Indigenous female and a gender champion from Oxfam’s partner-Highlander Association, Fong Chompey. Photo: Bounthavivanh Mixap/Oxfam

Source To Sea – It’s More Than Campaigning!

“Travelling” from the Himalayas to the Mekong Delta, this month I joined a forum in Bangkok that dealt with water, food and energy in the greater Mekong region. More than 300 met at this forum to exchange, share, obtain knowledge and ideas as well as expand their networks. It was my first time (hopefully not my last) to join this forum. All I can say about the amount of information and knowledge generated by so many professionals in this region… is that I wish my brain had a bigger memory space!  Though I could fill the page with all the amazing things that I experienced over the last four days, I think I will just stick with three highlights.

I saw so many people in the region challenge themselves to take the stage as speakers/panelists, especially emerging professionals. Speaking in front of a hundred people is really nerve racking, regardless of how many times you do it – the funny stomach feeling and butterflies never go away! This is not to mention speaking in the language that is not your mother tongue. I went to a session on Dispute settlement mechanisms for energy investment projects where one of the key topics that all four female panelists shared with us was the perspectives of hydropower dam development in Myanmar from Chinese and Burmese angles. Yes four females talking about hydropower dam development! Both perspectives made sense when you listened with an open mind and without judgment. Often I find that it is a lot easier to be an active listener when you are less attached or connected to the topic. This hydropower dam was to be built for electricity export to China. From the Chinese view, hydropower is a clean energy source compared to their current ones i.e., coal, and it is more desirable in that sense. However, why doesn’t Kachin want a dam? From cultural perspective, it is because Kachin has oral history of where Kachin people originated. Their journey and folktales are based on the area and landmarks where the dam will be built. The panelists shared with us that Kachin acknowledged that electricity was necessary but at the same time they were also struggling with this crucial question of “do we need to destroy our history, our ancestor’s land for development?”.

My second highlight was the “light bulb” moment when it became crystal clear to me about the use of research as an influencing strategy – one I proposed in my Master’s thesis last year. The research output is not just a means to an end, but rather the process to make changes happen. Research should be used as a strategy to influence, not just as an output to inform and address certain knowledge gaps or purely for individual development. You can plan on who to engage and should get involved along the way. This way, the result will be used rather than put on the shelf. The work by the Mekong Region Futures Institute, for example, showed an unexpected result. Through the research process, a number of consultation and discussion workshops took place. It was this research process that changed the values and beliefs of participants. It brought the values and beliefs of policy makers to be more in line with those of communities’.

Last but not least, it was the story of ChamPei, Oxfam female champion, from the Highlander Association, who is supported by Oxfam to turn the “spark” into a “flame” of positive change. This really reassures what Sejal Worah (Program Director, WWF India) highlighted, that is, when we found the spark, being the women who are potential champions, we should enable them to realise their full potential and growth. This was captured in my blog post ‘Women and Water event at the 19th International Riversymposium’ two months ago. ChamPei has dedicated her heart and mind to enhance her capabilities in order for her to support other women including indigenous women in her community to realise their strengths and capabilities, hence, confidently engage in dialogue with men and local authorities in the matters affecting their lives. Through her work with the Highlander Association in building capacity of the community and empowering women, men now better understand the importance of women, and are more appreciative and acknowledge their contribution to natural resources management. This also leads to an enabling environment where more girls get to go to school and pursue their passion and inspiration. I asked who was her role model that inspired her to take action. Her response was somewhat heart-breaking yet inspiring. “

I have no role model, but I saw how my dad treated my mum and sister and I wanted to prove him wrong”, said ChamPei. Her story reminded me so much of Sunnie’s story (the blog I published earlier this year) – where negative experience could be turned into positive action when you decide to take the positive path. Her story also reinforces the remark by one participant from Myanmar that NGO is more than advocacy and campaigning. These are small parts of the work, NOT all of the work. NGO communities are also researchers and we also build capacity.

My exposure to this great river could not be more abundant!