Opinion

Perspectives on Myanmar

Remains of library building destroyed by Cyclone Nargis
Remains of library building destroyed by Cyclone Nargis

Earlier this month, I visited Myanmar (formerly Burma) and had the privilege of meeting with a wide variety of people from all walks of life.  Earlier, I posted a summary of the current situation in Myanmar. I thought I would share some of my interactions to help paint a picture of current day Myanmar.

Part II: Perspectives on Myanmar

WorldVision Team.  We were able to meet with James Tumbuan, country head for the large INGO, WorldVision based in Yangon.  James explained to us that WorldVision started operating in Burma in 1960 and now has 31 active area development projects.  They also have a significant operation in the Irrawaddy Delta in response to recovery efforts after Cyclone Nargis hit in May 2008.  In Bogalay (delta), we were warmly greeted by the WV staff and generously transported by speed boat to visit 6 villages in the delta which had been largely destroyed by Nargis.  We were able to visit some pretty remote villages where WV has been building schools, early child care and development centers and many other relief and development services.  I was impressed with how their projects were designed in partnership with each community.  We met one WV staff member who was continuing to volunteer in supporting communities after her contract was finished!  The WV engineering team also helped us estimate the cost for construction of library buildings!

College Bond Students.  Dottie Guyot and her husband James set up a Pre-Collegiate Program to help Myanmar high school graduates prepare for and earn scholarships for overseas college programs.  I was invited to lead an introduction to microfinance discussion with the current class of 15+ students.  I realized in the midst of comparing microfinance with the typical financial services available to middle class citizens that these students had no personal experience of a functioning financial system.  In 2002, Myanmar’s banking system largely stopped operating.  There are no credit cards.  Loans for individuals and most businesses are unheard of.  Everything is a cash economy.  Besides North Korea, I can’t think of another country which has no banking system!

The Ambassador.  I met with U Nyunt Tin, former ambassador to Canada, France and Indonesia and a retired Myanmar air force officer.  He explained to me that he had participated on the constitutional advisory council assisting with the new Myanmar constitution.  He said it was a fascinating process engaging with a wide variety of people including many leaders from the minority ethnic groups.  While he admitted that the final result was a compromise, he was quite encouraged by the result and broad-based participation.  He is involved in setting up a new microfinance program and has personally committed much of his assets to get this going in a substantial way.  We had a good discussion about the opportunity to present to the central bank some good examples of pro-microfinance regulatory frameworks successfully adopted and implemented by other emerging countries.

Village Girl.  In one Irrawaddy Delta village, I was able to interview a girl of about 9 years old.  She explained how during Nargis, she survived by clinging to her father’s back as the waters rose.  She lost her mother.

Military Attache to US Government.  I met with a retired woman who had worked for a number of years in Washington DC as the office manager for the Burma military attache.  As the main office English speaker, she was the go-between in all of the official and unofficial dealings.  Later she worked for the UN in Myanmar as an expert on disaster relief.  She and her brother, a retired professor, were so excited about our work to rebuild Nargis destroyed libraries that they accompanied us to Bogalay.  I had an interesting discussion with her about life in Rangoon (now Yangon) during the Japanese occupation for 3 years in the second world war.

Rice Farmers.  Over 3 days, we visited 10 separate villages in the Irrawaddy delta which had in common that their libraries were all destroyed by Nargis.  In each village we had the opportunity to meet with the village leadership including the local headman.  In most cases, their primary occupation was rice farming.  We learned that Nargis flooding caused salt to be deposited on their rice paddies “poisoning” the paddy fertility.  Four harvests later they are still having lower yields.  If that wasn’t enough, Nargis killed all of the snakes and owls … the only predator of rats, which survived.  Rats now destroy their crops.  Additionally, small crabs introduced by Nargis flooding also destroy rice yields.  This is very challenging situation.

The Librarian.  I met multiple librarians in Yangon and Bogalay.  At one privately operated community library in Yangon called Dr. Chitmaung Library, we met an impressive librarian and one of her volunteer staff members.  They had very creatively figured out how to make the library operationally financially self-sustaining.  They generated income from annual memberships ($2/year), small fees for English classes and fees for PC usage in their Internet cafe.  They had no budget for books or periodical acquisition so they relied on us and other donors for their collections.  Their PC lab was largely managed by college-aged youth who previously took advantage of library services as children.  This was one impressive operation!

Municipal Librarian.  In Yangon, we visited the largest municipal public library and met the staff.  They excitedly showed us the English language children’s books that they have received from us.  They were now for the first time attracting children to their library.  They showed us their e-library which consisted of a dozen PCs and a library of 100+ CD-ROMs mostly oriented towards college prep.  They still didn’t have any Internet connectivity.  We also saw stacks of a booklet with info on the upcoming election which they told us was very popular.

Library Entrepreneur.  We met the young brother and sister duo, Zar Ni Htet and Khin Kyi Nyoon who had recently established a new college prep library and learning center in downtown Yangon called Knowledge Bank.  They have a vision for helping high school graduates gain the skills necessary to attend college in Myanmar or overseas.  They have created a first class facility including a library of ebooks which members can access via Amazon Kindle or Sony eReader.

IDE.  I met Jared in Bogalay who works with IDE Myanmar.  I first learned of IDE through Paul Polak’s Out of Poverty book.  He was in the delta to interview farmers who were using their products including their small farm optimized treadle pump.  Jared told me that engineers in Yangon had designed a new treadle pump costing $10 lowering the price from their current $25 product.

Business Owner.  I met with a business owner who operates multiple businesses in Myanmar.  He earns most of his revenue related to tourism.  He explained to me how the government limits and duties on importing automobiles required him to pay $100,000 for a car which would cost < $30,000 in the USA.  He also described how he had to pay $1,500+ for his mobile phone number.  He exports a number of artisan products, but he can’t export to the USA due to sanctions … only hurting artisan workers.

MFI CEO.  I met with Fahmid Karim Bhuiya, CEO of Pact Myanmar, the largest microfinance bank in Myanmar called Pact Myanmar.  Fahmid was previously with BRAC in Bangladesh moving in 1997 to Myanmar to start this new MFI.  Over the past year they have added 100K+ clients for a total of 423K client representing about 80% of MFI clients in Myanmar.  They have a loan portfolio of US$25M with average loan size of $76 supported by a staff of 1,700.  They are one of the largest employers in the Irrawaddy delta where they have dramatically expanded since Nargis.  Their major funder is UNDP.  They have reached financial break-even despite 30% inflation.  They have 400+ clients per loan officer which is very efficient especially considering the population density where they are operating.  Impressively, they now offer 9 financial products including health loan, agriculture loan and education loan.  There biggest challenge is the lack of financial regulation in Myanmar which requires them to continue in an ambiguous legal state as a UN project.

4 thoughts on “Perspectives on Myanmar

  1. Thank you for your report. Althoug you wrote it more than one year ago, it is still worthy to input data about Burma during its transition period leaving the military dominated country. Good luck!

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