We’re pleased to announce that in 2014, Ms. Gay Pho Panadda Raruen joined our team in the position of Executive Director!
Gay Pho holds a Master of Political Science (M.P.S.) degree with a concentration in interdisciplinary study for local development from Ramkhamhaeng University, and a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree in public administration from Kamphaeng Phet Rajabhat University in Thailand.
She has nearly a decade of experience working with grassroots NGOs and community based organizations in the Thailand-Burma border region, and has assumed leadership positions with internationally acclaimed organizations such as Partners in Relief and Development and the Mae Tao Clinic in Mae Sot, Thailand.
She has conducted applied research within both the academic and NGO domains in topics ranging from education and public health programs for migrants, refugees, and stateless children, to comparative management and administrative strategies for aid NGOs and local government agencies, to human rights issues facing displaced peoples in conflict areas.
Gay Pho has special expertise in fundraising, organizational administration and budget management, and is proficient in project planning, logistics, transportation and coordination. She speaks, reads, and writes fluently in Karen, Thai, Burmese, and English.
Her language skills, extensive personal and professional connections in the region, and abilities in social networking, teaching, translation, and group communications facilitation are critical to the success and sustainability of Aqueous’ projects.
Gay Pho was born in eastern Burma to Karen parents who moved there from the Irrawaddy Delta region to join the Karen resistance. Her young life was marked by conflict and instability as her family frequently had to move around the region – including back-and-forth across the Thailand-Burma border, and in-and-out of refugee camps – to escape fighting between the Burmese army and Karen rebel groups.
During some especially insecure periods, Gay Pho and her brothers and sisters had to stay in different villagers’ homes every night to avoid the threat of kidnapping by rival Karen factions.
During her childhood and high school years, her father was often away from home working for the Karen resistance and government-in-exile. After being shot and sustaining a severe knee injury from a fall during conflict, her father returned to farming to help support the family while continuing to serve as an advisor to the Karen resistance movement.
As conflict in the region escalated in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, Gay Pho’s mother established a medical clinic in a remote border village to treat the sick and injured. Rainy seasons were particularly difficult times as malaria and water-borne illnesses spread among villagers and displaced persons.
Gay Pho and her sisters attended a nearby Thai high school during the week and worked as nurses in their mother’s clinic on weekends. She recalls, “working all day, every day, and being very tired and hungry. But when we went to get food with local villagers, all they had was watery rice soup with some salt. There were so many IDPs [internally displaced persons], and most of them didn’t have homes, just living under plastic sheets in the jungle during the rainy season.”
Despite these challenges, Gay Pho did well in secondary school, scored high marks on the University entrance exams, and was awarded a scholarship from Brackett Refugee Education Fund to attend college in Mae Sot (Thailand). While in college, she worked as an intern for the Help Without Frontier Foundation – the organization that supported her mother’s clinic – and volunteered with Partners in Relief and Development as a translator and facilitator for village health worker trainings.
Through these experiences she became interested in the socio-political circumstances of migrants, and childhood education in particular. This led her to study for a Masters in Political Science with an emphasis in local development, and to perform applied research into comparative management strategies among organizations administering schools and health programs for migrant children.
In 2012, Gay Pho encountered Aqueous Solutions through a natural building workshop led by the Pun Pun Centre for Self-Reliance (Thailand) at Hsa Kaw Hser school for migrant children on the border. She had prior, and mostly unfavorable, experience with water and sanitation interventions by foreign NGOs installing complicated, expensive, and non-local technologies, and was drawn to Aqueous’ local, low-cost, sustainable approach.
She also began to see water as a leverage point for starting communities on the path to sustainable development and self-reliance: “Water is basic for our lives. Everyone needs water. Water has to be safe for health, and with good health you can develop greater things like education. Water is the basic small thing to start with, and develop from there.”
As Executive Director, Gay Pho wants to expand Aqueous’ activities inside Burma, where villages and IDP camps often face severe water insecurity. She indicates, “In Burma there is a great need – people don’t have money, and they cannot depend on outside help from the government or big companies. We cannot change what happens in Burma with politics, business, globalization and development. But we can start with water – which is a daily need – and work together with villagers. They can see it is not difficult to make clean water. In this process they learn that they can rely on themselves and their local resources and do not have to rely so heavily on money, or on outsiders. They learn to do it by themselves.”
We are thrilled to benefit from Gay Pho’s capable leadership and look forward to many exciting new projects in years to come!
Follow Gay Pho on her professional website.