Myanmar: whereto next for Asia’s latest emerging market?

It is Tuesday evening, and I’m on my way back to Saigon, however am currently stuck on the runway at Bangkok airport, grounded, thanks to a horrendous monsoon downpour.

Looking out from my cabin window it is as if the plane is underwater.  In fact, given night time is fast setting in, it is more like being underwater in the dark, save for a few flashing neon lights going off from the terminal opposite.

Not being a great flyer myself, and having read the Thai Airways in-flight magazine only yesterday, it is at times like this when I resort to writing about something, to take my mind off both the delay of getting home, and the inevitable panic of turbulence that is awaiting me once we head off.

Last post, you were subject to a freak moment of poetry which I succumbed to at Kuala Lumpur airport, right now I am going to fill you in on Myanmar, a country in which I have just had the pleasure of spending a swift 24 hours…

Also known by many as Burma, Myanmar is enjoying somewhat of a renaissance following the introduction of a Democratic government system which has been in power since November 2010.  For a host of reasons, mostly linked to the country’s political changes and the lifting of international sanctions imposed on it, there are raised expectations by many commentators about the economic and social development possibilities in Myanmar.

My meetings were in the capital, Yangon, which offered a limited window into the hustle and bustle of what really makes Myanmar tick.  When I wasn’t in the CARE office in Yangon, I did manage a trip to Shwedagon Pagoda (the largest pagoda I’ve ever set foot in, and well worth the sweaty walk up the hill at sundown) and a stroll around the local neighbourhood.

A pause for thought on a Monday evening

Shwedagon pagoda at dusk

For a country that ranks 149 out of 168 in the Human Development Index, Myanmar has a long way to go – on many levels – to achieve the kinds of improved standards of living to which it aspires.  Whilst the country’s ambitions, and many of the Government’s policies, point towards positive and inclusive development for population groups, there are bunch of challenges to overcome.

In Yangon, it doesn’t take you much time to gauge the extent to which the situation is far from optimal.  The city’s buildings are in a state of dis-repair.  Many of the high-rise blocks are black with pollution and surrounded at their bases by upturned slabs of paving, open sewers and a clutch of local vendors selling fruit, flowers or gasoline (from large metal milk jugs and old soda bottles).

Father and son roadside petrol enterprise in Yangon

Before even tackling some of the country’s infrastructure issues – the roads, and the vehicles on them, are both of a very basic standard for starters – the regulatory and operating environment remains complex, and a barrier to progress more generally.

CARE Myanmar manage 300 staff across the country, and I spent several enlightened hours yesterday learning about some of the team’s most innovative achievements supporting local communities.  Including a project that has helped incentivise local poppy farmers towards growing wild tea instead of poppies, and furthermore becoming members of a newly formed tea association that is now selling tea to China (yes, the practice does exist despite the myth deeming otherwise!)

This is a market development success with a twist, as the farmers are now enjoying higher yields than they used to from the poppy harvesting, and the middle men poppy buyers, whose profits are made by turning the produce into illegally traded opium, are running up against a diminishing supply chain.  A state of affairs in which the Government, civil society, and others alike, are all in favour.

In terms of private sector investment in Myanmar, the landscape is still a nascent one, but with signs that the coming years could see some major changes.

The extractive (oil, gas, mining etc) industry is the major player and contributor to overall GDP levels.  Fast moving consumer goods (FMCGs) companies, such as Procter and Gamble and Unilever, also have a reasonable footprint, distributing daily household products in urban areas, as well as to harder to reach and lower demographic communities.

The banking sector is not as vibrant here yet and, by all accounts, the telecoms surges seen in many other developing countries is still something of a talking point (or not, as the case may be on your mobile phone, given the poor coverage available).  However, there is hope that the relatively vibrant garment exporting sector which existed previously may yet become sanction free, and emerge again as a contributor to the country’s outputs.  Coca-Cola, notably, are about to open up a plant here as well – not unexpected, given Coke’s global coverage already, but an indication perhaps that things are moving forward and change is afoot.

The largest multi-national corporation here, and my main reason for the visit, is GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) – a pharmaceutical company headquartered in the UK, and which provides a range of medicines, as well as managing a successful retail business selling household brands such as Ribena and Lucozade.

That GSK’s partnership with CARE in Myanmar is part of a larger programme of work the company launched last year – called the “20% Reinvestment Initiative” – is a source of great promise, not just for the people of Myanmar who will benefit from the programme, but also perhaps for the overall national effort for the country to become more economically viable, and to raise its standards of living.

The ‘20%’ piece refers to GSK’s commitment to invest 20% of the profits they make from their retail business in each national market, back into the overall programme with CARE in that country.  As well as Myanmar in this region, CARE and GSK have teamed up in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Nepal.  In Africa, the company is partnering AMREF and Save the Children as part of the same initiative.

GSK’s vision is to improve the quality and quantity of local healthcare services, and access to them, for those most in need and most cut off from existing services. Primarily, the focus within this vision is on maternal and child health.

In Myanmar, around 2,500 pregnant women and 70,000 children die unnecessarily every year, from preventable diseases and conditions.  Put within the context of the population here, this means that 1 in 400 women will not survive childbirth, and 1 in 14 children will not make it to their fifth birthday.

In the country’s rural areas, these statistics are more acute and hit you between the eyes even harder.  70% of children are born at home, and there are simply not enough midwives and qualified volunteers (known as ‘auxiliary midwives’) to reach those in need, nor the equipment, education and training to ensure the country stands a chance of turning these figures around.

Although these next pictures (below) were taken from a CARE project in Nepal, they offer up a glimpse into some of the conditions and equipment that local health clinics and birthing centres are using:

A previous birthing centre (in rural Nepal) prior to restoration

An upgraded birthing centre in Nepal

There are many social development issues that contribute to the unhealthy reality which is Myanmar’s health system, and CARE seeks to address them through a holistic approach to our interventions.

Income generation is a core issue, for example.  Helping communities – farmers, fishermen, small holder producers – earn more money through better access to market information, and access to markets themselves, is one starting point for CARE.  We run microfinance lending schemes as a part of this work, train local producers in furthering their business skills, and also collaborate with local authorities about the enabling environment for different products and their distribution.

CARE programmes around the broader theme of education, too.  Improving facilities in schools as we might do in a birthing centre like the one above, but additionally – and critically – investing effort in the longer term viability of education by incentivising attendance, and focusing on areas such as girl’s leadership.

Finally, during times of disaster and emergency, such as following the Nargis Cyclone in 2008, which devastated parts of Myanmar, CARE uses all of these approaches and experiences to enhance how we deliver humanitarian relief and assistance over a very immediate term time period.

To “intervene” as we do as an NGO requires an acceptance that all these respective components are interlinked.  We know, for example, that earning more money at a household level will translate into more household income being spent on education and on healthcare.  Over a sustained period of time, this can then address the statistics listed above in a positive way, whilst also catalysing a more conducive environment in which the private sector can do business.

One of the added leverage points from this current work with GSK is the company’s desire to forge business-to-business relationships: with banks, with telecoms companies, and with others where there exists areas of mutual interest – both in terms of economic and social returns.

To harness mobile telephony in order to get healthcare information out to rural households is appealing.  The other way up the chain, there are various benefits to companies who distribute products and services in being able to track customer and consumer usage through mobile devices.

The opportunities here really could be significant for all parties, and I believe CARE’s partnership with GSK to be one with the right ingredients already to bring about the wider change the country requires.

Time will tell.

For now, the monsoon rains have reduced, and I can sense am about to be told to switch off my laptop and buckle up…

So whereto next exactly in the short term?

At this year’s East Asia Summit of the World Economic Forum (for anyone still awake by this stage of my ramblings, the WEF convene the annual Davos get-together of the great and the good, and then host regional summit meetings in between) CARE USA’s President, Helene Gayle, co-chaired the entire event, which was a first in terms of an NGO receiving such an invite.

Many converging themes were discussed during the two days.  Sessions were staged examining regional health, education, economic and environmental issues. Commitments were made, and networks between private, public and civil society sectors were strengthened.

Bangkok was the host this year – a city which has demonstrated well the potential that exists in a commercially progressive Asian market, and often now seen as a key hub for the region in terms of trade, tourism and the like.

The touch paper of Myanmar’s transformation was ignited in the media by the changes to the country’s constitution, as well as by the presence of the charismatic and iconic Aung San Suu Kyi.  With the current excitement that surrounds Myanmar comes possibly a generation’s worth of milestones which must now be met in order to see progress truly underway, and outcomes touching all its citizens.

The introduction of the GSK initiative represents one such milestone, and hopefully a significant one.

Next year, Yangon is hosting the WEF East Asia Summit.  By which time, it would be great to see more of these kinds of cross-sector partnerships and commitments underway – with the longer term investment potential they offer – and vying for a seat at the table.

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