Should we be working in Myanmar?

Burma Blog AI started working in Myanmar almost two years ago. At that time, in order to have access to a phone I rented a sim card for over 200$; ATMs were non-existent and Yangon was still relatively traffic-free. My first assignment for a large INGO was to study three separate markets in the country’s central dry zone. I looked at goats, groundnuts and plums. The latter, seemingly banal as a crop, turned out to be the more exciting of the three. A plum farmer could channel the components of her plums to five separate markets, from dried fertilizer to juice, to fire fuel and Chinese medicine.

Having spent a large part of my career to date working in Africa, where often sparse population makes stimulating markets difficult, I was astounded by these vibrant opportunities. In the rural communities of Myanmar, compost was produced and sold, markets were developed and accessed. As an economic development practitioner, I wondered what value-add a project could bring.

Fast forward a few years and my own organization, MEDA, was awarded a large multi-year project in Myanmar. The first order of business was fielding a research team to identify which markets we would work in and how we could encourage women’s participation and leadership within these. As the team came back with data for analysis, I was struck by some of their comments which echoed my earlier observations: they found people were content. They had fairly good community-level social support systems and the populations seemed to make ends meet.

These observations naturally led to a questioning of our relevance. As development agents, we are driven to help improve people’s lives; should we be intervening in an area where people already seemed to have the basics? It is not the first time I have faced this dilemma, one where I strive for our projects to do good, but sometimes wonder if they do.

In Myanmar’s case, the answer came not from looking at the present, but in anticipating the future. As a country that had been closed to the world for over 40 years, systems and circumstances had evolved within an artificial bubble. Now that the country is opening up, the world is entering Myanmar, bringing along opportunities and challenges. We know that with rapid economic growth and change there will be those who benefit and those who suffer. And those who suffer tend to disproportionally be those in rural areas and the minorities, which can be defined by ethnicity, gender, ability, religion, etc. In our work, we are striving to help those who would often be on the losing side of the equation to step up and grasp the opportunities. When we talked to ethnic women in rural areas of the country, we desperately wanted them to continue to grow with the country and not be left behind. That is why we are in Myanmar.

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