Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Volunteers' Visit to Myanmar(Burma).

Myanmar December 2012

Myanmar is a hot, dusty “dilapidated” but beautiful country with few amenities available to the average citizen. However the country is occupied by the friendliest, open, happy and honest inhabitants who would go out of their way for a stranger without thought of payment. There are many ethnic groups within the country, some fair far better than others. (The generals are all ethic Burmese).70% of all people live below the poverty line; many of these are single rural women with families to support. Although education is compulsory for all children between the ages of 5 and 10 years, we believe we saw many of that age selling items to support their families. Many families rely on the Buddhist monks for a basic education.

It is a very mountainous country with only 18% arable land available for food crops. Although previously it was the rice bowl of Asia, the land now is dry and infertile due to the lack of available water (unless close to the major rivers). The Shan State in the north (or dry zone) is by far the worst

Myanmar has become the global traveller’s (top of the range as well as back packers) most popular destination creating a severe lack of accommodation and causing hotel prices to escalate astronomically. The top end resorts and hotels in the best locations are owned by the ruling Generals, local business people have struggled in the past yet see future prosperity for them in this industry. We only stayed at locally owned places throughout the country.

All major banks are controlled and owned by the government (the generals), these have failed several times in the last 30 years causing inflation rates to run at more than 30% thus forcing local people to “put their money under the mattress” Since the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, people are far happier and prepared to discuss politics, even display photos of her and her father. In the last 2 years independent banks have started to flourish providing increased local confidence. I’m sure improved infrastructure will soon follow.

While there I could not help noticing areas/aspects that outsiders could assist with at little cost.

The orphanage Jim supports caters for around 80 children, the girls and boys are housed separately on two compounds. It now has excellent good new dwellings which are set in large grounds so they can be quite self-supportive with vegetables, fruit, milk and chickens. The new bathroom facilities, dormitories and study rooms are of a most generous standard. Unfortunately the kitchens are very primitive and inadequate for the required needs.

Their educational programme encourages the children to remain at school right through to tertiary level. They have a language lab and computers and are in the process of buying 10 laptops for student use. Girls learn weaving and sewing. Jim helps support 5 girls and 1 boy studying at university level, one of the girls is doing well in her engineering course. It has been difficult to place students, especially boys in training positions if they did not qualify for university.

Through UNDP, Aid organisations introduced Micro Banking to 4 zones within Myanmar in the late 1980’s. These programmes followed the principles of the Grameen Bank; to build, operate and then transfer to local staff.

Groups involved were (US) PACT (Private Agency Collaborating Together),Save the Children, World Vision, CARE( Coop, Assist, Relief, Everywhere-AUSAID helped), GRET (Dutch)

One zone selected was the Shan State, (the highest poverty level and by far the very driest) it was established for farmers, tradesmen and artisans. It is a very stable area and one we visited to see the present results.

The loan aim was to ensure health, food, water, security and education was provided to remote areas.

The loan criteria stated; borrowers must be female, landless and subsistence farmers.

In brief: By 2005,with  440,000 female clients and interest rate at 10%, the results were very mixed because the countries inflation rate was running at up to 40% forcing women to take money lenders loans to help repay first loan.

Because of the government’s heavy restrictions, these organisations had no legal status or regulating ability; private banks could not operate or open and the government placed a low ceiling on interest rates. In fact the government did everything to ensure the failure of any assistance.

In 2008 after the massive damage of Cyclone NARGIS the government was forced to see the need for changes within banking and finance etc. Private Banks entered and became trusted by the people.

By 2009 after negotiations with other AID groups; PACT was the group to survive (following Grameen Banking Principles and working with the other groups in the back ground) but they required an MOU with the government – case by case!! There was no standard MOU- and it depended on the mood of the day as to what happened!!

However all previous unpaid loans were treated as GRANTS- to allow borrowers to have a fresh start. All involved see a light at the end and are acting positively.

After the elections of 2010 new defining rules were promised- but not as yet Law. Small borrowers still cannot take loan if no collateral. Therefore donor institutions are working with the government to develop a Microfinance Aid strategy which at this point appear to be working well, thanks to the incredible efforts of Aung San Suu Kyi. Global interest rates and greater accountability are required for greater success within MF schemes.
Jennie and Jim Russell, Melbourne, Australia.
Jennie is President of the National Council of Women of Victoria. Jim is a former Professor of Engineering who has been supporting the orphanage descrined above for a number of years.

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