As a long-term supporter of ActionAid, British actor and comedian Hugh Dennis recently visited the five-year-old girl he sponsors in Myanmar. Having been ruled by a repressive military regime for over 50 years, Myanmar, also known as Burma, is one of the least developed countries in the world. Its people are extremely poor: one in four people live below the poverty line and only 50% of children finish primary school.
But now that the country has opened its borders, there's hope. Since 2012 we've been one of the few charities helping children through sponsorship in Myanmar. Here, Hugh Dennis shares his experience of meeting the little girl he sponsors and witnessing how his money is helping transform the future of her entire community.
I recently realised with some astonishment that I have sponsored an ActionAid child for nearly 30 years. Not the same child (obviously, no one wants to be treated as a child as they enter their fourth decade), but different children in sequence - first in Kenya, and now in Myanmar.
So landing at Yangon Airport on a short trip to Myanmar, I was very excited, a mood only slightly diminished by the rather frightening border official who handed me back my passport with the words “For you it is all finished.” I wondered how he had seen Outnumbered.
Five-year-old Lae Yi Soe, the child I sponsor, lives with her parents and two brothers in a small village in the Dry Zone of central Myanmar, two hours north of the ancient temple-strewn city of Bagan.
And in many ways, driving away from the city on increasingly dusty roads to the remote villages where ActionAid works also felt like stepping back in time.
In these agricultural communities the heavy moving is still done by bullock cart, and the water for both cattle and humans has to be collected from a pond, a resource entirely dependent on rainfall, of which there is precious little for 10 months of the year.
Healthcare facilities are poor – a clinic can be up to two hours drive away – and children are under pressure to leave education because they are needed for work elsewhere.
What is striking when you visit them though, is how, thanks to their own efforts and ActionAid child sponsorship, these communities are in transformation. And how simple the changes have been that have enabled this.
A mere blue-plastic water pipe from the rainwater pond to each household has freed up those who had to collect it numerous times a day (mostly women), giving them more time to earn the money they need to improve their lives.
The village has a school which is part-funded by ActionAid child sponsorship, like many others. The further away a school is - the less likely the children are to attend it, so by having one in the village, it is much easier for Lae Yi Soe and her friends to learn.
It’s also clear that this is development at the request of the people it benefits. The village itself, galvanized by an “ActionAid Fellow” – usually a female villager nominated by the community – has worked out which changes would help most, and what the priorities should be. It is a highly effective system.
The Fellows I met were extraordinary; utterly committed, tangibly improving life in their villages, and, as a consequence of that, changing the role of women in the communities in which they live.
Thanks to ActionAid, the world in which Lae Yi Soe is growing up should be a very positive one, in which she will not be hungry, uneducated or find her progress limited by her gender.
Hugh tells an inspirational story of how child sponsorship is achieving real transformation for Lae Yi Soe and her whole community in Myanmar. Now her family, friends and everyone in her village has a brighter and more secure future ahead of them.
Images: Greg Funnell/ActionAid