Lauren Midgley gives insight into her work with HelpAge UK and reflects on her time Jersey, London and Myanmar.

December 2018

It’s with extreme sadness that I have to say goodbye to Myanmar. The time has gone too quickly, so quick that I’m not even close to being physically prepared for the amount of souvenirs I have to try to fit into my tiny suitcase. Nevertheless, I can leave feeling extremely proud of what I and the Myanmar team have accomplished over the last 6 months.

Through training and support of HelpAge International Myanmar, I’ve actively engaged with their health, community mobilisation and livelihoods programmes and have seen firsthand what international development organisations can achieve in extremely challenging conditions. Through this process I’ve gained valuable lessons in project design and delivery. I’ve assisted on a humanitarian response and have gained experience in communications, getting the opportunity to travel across the country to see HelpAge’s projects in action and to meet the people that are benefiting from our work.

On my last stint in the field I took a short trip to East Dagon, a township in the most eastern province of Yangon, to see the longer term impact of one of HelpAge’s projects. Although only a 30-minute drive from the HelpAge office, signs of poverty seem to be more visible in this township. Informal settlements spill out onto the roads and despite a few newly-built buildings; there is a distinct absence of high-rises and the modern architecture that is transforming the heart of Yangon. Unfortunately, this landscape is not uncommon. Although poverty rates are higher in rural areas, urban poverty continues to be a problem, a result of internal migration due Myanmar’s recent economic liberalisation and a turbulent history of political regimes, conflicts and forced displacement.

Two years ago, HelpAge had finished delivering a three-year social protection programme in East Dagon that provided financial support to older people, to help them cope with their low and unreliable incomes. I wanted to speak to people involved in the programme, to see what has happened since HelpAge’s involvement ended.

This brought me to the home of 97-year-old Daw Tin, an extremely small but incredibly lively woman, whose animated expression made her seem a lot younger than her age. She has been receiving support since the programme was first implemented. During our chat, we spoke about her experiences of old age, how she takes care of herself, as well as discussing her time as a young girl during Japanese occupation- a period that still haunts her to this day.

Daw Tin is in incredible health, something she is extremely proud of and contributes to “eating at the right time” and chewing beetle nut, a nut chewed for it’s high caffeine content that is extremely popular in south-east Asia. “It’s good for teeth” she beamed, although the red stained teeth of other beetle nut users makes me think otherwise. Despite Daw Tin’s good health, she does face extreme challenges due to her inconsistent income. Her daughter contributes to her living, however even with this and the little savings she has accumulated, she struggles to sustain herself. This is a hardship felt by many older people in Myanmar, who without the ability to work, do not have enough money to financially support themselves, live independently or have a sufficient quality of life. For Daw Tin, the social protection programme has been her main support system.

As part of the programme the Older People’s Self-Help Group was formed. Made up of older people and younger community volunteers, they have led the programme since it’s formation and have ensured it’s sustainability. Through this group the programme has expanded in the number of people it helps and also the services it provides. Daw Tin, like other older people in her community, receives 3,000 mmk a month from the programme, the equivalent of £1.50. Although a small sum, it’s enough to ensure she can afford food and the basic amenities she needs to live. Other individuals also receive homecare services. Volunteers provide weekly, bi-weekly or monthly visits to individuals with disabilities, depending on their needs, to help them with self-care activities and to check in on them and their overall wellbeing. It is an income generating scheme, that uses a loan system to maintain it’s funding. A self-sustaining model that is a testament to the hard work of volunteers and the overall success of HelpAge’s programme.

For me this trip was an extremely positive end to my time in Myanmar. Through my involvement in a variety of programmes, I had felt like I had been full-circle and seen the project cycle at it’s beginning, middle and end. It’s a great feeling to know that some of the projects I’ve helped deliver will eventually experience the same positive impact that East Dagon has demonstrated. Thankfully I’m not finished with my internship just yet and look forward to the new work I’ll be involved in in London during the new year. But for now, I’m just excited to get home, have a break and eat as many mince pies as humanly possible.

October 2018

Myanmar is in a state of transition. Since political and economic reforms were introduced in 2011, Myanmar has experienced an unprecedented period of economic growth and development. Now, walking through downtown Yangon, you’ll find crumbling buildings and colonial architecture intersected with newly built coffee shops, restaurant chains and shopping centres to rival the UK. The chance to grab a coffee on my way to work certainly makes me happy, but it does beg the question: how is this development impacting Myanmar’s population? I managed to gain insight into the impact when I visited Myanmar’s dry zone. The aim of my trip was to engage with the dry zone’s older population and people of all ages with disabilities. By speaking with them I was able to better understand how HelpAge’s social protection programmes were impacting their lives. Through conversations with their communities, I had learned that many of their children are now leaving their villages for cities such as Yangon and Mandalay in search of higher incomes. While undeniably migration has benefits, for a society that is largely depended on families, rather than government bodies, for the care of older people, this poses a problem on a national scale. As family units change and disband, who will care for Myanmar’s older population? A demographic that is substantially growing. The change in family dynamic was recently highlighted by a HelpAge report on the Financial Security for Elderly Women from a Life-Course Perspective: Evidence from Myanmar. It pointed towards gaps in traditional family support for older women as a key trend affecting the financial security of women. In fact the 2012 survey of older people showed that 67.3% of older women rely on their children as a source of income and support. While children still may provide income for their older relatives from afar, it was clear from my interviews with older people that their families were needed for much more than that. As we get older we are more likely to have enhanced care and medical needs, including a higher risk of developing non-communicable diseases and disabilities. In the cases I witnessed many relied on their children for community engagement, physical support and aid with self-care, cooking and cleaning. In other cases older people were left to care for their grandchildren, putting additional financial and physical strain on these individuals.   HelpAge has been researching this pattern and is working towards implementing policies and systems to protect the rights of older people, enabling them to live safe, independent lives. The organisation advised Myanmar’s government on a national pension scheme which was introduced in 2016. This, along with HelpAge’s dry zone project has transformed the lives Myanmar’s most vulnerable citizens in recent years. Despite this progress towards a comprehensive social protection system, there is still work to do. Pensions are only available to those 85 years and older, meaning many of Myanmar’s population are still needing support.   In the dry zone we have been working to close this gap. For those that are not receiving financial aid from the government, HelpAge has developed village level social protection systems for older people and people with disabilities. Through funding, they have implemented a low interest loan system. Here loans are given to local businesses and a proportion of the interest is put back into the community. This is used for cash transfers, home based care and other forms of assistance for vulnerable groups. The benefits of this scheme are two fold; small businesses are given the opportunity to expand and enhance revenue, enabling individuals to stay closer to home for work, and financial and physical support is given to older people enabling them to remain independent.

August 2018

It’s now been a month since I touched down in Myanmar’s biggest city Yangon and, after a few weeks of living out of a suitcase and moving from hotel to hostel, I finally found an apartment and have started to settle in. So, with the knowledge gained from short stints living across the city, I thought I would share some of my first impressions of Yangon. To start us off… It rains a lot in the rainy season. Yes, I am stating the obvious here. However, unlike other south-east Asian cities that may get heavy rain at regular hours each day, in Yangon it strikes at any time and sometimes lasts all day. A lesson that I learned the hard way the first few days that I didn’t have an umbrella. While the rainy season brings relief from the extreme temperatures and summer droughts, it also comes with its own challenges. Diseases such as dengue fever are more prevalent and, in urban Yangon, the torrential rain increases power cuts and tests the city’s poor transportation and sewer systems. A test, as judged by the queues of traffic and waterlogged pavements, often failed. The heavy downpour has severe consequences for other regions within Myanmar. The Bago region and the Kayin and Mon states experienced unprecedented levels of rain this year, which caused floods and, in more extreme cases, landslides. At the end of July, the UN released a statement that over 120,000 people in Myanmar are displaced due to flooding. Those that can remain in their homes are also suffering, experiencing food and water shortages, and at risk of waterborne diseases. While recent reports show the floods have begun to recede, the weather is still proving to be unpredictable and the destruction of the infrastructure of villages and farming land will have long-term repercussions on livelihoods. Through funding received from the Start Network, HelpAge International is responding to the floods in partnership with the Karen Baptist Convention (KBC). This week marked the start of their emergency response, supporting the basic needs of 15 villages in the Bago region through the delivery of water, food and essential items such as medical kits. I assisted the project teams in the response plan. It was an opportunity to learn how humanitarian relief programs are constructed, requiring calculated decisions on how to reach a large number of people most effectively with limited resources and as quickly as possible. Our discussions at HelpAge focused on inclusivity. As stated in a previous blog, in the rush to help as quickly as possible, often the needs of older people and those with disabilities are not prioritised in emergency responses. HelpAge and KBC resolved this by ensuring the needs of vulnerable people are identified before the procurement and distribution of relief goods. This means that no money or energy is wasted on providing goods that are unsuitable or not needed by those we are helping. Volunteers delivered goods to individuals who were unable to access distribution points, and a mobile medical team visited households that were out of reach of health centres. So far, progress has been made in the humanitarian sector to ensure emergency responses are inclusive. The Humanitarian inclusion standards for older people and people with disabilities provide new guidance on how to address the needs of vulnerable people in emergency settings. However, this still needs to be embedded in common practice. It is important that aid agencies question how they can shape their programs to ensure older people and those with disabilities receive the help they need and are not left behind in emergencies. The flood response is suspected to last up to 30 days. For regular updates, please visit the HelpAge International Myanmar’s Facebook page, to find out how our team and KBC are making an impact. Visit the Start Network to find out about other relief programmes taking place globally.

HelpAge and KBC preparing items for distribution in the Shwe Kyin township

July 2018

FAREWELL LONDON, MINGALABA MYANMAR Despite all my good intentions this post comes a little bit late this month. This is partly due to a small laptop malfunction – I dropped it -, but mainly because I’ve been manically prepping for the next 6 months of my internship. At the end of this week I will be leaving sunny London for the even warmer streets of Yangon. So it’s goodbye Great Britain, Mingalaba Myanmar! Currently the country is facing significant development issues that are proving detrimental to the wellbeing of Myanmar’s ageing population. Poor access to healthcare, low and inconsistent incomes, and the effects of extreme weather conditions are just a few of the complex issues being addressed by HelpAge International. One of HelpAge’s current aims is the development of services to combat the rise of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) within the country. Myanmar’s healthcare system is currently overstretched, caused by the significant investment gaps that have left demand outstripping supply. Whilst government healthcare spending has seen an increase from 0.2% of GDP in 2009 to a little over 1% in 2014, the burden of healthcare expenses still weighs heavily on households. This burden is increasing as NCDs, including chronic conditions, are on the rise in the country. According to the World Health Organization, NCDs are already estimated to account for 59% of total deaths in Myanmar. This is not a country-specific issue, but reflects a global trend, one which disproportionately affects older people in low and middle income countries. HelpAge is making headway to ensure that stakeholders and governments are recognising NCDs as a healthcare priority. So far in Myanmar, the organisation has worked closely with the Ministry of Health and Sports for the adoption of the National Strategic Plan on Prevention and Control of NCDs 2017-2021. This is an important step to decrease health inequities within the country and ensure that services are reflecting the shift from the predominance of infectious diseases towards NCDs. They are also working with partners to conduct research on NCD services, morbidities and risk factors to ensure the current and future healthcare needs of older people are met. For more information on this topic have a look at HelpAge’s policy brief on health and care in Myanmar here. Over the next six months, I will be assisting with HelpAge’s NCD work, whilst also engaging in their other project areas including gender and inclusion, social protection and disaster, risk and recovery. In particular I will be honing in my writing and photography skills by supporting the communications team. This will involve visiting various project sites in Myanmar, to better understand how the organisation is enhancing the wellbeing and livelihoods of older people within the country. So although I’ll be sad to let London go, with a suitcase full of factor 50 sunscreen, I’m eager to start my next adventure with the JOA internship.

May 2018

HELLO LONDON, HELLO HELPAGE… It’s been seven weeks since I’ve moved to London and as clichéd as it sounds I’ve loved every minute of it – well maybe not the minutes spent on the Tube in rush hour, but you get the gist. Overall my move from Jersey was surprisingly smooth and, apart from the odd navigational blip, I’ve settled into London life a lot quicker than anticipated. This in part is due to the warm welcome I’ve received from HelpAge International’s London office. Since starting at HelpAge, I’ve been providing support to members of the Network, Advocacy, Communications and Campaigns team (NACC) and the Global Technical Unit (GTU). GTU provide global leadership and technical support to HelpAge and its network members on programme design and delivery. Currently I have been conducting research into how legislation, health care systems and government-led services, or lack thereof, are shaping the experiences and rights of older people with disabilities. This project is an initial step in raising awareness of the intersectionality between age, disability and gender and how disability can be effectively addressed within future development and humanitarian programmes delivered by HelpAge.  However, more on this in my next blog. In the short time I have been at HelpAge, I have come to understand the extent to which the rights and needs of older people have been overlooked at a national, regional and international level. This is an issue that will only intensify as population ageing is set to surge at an unprecedented rate over the forthcoming decades. In 2015, UNDESA estimated that 12.3% of the world’s population was aged 60 and older, a figure that is projected to nearly double by 2050. This demographic shift poses a complex set of problems as many countries are failing to provide fundamental provisions to support the livelihoods of older people within their societies. Insufficient or absent social pension schemes and healthcare services have meant that frequently older people in low and middle-income countries are unable to sustain a sufficient quality of life. The structural and systematic discrimination of older people has been enabled by the absence of national legislation and international human rights laws on ageism. Currently, there is no UN convention on age-related discrimination. It is not recognised by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. HelpAge has been advocating for a comprehensive and systematic UN convention that will protect and promote all human rights in old age. You can find out more about international human rights legislation in this blog by HelpAge’s Senior Rights Adviser Bridget Sleap. With the support of governments, NGOs and civil society groups, the current situation can be changed. During my first week of at HelpAge I was able to attend the launch event of the Humanitarian inclusion standards for older people and people with disabilities. These are new guidelines developed by the Age and Disability Capacity Programme (ADCAP) in line with humanitarian principles to ensure that those most at risk are not overlooked during emergency responses. This initiative has come at a time where the UN have led a global commitment to ‘leave no one behind’ through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs provide an opportunity to ensure the voices of older people are no longer marginalised but heard and acted upon, a goal that I am excited to be contributing towards whilst working at HelpAge. If any of this has sparked your interest please have a look at HelpAge International’s website, here you can get up to date information on the latest initiatives that are changing the lives of older people internationally. Otherwise keep checking this space for more content on HelpAge and the Jersey Overseas Aid Internship.

February 2018

INTRODUCTIONS…. Today marks two weeks since the beginning of my internship at Jersey Overseas Aid (JOA) and the publication of my first ever blog post. I’m excited to be updating you all on the incredible experiences and some of the challenges that await me on my yearlong internship. Trying to get your first job in International Development can be a struggle. Since finishing my MA in Conflict, Security and Development I had tried to battle my way into this competitive field. After scrolling through every job database out there and googling “how to get a job in development” and later “why can’t I get a job in development?!” more times than I care to admit, I came to realise that in order for my CV to get a second glance I needed more experience within the field. However, this brought about that age-old dilemma of how do you get experience when you don’t have enough experience?  While willing to live in a cupboard sized room for the foreseeable future, as a cash-strapped graduate fresh out of university, voluntary positions were not financially feasible for me. This paid internship has therefore offered me an opportunity to get my foot in the door of what I hope to be the start of an extremely rewarding career within the sector. So what is the internship? Each year JOA will partner up with a selected charity, providing a unique opportunity for a Jersey citizen to gain the skills and experience needed to break into the international development sector. This year I’m fortunate enough to be working with HelpAge International, an international NGO that seeks to tackle poverty and discrimination by advocating for the rights, wellbeing and inclusion of older people in low and middle-income countries. From the beginning of March I will be working at their headquarters in London for 4 months, before spending 6 months implementing their development and relief programmes in one of their offices in Asia or Africa.  Throughout the year I will be keeping you updated on the variety of projects that HelpAge engage in and my own experiences with the organisation. In the meantime, you can learn more about HelpAge by visiting their website below. So what have I been up to so far? My journey began at the JOA office in Jersey where I have been getting to grips with the role of a donor organisation and gaining an insight into the process of building an international development project from the ground up. Recently I enjoyed a fleeting trip to Brighton where I learnt how one of JOA’s grantees, Renewable World, was tackling poverty in Nepal though the use of solar-powered water pumps. These pumps provide water access to remote rural communities, implementing a sustainable means of accessing water in the face of climate change. This is just one example of the types of innovative projects that JOA fund. Over the last two weeks I have heard from local and UK charities who have developed programmes in the areas of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), Health, Dairy and Environment and Livelihoods. This has included a presentation by the Royal Jersey Agricultural and Horticultural Society and Send a Cow. Through their understanding of the productive benefits of breeding Jersey Cows, they have partnered together to tackle poverty and malnutrition in rural Rwanda by improving the practices of dairy livestock keepers and artificial inseminators and by increasing access to Jersey breed semen. Alongside these meetings I have been helping the JOA team with their community work projects, grant applications and social media channels. It’s safe to say I have hit the ground running, and with some exciting projects and events on the horizon it looks like I will be sprinting through the next couple of weeks with JOA. In 10 days I will be visiting London with the rest of the JOA team to take part in the Bond Conference. This is an annual event that brings together professionals within the fields of international development and humanitarian response, providing an opportunity to network and listen to presentations by leaders within this sector. Follow JOA’s Facebook page for coverage of the event and keep up to date with the exciting projects happening throughout the year. I’ll be posting again soon, if you would like to follow my journey and learn more about the JOA internship, keep checking this space!