This blog was contributed by Camilla Williamson, public affairs adviser at Age UK, who is currently undertaking a secondment with HelpAge International in South East Asia.
It’s hard to understand what an older person in Burma’s life is like by just reading stats and facts on paper whilst sitting in an office. I’d been doing this for a few months and thought I had a pretty good appreciation of the difficulties faced by these communities and some of the practical and policy solutions needed to help. But arriving in a village that is only accessible by a 20 minute
punt down a narrow stream wedged in between rice paddies, after a four hour rocky road journey from Yangon, sharply brings the reality into focus.
Ma Au Kone consists of 260 small wooden houses built on stilts over streams running through miles fields. There is no electricity. There is no fresh water. The nearest hospital is 15 miles away (or 2 hours in local terms) and transportation there is expensive: at a cost of 100,000 kyats it is equal to what one OPSHG makes in a year (see below).
Like many of the villages in Burma, health and livelihood are the two dominant challenges for older people and their communities here, and the kind of change that is needed to address the issues is not small. It will necessitate full-scale, population-wide development over a number of years.
So where does an organisation like HelpAge International start?
One of their chief solutions to the multiple problems faced by communities in Burma is the Older People’s Self-Help Groups (OPSHGs). These are community-based organisations which aim to improve the well-being of people in later life, their families and communities in a wide-range of ways. HelpAge has been supporting the establishment of OPSHGs in Burma since 2008 and, working with local staff, has helped to set up 41 across the country. In addition to supporting their establishment, HelpAge works with the groups to train them to be independent and to undertake livelihood programmes, homecare projects and health promotion.
It was incredible to see first-hand the kind of impact these groups are having, not only on older people but on entire communties. Rice banks which loan out baskets of rice, each one enabling families to grow an entire field of food, are rapidly increasing in size. The OPSHGs are promoting health and care education which has enabled all generations to lead healthier lives as both the older people and the volunteers pass on their knowledge to others. The president of the OPSHG in Ma Au Kone told us how, last year, the visiting health professional funded by the project correctly diagnosed and, as a result, saved the lives of a mother and baby.
Perhaps the biggest achievement and testimony to the impact older people can have on development has come from OPSHGs in Pyin Oo Lwin in North Burma where they have installed electricity in 741 households, 10 primary schools, 10 monastries, 5 health centres, as well as street lighting in 6 villages. And this is all financed by OPSHG fundraising activities.
On visiting these communities, I met and spoke to people of all ages involved either as members or volunteers in OPSHGs, all keen to tell me how the groups were changing their villages and their ambitious plans for the future. In five years, OPSHGs across the township spoke of their aims for facilitating the building of better roads and communication means, the introduction of electricity to all households, funding more scholarships for children’s education and, in one village, the introduction of a social pension!
It’s clear that while waiting for top-level change to happen, older people in Burma are creating it themselves with great impact. What’s important going forward is that this action spreads. We’re currently hoping the Government will adopt the OPSHG model and replicate it nationally which would ensure more older people in Burma get the opportunity to improve their own lives and the lives of their communities.