Many people describe Myanmar as the final frontier, representing a remarkable opportunity for trade and investment. With a population about the size of England, land rich in natural resources, and economic growth of 8.3 percent in fiscal 2013-14, the country is already on the road to rapid development.
Yet despite significant progress made through historic government reforms launched in 2011, Myanmar is still plagued by poverty, inequality and ethnic strife after a half-century of military rule and isolation. It is the poorest country in Southeast Asia, with the world’s widest income gap between rich and poor. Like many of its neighbors, Myanmar faces the critical challenge of ensuring that the entire population participates in and benefits from the country’s development.
In May, I visited Myanmar for the Devex Executive Forum, where I heard how others are implementing development programs in the country to address the country’s many challenges. I was inspired by the work of many of the Myanmarese business and civil society leaders who have worked to eliminate poverty and promote social justice for generations. This encouraged me to share what Chemonics has learned through our work across the region that might be adapted to this complex and unique context.
Here are three lessons learned from Chemonics’ work in Asia:
1. Promote inclusive decision-making processes.
Informed, inclusive governance — that is, the ability of the government, civil society, and private sector to collaborate effectively on policy, legal and regulatory reform — is vital to equitable growth. In Myanmar, decision-making often favors entrenched interests and is done behind closed doors. Systematic, predictable procedures are not pervasive, and the impact of including stakeholders in reform initiatives is not fully understood.
In Nepal, for instance, Chemonics worked to ensure remote and vulnerable populations had access to the election process in 2008. Due to safety concerns, Nepalese officials could not travel to remote areas, where there was ongoing unrest. However, this meant that the citizens of these areas, often the most vulnerable populations in the country, would not have direct access to information about the election. Combined with wide-reaching communications tools like PSAs, radio, and toll-free phone lines that linked remote voters with their representatives in Kathmandu, we printed and distributed election information directly in the most remote communities. This outreach gave groups that had traditionally been left out of national elections unprecedented access to the process and empowered them to participate.
2. Empower underserved populations to level the playing field.
Empowering underserved populations such as women, minority groups, and the poor is essential to allowing equal access to development benefits. As in many countries, these groups are often excluded from the economy and politics in Myanmar, and remain dissatisfied with the pace and depth of change. One way to level the playing field is to provide underserved populations with the skills needed to enter formal systems in society.
In Vietnam, Chemonics and the U.S. Agency for International Development have found success by working with government to engage the business community and citizens, including the most vulnerable, in a facilitative policy reform dialogue and feedback loop designed to ensure that legal reforms evolve from collaborative processes. One example is training staff from ministries to include gender-sensitive language when drafting new bills. Community-led outreach and behavior change activities that include plays and contests, particularly in rural areas, help to educate women about their land rights and to assist communities of vulnerable populations gain better access to a range of legal services. These efforts, in cooperation with local government and communities, empower women to increase their participation in the country’s economy and ensure a more secure future for their families.
Another example was in Bangladesh where Chemonics and USAID employed a private sector-led value chain approach to expand economic opportunities for farmers and small businesses and reduce inequalities for the poor. We helped small and medium-sized enterprises to increase sales and investment, which in turn increased demand for workers. We harnessed that new demand by providing women, ethnic and religious minorities, and marginalized populations with skills relevant to the local market. Overall, 830,000 new full-time jobs were created, more than 16,000 filled by women.
3. Use technological tools to increase broad-based growth.
With the influx of foreign investment in telecommunications in Myanmar, the sector is poised for a boom after decades of poor networks and low connectivity. To leverage this, it is key to use appropriate technology to promote communication, information sharing, and citizen engagement. Basic mobile phones, for example, are a powerful tool to expand financial services to low-income communities.
From 1997 to 2012, Chemonics and USAID worked with 77 rural banks in the Philippines to pioneer the use of mobile technology to increase access to banking services for the poor. We developed a full range of mobile phone banking services, helped register 390,000 phone banking clients, and facilitated more than 3 million mobile transactions valued at $400 million. To build on this success, we are implementing a new initiative over the next five years to strengthen e-payment systems and build the capacity of government and the private sector to promote financial inclusion and more equitable economic growth.
During the Devex Executive Forum, I was encouraged by the optimism expressed by many Myanmarese and international organizations for Myanmar’s exciting development prospects. I am excited about the opportunities for organizations like Chemonics to help the country grow and prosper. I believe that the best way to foster inclusive, equitable development is for international groups like mine is to be humble and take the time to understand the context, then work with Myanmarese partners to help facilitate change.
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Andrew Lewis is senior vice president for Chemonics' Asia division. Previously, he served as Chemonics’ senior vice president for both the South Asia, and the Egypt, North Africa and Yemen regions. An education, youth and workforce development specialist, Lewis joined Chemonics in 2009 as an education practice director providing technical assistance and leadership to Chemonics’ education portfolio. He has managed projects in Egypt, Georgia, and Zambia. He holds a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of Tennessee and has done graduate work at the George Washington University and Tulane University.
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