8 steps, participants were guided step by step through designing a project and writing a proposal either individually or small groups. At a final review session, participants checked the proposal logic, asked questions, and provided comments.
An important discussion point in all three workshops was the use of small grants to test ideas or add to existing projects, rather than what is often the practice in Myanmar of using them as stand-alone small-scale interventions.
Will this training make a difference? We will soon find out. In January 2016, NSA and CEPF issued their third calls for proposals, and we hope for a much stronger response. If this happens, it will be good news not just for NSA and CEPF, but also for the other small grants programs that MERN is managing.