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In 2000 Peter Simmons was happily working as a management consultant in the printing industry when he accompanied a friend on a mission trip to a village in Myanmar, the Southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma. He was immediately moved by the experience. ‘Eighteen babies had died there in six weeks, but just 50 cents worth of medicine would have kept one alive,’ he recalls. It played on his mind when he returned to Australia. The moment he decided to do something about it, he was standing in a McDonalds. ‘I saw that it cost 50 cents for an ice cream and I thought, every one of those 50 cents could have saved a kid’s life,’ he says.
In efforts to improve the quality of life for Myanmar residents, Peter founded Graceworks Myanmar in 2004. Initially, as a small organisation, they were able to do work that larger organisations with more bureaucracy couldn’t. ‘I looked at how money – collected from the average person to dig a well or support a feeding program – created an unsustainable approach,’ he explains. He saw a need to give people the tools to sustain better lives in an ongoing way, not just fix short-term problems. Peter explains one example of this approach would be to ‘move people into a sustainable environment and get them to earn income for themselves’.
Peter is the first to admit that having business knowledge didn’t automatically make him qualified to drive growth in a developing nation. ‘I went into that space not knowing anything,’ he says. When Deakin University lecturer Dr Anthony Ware encouraged him to return to study, he was hesitant. Nonetheless, Peter enrolled in a Master of International and Community Development online at Deakin. ‘The course was incredibly practical. What we learnt was applicable on the ground,’ he says. And with the knowledge he gathered, Peter was able to holistically review the challenges he faced and develop strong solutions to bolster his economic ideas.
'I looked at how money – collected from the average person to dig a well or support a feeding program – created an unsustainable approach'
Master of International and Community Development graduate, Deakin University
Peter’s work in community development education has resulted in the creation of a model that can be used to enable people to build up their lives independently. It is a model that he is currently sharing with parliamentarians and hoping to distribute to other aid organisations so they can empower those they work with. ‘The biggest achievement is moving from a micro level, working with three to four orphanages, to a macro level, impacting more than 37,000 people,’ Peter explains.
Among his proudest achievements is the vocational training centre he set up to teach young people at risk. Students study subjects including English and IT. ‘Two of those students now have restaurants in Myanmar,’ Peter says. His career path is certainly not the one he’d envisioned, but Peter says seeing the outcomes that he couldn’t have anticipated keep him motivated. Most of all, it’s the human spirit found in unexpected places that astounds him, politicians and agencies alike. ‘We have Muslims, Buddhists and Christian people working together on projects. What is projected as a political problem isn’t. It’s just a matter of getting people on the same page,’ he says.
Find out more about studying a Master of International and Community Development online at Deakin University.
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