A BLOG POST BY WENCHI YU AND ANNE MACDONALD FOR FORBES
Recently in Yangon, over a hundred youth representing every region and ethnic minority in Myanmar participated in their first “Tech Camp,” a U.S.-government sponsored conference on using technology to tackle critical challenges. Among the attendees were Chit Ko Ko Win and Ethan Kurt, two Myanmar young men who have started a social enterprise that uses a $35 dollar, fully functional computer to bring educational resources to remote communities. Chit Ko Ko and Ethan see an opportunity to improve education through affordable technologies–a smart investment to upgrade the skills of the country’s labor force and promote inclusive growth. Low-cost community investments like these can fuel economic growth and renew long-neglected civil society institutions in Myanmar, which was largely closed for the last 50 years.
Recent changes like these in Myanmar bring excitement to many who have long waited for the country’s opening and are seeking to support this new generation of social entrepreneurs and civil society leaders. Now, as Myanmar begins to show signs of progress, the international community–and especially the business sector–must seize this golden hour of opportunity to ensure that Myanmar’s gains are accompanied by the inclusive growth. Research demonstrates that more balanced and inclusive economic development is one of the most important factors in creating not just greater prosperity, but also a vibrant democracy.
For decades, the international community levied sanctions against Myanmar’s government in hopes of pressuring it to adopt internal reforms. While the strategy contributed to the opening Myanmar is experiencing, there is no question that decades of isolation also left people mired in poverty.
Myanmar presents a unique opportunity for many who are eager to see the country grow economically, sustainably, and inclusively. 70% of the country’s population lives in rural areas and the GDP per capita (purchasing power parity) is only around $1,400. Donors recognize the opportunity to help rebuild the country and are making efforts to coordinate assistance efforts. But businesses can bring market-driven development solutions that, if done right, are more likely to lead to long-term and sustainable development.
Myanmar’s leaders have traveled around the globe to invite investments, both financial and beyond, into a country of rich and long underutilized natural resources. Despite Burma’s poor infrastructure, weak rule of law and governance, the international business community is showing enthusiasm and is finding great opportunities to enter the frontier market where approximately 60 million people are ready to consume and contribute to the global economy.
Foreign direct investment in Myanmar rose from 1.9 billion in fiscal year 2011-12 to $2.7 billion in 2012-13 and China accounted for more than 40% of foreign investment. American businesses are absent from the list of even the top ten investors. This is unfortunate because American companies tend to understand the value of acting as responsible stakeholders. As demonstrated by the Coca-Cola KO -0.21% Company’s $3 million investment in 25,000 women entrepreneurs, Proctor & Gamble’s donation of hundreds of millions of liters of clean drinking water, and Abbott’s $1 million contribution to support grassroots organizations to advance health, education, and women’s economic empowerment in Myanmar, American companies understand that social investment creates goodwill, helps understand consumer needs, and creates shared value–leading to long-term business returns. Social and economic investments made through partnerships with NGOs, can be smart business strategy. Such investments can bring critical resources to enhance human capital and advance Myanmar’s overall development. In addition to making profits, doing good in the community is also part of doing good business. As Dr. Greg Allgood of P&G said, “This social investment in a healthier, more prosperous Myanmar is part of our global effort to save one life every hour.” It is a win-win strategy for all.
Recognizing the need for this kind of economic growth and social development, Nobel Peace Laureate and Myanmar’s democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi created the Suu Foundation, a U.S.-based humanitarian organization to bring social investments to the people of Myanmar. With former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former First Lady Laura Bush as honorary co-chairs, the Suu Foundation channels American social investment to develop Myanmar’s human capital and structural capacity.
During our recent trip to Myanmar, we visited the Suu Foundation’s MobileLibrary Project in Kawhmu Township, an underserved community with ethnic minorities about a three-hour drive south of Yangon. Two donated buses outfitted as mobile libraries and smaller trucks capable of reaching more inaccessible areas deliver books to primary school students. For children in Kawhmu lacking basic resources, the mobile libraries are their windows to the world. Many of them come barefoot, but they want to read. In the last 5 months, over 8,000 community members have received library membership cards. Now the project is developing a financial literacy program, teaching students coming to the mobile libraries how to save. These banking and literacy programs, along with the Yangon University and Yangon General Hospital programs present opportunities for American financial institutions and health industry leaders to contribute using their core business competencies.
The development of Myanmar’s economy and civil society, coupled with continued progress in political reforms, will not only result in increased shared prosperity, but will also ensure that more of its young men and women can continue turning their hopes for their country into reality. In a country like Myanmar, full of challenges and opportunities, private social investments provide the opportunities for both international businesses and the many blossoming members of its next generation.
Wenchi Yu and Anne MacDonald are members of the Managing Committee of the Suu Foundation. Ms. Yu is the managing partner of the Banyan Advisory Group LLC and a former State Department official. Ms. MacDonald is pursuing graduate studies at Harvard University and is a former White House official.