Written by Joe Gayeski - TBF IPS Intern at The Shan State Development Foundation.
Starting out in the field of international development is a challenge. Finding opportunities to build experience with NGOs or community-based organizations abroad is a difficult process, in which the seekers far outnumber the available positions. As a soon-to-be graduate keen to develop first-hand knowledge of development projects in Southeast Asia, I was lucky to end my internship hunt with The Branch Foundation and their Internship Placement Service. My internship with the Shan State Development Foundation has strengthened my understanding of development projects in Myanmar and Thailand, while also building the skillset necessary to make impacts in the field.
The Shan State Development Foundation is a community-focused NGO dedicated to improving conditions for thousands of internally displaced people (IDP) in Shan State, Myanmar. Based in Chiang Mai, their health, education, and development programs support 5 IDP camps along the Thailand/Shan State border. SSDF is the product of a 2013 three-part merger of separate organizations with a shared target area and congruent missions. My primary responsibility was to compile, edit and publish a comprehensive summary report of the recently formed organization’s projects, alongside a secondary task of teaching intermediate English writing. I began both projects not fully knowing what to expect: having just stepped off the plane in Asia for the first time, how could I have?
Both tasks were rewarding challenges. As the only person in the office who didn’t speak Shan, gathering information for the report proved tricky to start. I had to teach myself the ropes of desktop publishing to produce a professional report. With no prior teaching experience, my self-education included ESL lesson research and planning. I spent hours reading and gathering resources to create the most effective lesson I could. The challenges certainly paid off. By writing and editing content from project proposals and donor reports, I was quickly brought up to speed on SSDF’s history and current projects, and my English lessons proved to be productive and useful to the staff. The bi-lingual office and new tasks were the ideal opportunity to hone my skills in cross-cultural communication professional writing.
What wasn’t a challenge, however, was settling in to Chiang Mai. Thailand’s second-largest city proved to be the perfect place to get acquainted with the country. With its hectic roads right next to tranquil temples on the mountainside, it’s a bustling town that still manages to strike a balance between busy and relaxed. It didn’t take long at all to fall into the rhythm of the city. Within my first week, I had sorted out an apartment, a motorbike, and even joined the local ultimate frisbee team. Through the team, I’ve made friendships with both locals and fellow foreigners that will last beyond my time here. I’ve even become a proud supporter of the home football team, Chiangmai FC. Despite my new-to-Asia nerves, moving and living in Chiang Mai could not have been easier. My advice to anyone nervous about making the move would be to relax! After a trip to Wat Doi Suthep and your first meal of khao soi, you’ll never want to leave.
In my two months with SSDF, I wasn’t able to see first-hand any of SSDF’s projects in Shan State. As a farang, crossing the border into Shan State is difficult, if not impossible. However, I did get to look across the border into Shan State from the hillsides near Kuong Jor, a Shan refugee camp that works closely with TBF. The journey from Chiang Mai through the winding northern Thai hills to the border camp made the importance of SSDF’s work clear to me. I was struck by the commitment of a classroom of Shan monks to return home to teach English to the children of Shan State. I learned of the stories, politics, and details of the ethnic conflict through a long conversation with the camp’s director (not to mention the incredible Shan lunch we spoke over). I’ve become acutely aware that the ongoing civil conflict in Shan State has robbed thousands of their homes, livelihoods and futures. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to an organization devoted to empowering displaced people. Working closely with both SSDF and TBF taught me the impact that community-based organizations can have in conflict-affected areas, a lesson I’m certain to draw from throughout my professional and personal future.
*All photos are copyright of The Branch Foundation*