• From education to health to life expectancy, outcomes were poor with living standards among the lowest in Asia. (ChildFund Australia)Source: ChildFund Australia
Karl Dorning has been working in Myanmar to help the exploited and the poor since 1995. This is his story.
By
Sharon Verghis

28 Jun 2017 - 1:26 PM  UPDATED 28 Jun 2017 - 5:57 PM

When Australian Karl Dorning arrived in Myanmar in 1995, he was one of the first international staff to work at World Vision’s Rangoon office, reopened after years of closure under oppressive military junta rule.

The then isolated, crumbling country was an eye-opening experience not just for Dorning but for his three-year-old son: “at the time, mobile phones were non-existent and land phones likely bugged”.

“As we were first driving from the airport, my son asked us why we had come to live in the jungle,” Dorning tells SBS. “We had come from Footscray in industrial inner-city Melbourne to a city that was wet and green and full of trees and vegetation. Rangoon was very different to the busy traffic-clogged city is today."

“The World Vision officer over there now has probably well over 400 staff but back then, there were fewer than 10 workers and only two internationals.”

Dorning, a teacher by training, was a first-hand witness to the former pariah state’s slow reopening to the world after years of political turmoil.

“We had come from Footscray in industrial inner-city Melbourne to a city that was wet and green and full of trees and vegetation. Rangoon was very different to the busy traffic-clogged city is today."

One of South-East Asia’s most prosperous countries in the nineteenth century with a rich culture and high literacy rates, Myanmar had fallen into decay over decades of economic and political isolation. From education to health to life expectancy, outcomes were poor with living standards among the lowest in Asia.

When Dorning arrived, World Vision was focusing on the HIV epidemic wreaking havoc through the country, particularly in specific communities, including young men working in the fishing industry and young women and girls in the sex industry in Thailand.

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“There was a lot of movement back and forth across the borders with young people looking to escape the economic circumstances in Burma and Thailand was looking for cheap labour,” Dorning says.

“We opened the HIV prevention programs at the main border crossing points between the two countries on each side of the border. Burmese were particularly vulnerable during that time as there were no real labour laws for Burmese workers so they were easily exploited.”

Over the next decade and a half, Dorning went back and forth between Australia and Myanmar, working with World Vision on programs ranging from prevention and social programs in poor communities, and with Thai banks to allow Burmese – particularly at-risk young fishermen with money from their sea trips – to open savings accounts. He also helped develop programs focusing on street children, anti-trafficking and non-formal education programs. “We opened a number of drop-in centres for street kids in major cities. They are still running to this day.”

When Dorning arrived, World Vision was focusing on the HIV epidemic wreaking havoc through the country, particularly in specific communities, including young men working in the fishing industry and young women and girls in the sex industry in Thailand.

Dorning has some vivid memories of the people he came into contact with, from victims of Cyclone Nargis to a blind 13-year-old orphan whom he helped get cataract surgery.

“I was there when he woke from the operation and for the first time in five or six years, was able to see again. This is probably the closest I will ever be to witnessing a miracle.”

The teacher moved back into education and now, he is the strategic director of the Monastic Education Development Group (MEDG). “That really means I am responsible for finding money. The MEDG supports as many as of the network of 1700 monastic schools around the country that as resources allow.”

Myanmar’s monastic school system goes back to the 11th century and is operated by Buddhist monasteries. They cater primarily to children from poor families and look after around 300,000 students.

Dorning’s work now includes teacher training, school management programs and developing out-of-school hours programs for children who have dropped out of school.

“I actually came into contact with the monastic school system in my early days when through my wife, I met a monk named U Nayaka who had a small school in Mandalay.” He and Dorning ended up working together on a successful proposal for a workshop through the Australia Embassy’s small grant fund. The school expanded, and was joined by a multi-story classroom building funded by the Japanese Government.

“The school is now the largest in the country with over 8,000 students. It is this monk who is the Chair Monk of the MEDG.”

Dorning’s work now includes teacher training, school management programs and developing out-of-school hours programs for children who have dropped out of school. He’s also working on expanding an e-learning pilot program supported by an international telecommunications company that links 40 schools through wireless networks.

There is much personal satisfaction in seeing children from poor families starting to stay on at school, but he is keenly aware there is much work ahead as the country embarks on the inaugural National Education Strategic Plan (NESP), a five-year road map to develop and inclusive and high-quality education system.

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A recent report by ChildFund Australia revealed the scale of neglect across the country’s education sector and the formidable challenges it poses for reformers, from educators and policymakers to donors and international organisations.

Among the key educational barriers are the costs and poor quality of education, alongside poverty and child labour which impacts severely on school retention; as Dorning has witnessed, attendance rates dramatically drop off after primary school as children, especially boys, are recruited into labour to supplement meagre family incomes.    

So much is needed to change the education culture, Dorning says, from better quality training programs for teachers to a greater focus on boosting the economy at grassroots level so that children can stay in school.

ChildFund has found that one in four children do not complete primary school. The average adult has completed only 4.7 years of schooling, while one in five children aged 10 to 14 are working.  

So much is needed to change the education culture, Dorning says, from better quality training programs for teachers to a greater focus on boosting the economy at grassroots level so that children can stay in school.

But he’s up for the task. “I started life as a teacher in Australia in the 1980s. Now, after years in the health and development sphere, I am back working in education and with this monk who I first met in 1996.

“I guess there is something karmic in all this.”

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