How will the ongoing bold economic and political change in Myanmar impact the rural population? Agriculture currently provides 25% of the GDP and 65% of jobs, yet reforms are attracting the population towards cities and industrial factories. Despite the long agricultural tradition of what was once Asia’s largest exporter of rice, rural populations currently face severe challenges, with very limited infrastructure, electricity, sanitation or improved water supply. How will this play out?

My Young Global Leader (YGL) Impact Journey was a visit to the Kungyangon Township, three hours southwest of Yangon. Our partner was Proximity Designs, an NGO that provides affordable products and finance that complement the entrepreneurial spirit of rural families; for example, a raised water reservoir filled using a pedal-pump to later irrigate fields with a gravity-assisted drop system.

The majority of jobs in this rural community come from the minority who are landowners. The expensive loans owners need also prevent them from surplus accumulation. Moreover, a harsher climate and other challenges force more and more to sell their lands. Thus, a growing seasonal workforce struggles to find work from the remaining landowners for around three dollars a day. All this is in an environment with no resilience to natural disasters (such as Cyclone Nargis in 2008), limited electricity, paved roads and sanitation. Services like Proximity Labs are thus instrumental to breaking this cycle, via better finance and improved productivity.

Despite these challenges we found a strong community bond. Sitting with community members in their houses, we heard their vision to improve productivity, for example by creating co-ops and local jobs. Their incentive behind this profit seeking is to “give better education to our kids and donate to the poor”. Compassion and caring for the community are indeed strong parts of the local culture (mostly Buddhist). In their words, “What you take is your standard of living, what you give shows your character.”

At our request, we visited the locally sustained orphanage school and learnt that education for each kid costs US$ 20 per year. With what we had seen, driven by our empathy and compassion, we later shared our experience with fellow YGLs and raised over US$ 1,300 for that school. However, we were concerned that an unsolicited donation of most of their yearly budget in advance could be very disruptive. After some debate, we finally talked to Proximity Labs, who are locally trusted and knowledgeable, to serve as stewards of the money.

We also realized we could easily help with something else. As part of our YGL conference package we had local SIM cards. Turns out getting access to one of those is done by lottery and is still in the US$ 60 range. So we requested fellow YGLs to consider donating their cards and bought local phones before leaving the country. We collected more than 50 SIM cards and several phones. I was thrilled to give these to Proximity Labs and visit the offices where I also trained their staff to put the villages and roads on the map.

Indeed, YLG conferences could be an opportunity for providing resources to local communities. At every conference, we could set up a box where anyone can leave unwanted or unused conference items to be given to a local social organization. Interested? Get in touch and let’s talk.

Author: Bruno Sánchez-Andrade Nuño is Director of Science and Technology at the Global Adaptation Institute and Chief Scientist at Mapbox. He is a 2013 Young Global Leader

Image: Farmers work in a rice paddy in Myanmar REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun


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