tobacco in myanmarMillions of people worldwide use tobacco every day. Though tobacco usage has decreased in some countries, it still remains a significant public health concern for various populations. This is especially true for lower-income countries all over the globe. Myanmar is no exception. With the highest rate of tobacco usage in Southeast Asia, tobacco in Myanmar runs rampant with limited regulation.

The Feedback Loop: Tobacco and Poverty

Worldwide, 1.8 billion people smoke, with 84% of smokers from underdeveloped countries. The world’s poor are prone to spending their limited income on tobacco. However, smoking comes at a high opportunity cost. Money spent on tobacco could instead go toward food, education and health care. In countries such as Bangladesh, the poorest households spend 10 times more on tobacco than they would on education. In Mexico, the poorest 20% of households spend at least 11% of their income on tobacco. Overall, the world’s poor sacrifice significantly more of their income to satiate tobacco addiction than do richer households.

In addition to being a financial drain, tobacco also presents numerous health risks. Users of tobacco are at risk for cancer, respiratory diseases and heart problems. These illnesses create higher medical and insurance costs, which could cause households to spiral deeper into poverty.

Tobacco in Myanmar

Currently, around 1.6 million people in Southeast Asia die from tobacco-related illnesses each year. Myanmar currently has the region’s highest prevalence of tobacco use. Approximately 80% of men use tobacco in Myanmar. In this country alone, over 65,600 people die from tobacco-related diseases annually. Regardless of this risk, more than 5 million adults in Myanmar continue to use tobacco every day.

The lack of regulation of tobacco in Myanmar puts millions of individuals at risk of exposure to secondhand smoke. Currently, 13.3 million smokers and individuals exposed to secondhand smoke are at risk of developing tobacco-related diseases such as CVD (cerebrovascular disease). CVDs are one of the most common ways tobacco claims lives. They are also the leading cause of death in the country, contributing to 32% of all deaths.

Premature deaths have also greatly affected Myanmar’s economic growth, severely limiting income opportunities for the nation’s poor and middle-class families. In 2016, economic losses due to tobacco-related mortality were estimated at MMK 1.32 trillion. Overall, the economic loss caused by tobacco-related health complications places a huge strain on Myanmar. Most importantly, without explicit programming efforts, very few users have successfully quit tobacco in Myanmar.

So, What’s Next?

A number of efforts are looking to minimize the harmful effects of tobacco in Myanmar. For example, Myanmar’s government created various changes to its Tobacco Control Laws upon joining the World Health Organization’s FCTC (Framework Convention on Tobacco Control) in 2005. Despite these changes to the law, however, there are insufficient funds for smoke-free enforcement in public spaces. Currently, smoking remains legal in pubs and bars, indoor offices and public transportation.

A comprehensive tobacco control program is therefore necessary to limit the prevalence of tobacco in Myanmar. Luckily, many organizations are willing to assist in this fight. The World Health Organization released plans for its Tobacco Control 2030 campaign, which includes Myanmar. It will be one of the 15 countries chosen to receive aid from the U.N. to support its battle against tobacco.

In 2019, the People’s Health Foundation also implemented a four-year plan to turn Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar, completely smoke-free. This organization plans to raise public awareness of the dangers of smoking and passive smoking on various media platforms. The People’s Health Foundation also partnered with the Ministry of Health and Sports to minimize smoking and overall tobacco usage in the country. Already, the organization has converted regions including Ayeyarwady, Bago and Mon into smoking-free zones. While much work still remains, Myanmar these efforts to minimize the use of tobacco among its citizens are showing some signs of success. This provides hope that the epidemic of tobacco in Myanmar may soon end.

Vanna Figueroa
Photo: Flickr

Mobile BankingMicrofinance programs are a popular development tool that gives poor households loans and access to formal banking and other financial services so that they can generate income and market their enterprises. Others have questioned the true extent of the effectiveness of this bottom-up approach to development in actually reducing poverty in recent years. However, the rise in access to mobile banking in the developing world brings hope of a new generation of microfinance.

Microfinance as a Development and Poverty Reduction Policy

Mobile phones have been one of the fastest-growing devices in the developing world. International reports found that global mobile phone ownership is growing exponentially, especially among young people in emerging economies. Although ownership is higher in developed economies, a median of 45% of people in developing countries now owns a cell phone compared to only about 25% 10 years ago. The new groups of people with access to technology have created opportunities both for investors and the world’s poor.

Mobile banking accounts and transactions are now accessible in two-thirds of the developing world. Moreover, they are beginning to exceed the number of traditional banking methods in some regions. This growing market is not only multiplying the success of banks but also giving entrepreneurs new ways of selling and profiting from their labors. Through mobile banking services, customers are also gaining access to loans and insurance to protect themselves and their families if they become vulnerable to falling back into poverty.

Mobilizing Myanmar

Mobilizing Myanmar is a prime example of the impact of these new financial programs. A woman from Myanmar started this program to increase tech and communication access for women and the poor with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She was inspired by having limited connections during her childhood in Myanmar. In 2013, the program noted that SIM cards cost over $2,000 USD and now, thanks to its hard work and partnerships with the Myanmar government, over half of the adult population has a cell phone. The successes of this approach to microloans and development has gained the attention of major international aid organizations due to its potential to boost people out of extreme poverty. This is because reports have indicated that users had better health outcomes, more financial stability and security and new sources of income.

Benefits of Mobile Banking

Mobile banking has also been more accessible for users who are illiterate as many apps are pictorial, especially those pertaining to farming. Agricultural productivity is yet another opportunity for mobile finance services to increase market access and demands. Mobilizing Myanmar also cites access to a phone and mobile money as an opportunity for online learning for children unable to attend school. It also presents new opportunities for women in the developing world as approximately 42% of women across the globe are not incorporated into the formal financial system. Mobile banking can help women gain control of their household finances. It has also proven effective as a means for group savings in parts of Myanmar.

While questions remain in many regions of access to a cell tower of even basic electricity to power cell phones in order to operate mobile banking, the cost of setting up these systems is a relatively low-cost investment. Also, once set up, these financial systems and microcosms, with regulations in place, can sustain themselves and reinvest in their communities. Thus, although mobile banking is by no means a perfect solution to lifting the world out of poverty, it has proven to be an effective development tool and a reliable investment. Mobile banking is just one way that modern technology can help the world’s poor lift themselves out of poverty.

Elizabeth Stankovits
Photo: Flickr

Advancements in Agricultural Technology
Agriculture is a salient cultivation practice, enriching the quality of life for generations upon generations of people since the first civilizations formed on Earth. Today, agriculture is essential for stimulating the global economy and can lead to higher job creation, especially when considering national poverty reduction efforts. Advancements in agricultural technology can make agriculture more efficient and help reduce poverty levels around the world.

More agricultural productivity means greater income for farmers, lower food prices, increased food supplies and more job opportunities in rural and urban areas. Consumer demand for goods that non-agricultural sectors produce also increases as income increases; this connection between growth in the agricultural sector and other constituents are what have allowed developing countries to diversify the products and services available within their own economies and the global economy.

Food Insecurity and Agriculture

Today, over 800 million people globally are undernourished and approximately 700 million people are severely food insecure, though there is a falling trend in malnourishment as time passes. This is demanding for all, but especially for children, who are the most vulnerable, as they are still developing both physically and mentally. Poor nutrition, even for a short time, can stunt development in the long run and produce adverse effects on children’s futures.

Despite these harsh realities, the FAO has been a key player in reducing global hunger, assisting countries in assessing various constraints on land use with the goal of achieving an optimally sustainable usage and allocation of resources and empowering people to make informed agricultural decisions for their communities. In the last 20 years, the FAO reports that undernourishment fell from 18.7% to 11.3% globally, and from 23.4% to 13.5% for developing countries.

Advancements in Agricultural Technology

In order to further mitigate the adverse effects of food insufficiency and insecurity, countries must rely on technological innovations in the agricultural sector to keep up with increasing food demands. Here are five advancements to agricultural technology that aim to shift the paradigm of hunger and malnourishment for generations to come.

  1. Solar Mini-Grids in Myanmar: In Myanmar, solar mini-grids have played an important role in bringing electricity to hundreds of villages around the country, especially for rural and remote communities, where working mini-grids offer an opportunity to build resilience and farm sustainably. With partial funding from the World Bank and Parami Energy and with villagers covering the rest of the funding, 1,442 households connected to the mini-grid, changing the way many families live and increasing the productivity on their farms. Over the course of 2020, Parami Energy plans to connect 4,097 more homes to the mini-grid system, and by 2030, the government hopes to achieve national electrification for Myanmar.
  2. GPS-Enabled Cell Phones: Some are using GPS-enabled cell phones to monitor agricultural extension agents (AEAs) in Paraguay. In order to manage how people receive agricultural services, central governments often assign local supervisors some authority over processes. Even though the supervisors are knowledgeable about local affairs, they still may be unable to monitor the performance of workers. These GPS-enabled cell phones allow supervisors to see where AEAs are at all times, how much time they spend in each place and their reported activities with farmers. A research study found that the phones positively influenced the performance of AEAs, increasing the number of farmers they visited by 6%, 22% greater than the AEAs who did not receive monitoring.
  3. Waru Warus: A revamping of ancient agricultural technologies is coming to fruition in Peru, as sustainable practices increase in a nationwide fight against environmental challenges and poverty. Farmers use waru warus to irrigate crops and store water. This agricultural technology system, a mix of raised beds and irrigation channels, is an inexpensive way to improve crop yields and mitigate the detrimental effects of farming at 12,500 feet above sea level. Alipio Canahua, an agronomist working with the FAO, stated that waru warus capture “water when there are droughts and drain away water when there’s too much rain, meaning that it irrigates the crops all year round.
  4. The NextGen Cassava Breeding Project: The NextGen Cassava Breeding project (NextGen Cassava) aims to streamline cassava breeding facilities in Africa and efficiently deliver improved varieties of cassava with advanced technology. The beneficiaries of this project are cassava farmers of Africa, who receive improved cassava varieties and root yields that are more resilient to pests and diseases, and exhibit other desirable traits that farmers prefer. Disease-resistant varieties of cassava take a substantial amount of time to grow. However, with NextGen’s use of accurate computer modeling techniques, this time has reduced by half and much new information on the plant is on the Cassavabase open-source database for future use.
  5. Rice Transplanters: Japan has widely used rice transplanters for efficient rice seedling planting. This machine aims to lessen the burden on farmers by reducing the need for manual labor in the rice-planting process. First, the rice planter creates a map of the rice field using a GPS while it moves around the perimeter of the field. The planter then calculates its planting route based on the map and automatically plants rice seedlings with the machine. A remote controller needs to monitor the machine, however, a person does not have to drive it, considerably reducing the amount of physical labor necessary.

As the world shifts into a time where innovation is the prevalent driver of change, humanity’s oldest sustainable cultivation practices are also shifting to meet the dynamic array of global needs. Advances in agricultural technology are necessary to meet the increasing demands of food and sustainability for future generations. And while finances are difficult to procure for any investment in innovation, there is a culture of empowerment—especially in the nations who need these advancements the most—which instills a socioeconomic structure regarding the social context of innovation, necessary to inform and encourage the younger generations to further improve the world.

– Sarah Uddin
Photo: Flickr

Orphanages in MyanmarMyanmar, previously known as Burma, is located in Southeast Asia, neighboring countries such as Thailand and Laos. Unfortunately, poverty in Myanmar has risen in recent years. As of 2017, roughly 25% of adults live in poverty. Additionally, The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports that more than 50% of children are impoverished. Due to the rising poverty rate, many adults are unable to support children. They must give them up for adoption or abandon them, creating a large influx of orphans needing shelter. The Myanmar Times reports that in 2018, there were 280 orphanages in Myanmar, many of which had to be newly established, and an estimated 36,000 orphans. That number continues to grow.

Inspiration for Standing With Orphans

Thomas Whitley of Mooresville, Indiana created The Standing With Orphans Foundation in 2012. Whitley explains that his inspiration for starting the project began when he adopted his daughter from China in 2007. He told The Borgen Project that this was his “first insight into orphanages.” Later, a friend of Whitley’s took him to his village in Myanmar to see the orphanages’ conditions there as well. Afterward, his commitment to founding Standing With Orphans was further solidified, and several years later, it came to fruition.

How Standing With Orphans Operates

Food in Myanmar is scarce and often expensive due to natural disasters and trouble with the current economy. Therefore, Standing With Orphans’ main goal is to bring bags of rice and livestock, such as chickens and pigs, to the orphanages. Whitely explained to The Borgen Project that he acquires funds through The Morgan County Community Foundation via the Standing With Orphans website. He withdraws from their allocated funds three times a year and sends it to the orphanages.

The money the organization supplies will typically buy 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of rice. The rice provided through Standing With Orphans allows orphanages in Myanmar to keep the children and workers well-fed. Along with supplying rice, in the past 2 years, Whitely has sent extra funds for buying chickens and pigs. Not only does this livestock give the orphanages a wider variety of food, but Whitley also pointed out that some orphanages have been breeding their pigs and selling them and their piglets as a source of income.

Whitley has also helped to fund solar power equipment installation, pay for school fees, and build two orphanages. While he is more than happy to contribute to various other projects such as these, he reiterated that “feeding the kids will always be the goal.” With around 50% of children living in rural, poor areas of Myanmar dying due to malnutrition in 2017, supplying food is rightly the top-priority for the foundation.

Progress and Plans for the Future

When Whitley first started working in Myanmar, he worked with only 1 orphanage. Today, he helps bring food and livestock to 14 orphanages. Whitely continues to donate and is hopeful to take another trip back to Myanmar this fall to personally deliver rice and livestock to the orphanages. While he is there, he also wants to do what he can to help with any projects they might have. Through his dedication and the donations from Standing With Orphans, Thomas Whitley and his family have greatly helped children in need. The orphanages in Myanmar that he supports were in poor condition, but now they can properly care for hundreds of children.

– Olivia Eaker
Photo: Pixabay

Living Conditions in Myanmar
The term “living conditions” encompasses all the major necessities in life, shelter, food, safety, water and electricity. In recent years, living conditions in Myanmar have vastly improved, as shown through formal statistics and public opinion. For instance, public electricity in the nation has increased by 8% between 2015 and 2017 while connectivity also increased, with 82% of households owning phones. Public opinion polls of citizens reflect these positive statistics. Specifically, 91% of Myanmar residents believe when today’s children grow up, they will have a better standard of living than themselves. Many major organizations, including those discussed below, have helped to create such great strides.

3 Organizations Improving Living Conditions in Myanmar

  1. CARE: CARE is a worldwide organization working towards ending poverty while focusing on social justice. The organization emphasizes gender equality, with over 55% of its efforts focused on assisting women and girls. As of 2019, CARE and CARE’s partners have helped 130 million people in 100 nations through its programs. CARE has been assisting those in need in Myanmar since 1995. Currently, it is focusing on improving living conditions for Myanmar’s women and girls. Many long-term plans have been developed for the nation, such as the Rural Long-Term Program 2013-2028 and the Urban Long-Term Program 2013-2028. Both of these plans focus on protecting women from humanitarian emergencies and increasing their economic opportunities.
  2. Action Against Hunger: Action Against Hunger takes a different approach to improve living conditions around the world. It is an organization concentrated on ensuring food security and access to water. Internationally, Action Against Hunger has aided 21 million people in 2018 alone. Another focus of the organization is fighting child malnutrition by assisting in emergency food and water aid. Action Against Hunger has been bettering living conditions in Myanmar since 1994 through its numerous programs. One of its major programs works to expand safe access to water by fixing water infrastructure and making wells. Additionally, after providing access to water, the organization guarantees long-term access through training and creating groups of community members to manage their water. These Action Against Hunger programs have an expansive reach throughout Myanmar and have made a lasting change in many lives. In 2018 alone, its water, sanitation and hygiene programs reached 19,460 people and food security programs reached 23,790 people in Myanmar.
  3. Habitat for Humanity: Habitat for Humanity improves lives worldwide by creating adequate and affordable shelters for impoverished people and disaster victims. In 2019, the organization improved the lives and houses of 7 million people while also training another 2.3 million people. Since its establishment in 1976, it has helped over 29 million people worldwide. The organization has been working to better living conditions in Myanmar since 2008. It began its work in the nation after a  cyclone destroyed many homes. The organization partnered with World Concern to restore 1,700 homes in the most heavily impacted region of Myanmar. On top of rebuilding houses, Habitat for Humanity successfully assisted over 950 Myanmarese families in gaining access to clean water and health centers. Currently, the organization continues to assist families across Myanmar.

As shown through these three organizations, there are many different strategies for humanitarian aid. Increasing women’s opportunities, creating safe water accessibility, providing food security and creating shelter are all essential to the development of improved living conditions both in Myanmar and across the world.

Erica Burns
Photo: Flickr

Myanmar's Most Vulnerable PopulationsThe country of Myanmar is facing many difficulties regarding the spread and effects of COVID-19. With a tattered healthcare system, warring states, a fragile economy and thousands of people displaced, Myanmar’s most vulnerable populations are experiencing several risks. Displaced people living in detention camps, Rohingya Muslims and the poor disproportionately face the negative effects of COVID-19 in culmination with a declining economy.

Myanmar

The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified Myanmar’s health system as one of the worst in the world. According to official data, about 40% of Myanmar’s population live below or close to the poverty line.

There is a limited number of doctors, with 6.1 doctors per 10,000 people. Additionally, there are as few as one doctor per 83,000 people in conflict-affected areas according to Human Rights Watch.

Furthermore, there is little healthcare or medical facilities in rural areas, where most of Myanmar’s population lives. That makes it extremely difficult for people to seek medical assistance and testing for COVID-19, and estimate the number of coronavirus cases.

Ethnic Conflict

In addition to a poor healthcare system, Myanmar is also riddled with the conflict between the government and Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs). Fighting in areas such as the Rakhine state and Chin state prevents any possible COVID-19 relief and government aid.

Additionally, the government has put mobile internet restrictions in place in response to the armed conflicts. Lack of accessible internet limits information about the virus along with access to medical services, preventing people from knowing the government’s response to COVID-19 and how they can protect themselves.

The Vulnerable

It is at a time like this that minorities and threatened groups are the most vulnerable. Many aid workers fear that on top of inadequate resources and poor living conditions, the virus could exacerbate hostile emotions towards minorities and targeted groups in Myanmar.

Groups such as displaced persons and the Rohingya Muslims face difficult obstacles in receiving medical treatment or preventative measures against the COVID-19 virus.

Displaced People

According to Human Rights Watch, there are about 350,000 displaced people in Myanmar, and 130,000 people living in detention camps in the Rakhine state. Military conflict between the government and ethnic armed groups mainly caused these people’s displacement. Living conditions are dismal in these camps, with little to no resources for treating or preventing COVID-19. There is limited access to clean water, toilets and medical services. Diseases are common and according to a Human Rights Report, “in such camps, one toilet is shared by as many as 40 people, [and] one water access point by as many as 600.”

The Rohingya Muslims

The Rohingya Muslims, a religious minority group, is one of Myanmar’s most vulnerable populations. They have been living in detention camps after experiencing persecution in Myanmar. The Myanmar government has restricted their freedom of movement, and the Rohingya Muslims live in squalid camp conditions. There are only two health centers available, both unequipped to test and treat COVID-19.

Living conditions are extremely cramped. According to a Forbes article, one of the refugee camps, Kutupalong, houses “almost 860,000 refugees. They are more densely populated than New York, with more than 100,000 people living in each square mile.” With people living in such close proximity to one another, the spread of COVID-19 through the Rohingya Muslims is inevitable.

Economic Effects on the Poor

COVID-19 also negatively impacts Myanmar’s economy. As a consequence, it has exacerbated poverty and lowered living conditions. According to the International Growth Centre and World Bank Open Data, Myanmar had the lowest per capita GDP in Southeast Asia in 2018.

Furthermore, because Myanmar’s economy largely relies on international investment and exported goods such as garment products, COVID-19’s disruption on the world economy has caused Myanmar to further suffer.

Especially affected by the economic decline are poor workers and households. Groups such as “street and mobile vendors and various day-rate workers in urban areas, and the landless and day-rate workers in rural areas” experience adverse effects as income, food security and employment decline, according to the International Growth Centre.

In the face of the COVID-19 virus, Myanmar suffers many challenges that make preventing and treating the virus extremely difficult. In all of this, Myanmar’s most vulnerable populations – the displaced, the Rohingya Muslims and Myanmar’s poor – are at the greatest disadvantage. Although there have been efforts by the government to provide financial aid for preventative measures and help from humanitarian organizations, it is not enough. These vulnerable groups are still hugely at risk from COVID-19.

Silvia Huang
Photo: Flickr

gender roles in MyanmarPolitical change often brings a liberalization of public opinion on gender roles. On the surface, this seems to be the case in Myanmar. In 2010, the country held its first national election in 20 years, following half a century of brutal reign by a military junta. This election led to the release of democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and to her 2012 win of a parliamentary seat. Suu Kyi went on to lead the National League for Democracy to victory in the 2015 election, but the party resisted her proposed reforms. Since 2017, Myanmar has descended into internal conflict and waged genocide against its Rohingya minority. This continued violence disproportionately impacts women, impacting broader gender roles in Myanmar.

Women’s Experiences of Post-War Development

The European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes hosted a webinar entitled “Gender and Development in Myanmar” on June 17, 2020. During the webinar, Dr. Elisabeth Olivius shared her findings that post-war reforms may entrench gender disparities in Myanmar. The country has experienced a relative period of peace over the last 15 years. There has been an upsurge in state-led development projects in the past decade. These projects aim to ameliorate legacies of war, namely extreme poverty, but a lack of state provisioning has actually widened gender inequalities.

Dr. Olivius explained how unequal gendered divisions of wartime labor prevent women from taking advantage of development. They shape who wins and loses in post-war transformations. Domestic responsibilities make women less mobile and prevent them from taking advantage of new opportunities. In addition to tangible constraints, women’s wartime roles forced them to endure trauma, exhaustion, and stress without respite. Dr. Olivius recounted one anecdote: during the war, the men of one village fled to the jungle to hide, leaving the women to feed and pacify the occupying army.

Traditional values—often intertwined with a preference for authoritarian rule—perpetuate the conservative gender attitudes that keep women out of the public sphere. This is exemplified by how women’s informal labor in Myanmar also underpins its need for economic reforms. Burmese women perform work in the mining industry and through reproductive labor—the birth and rearing of children—without the benefit of state aid. Feminist groups have seen successes like the creation of a national strategic plan and the drafting of a gender violence law. However, nationalist groups have advanced a largely regressive agenda.

Poverty and Gender Roles in Myanmar

The extreme poverty brought on by wartime conditions also disproportionately impacts women. Women sometimes have to walk miles to procure resources for their families, according to Dr. Olivius. One report details local women walking for hours to draw water from the closest well. This well was in a dark and oxygen-lacking cave several hours from their village. Without childcare alternatives, the women had to bring their children with them on this journey. These women have since reported miscarriages resultant from the grueling collection trips. Addressing women’s poverty in Myanmar isn’t just about securing better-paying jobs; it must include treatment for emotional and physical depletion and harm.

Furthermore, Dr. Olivius stressed that ownership of land in the context of economic restructuring is gendered and contributes to insecurity for women. Without the necessary political reforms, women go unrecognized as landholders. This lack of government-sanctioned landownership makes women particularly vulnerable to land appropriation by outside groups. One Burmese woman lamented, “The local authorities do not even recognize the woman’s name, just only the leader of the family. The leader is a man, so nothing for women…Now they have no land to survive.” Women are not considered family leaders, despite the male migration and war that resulted in many female-led households.

Elevating Women in Myanmar

Gender roles in Myanmar must change beyond the point of one woman publicly working in politics. While the 2008 revisions to Myanmar’s constitution show promise, they do not include any specifics concerning women’s representation. Quotas in such situations often serve as a distraction and don’t necessarily lead to development, and the representation of individual women in politics is compatible with gender inequality and negative attitudes towards women’s rights.

Women’s rights need to be constructed by and for the women impacted. One necessary step is collaboration with indigenous sources to reimagine Buddhism as a conceptual ground for women’s rights. Professor Htun emphasized in the webinar that religiosity and conservatism are not linked in Myanmar. It is important that donors support groups like Musawah, which is “spearheading a global Campaign for Justice in Muslim Family Laws,” and creating a Muslim vision of women’s rights. Donors can also encourage autonomous, local construction, even if it is religiously oriented. Progress begets progress. As the country makes political and economic strides, gender roles in Myanmar must become more equitable.

– Annie Iezzi
Photo: Flickr

Rafode
For many years, microfinance was viewed as one of the most successful means of raising individuals and communities out of poverty. In Myanmar, small and medium enterprises made up 99% of the country’s businesses. Most of those were, to no surprise, micro-businesses. In particular, the tool of microfinance was viewed as especially helpful to women. Yet, it turns out that studies found that microloans were not actually as impactful as many wanted them to be. The problem is that, because microloans are often given to those considered high-risk borrowers, high-interest rates are charged, making it difficult for those receiving the loans in the long run. The way to make microloans sustainable is by diverting the focus away from scalability and immediate returns. Rafode, a startup in Kenya, has done just that.

Headquartered in Kisumu, Kenya, Rafode is a “non-deposit taking Microfinance Institution.” With its main focus on women in rural communities, Rafode has successfully distributed over 40,000 loans, all with a value of around 700 million Kenya Shillings or $6.5 million. Relying on technology to deliver its products and services, Rafode has succeeded in reaching rural communities and uplifting both men and women through microloans.

Products and Services

Rafode has eight different products, all in the form of loans for different purposes.

  1. Inuka Business Loan: As a group loan, this is intended to encourage clients to create, upgrade or expand a business. This loan is the first step to receiving an individual loan and can range from 10,000 to 480,000 Kenya shillings.
  2. Masomo Loan: Dedicated to education, this loan is aimed to support a client’s family in receiving an education.
  3. Green Energy Loan: Working with other companies that provide green products, including Burn, Marathoner and Sunking, this group loan provides support for rural clients seeking access to affordable green energy products.
  4. Agribusiness Loan: As the name would suggest, this loan exists to specifically help small scale farmers in the agribusiness industry.
  5. Pamoja Loan: As another group loan, this works to support a group hoping to support its local economy.
  6. Emergency Loan: As an individual loan, the Emergency Loan serves to cater to the client’s emergencies, typically related to their business.
  7. Individual Business Loan: A more selective loan to receive, this loan exists exclusively for clients who already have businesses, and who already have businesses that are stable and have a reliable source of profits.
  8. Asset Loan: This final loan is self-securing. Providing real flexibility to clients, they gain the ability to finance movable assets and free up cash they might not have had before. Like the Individual Business Loan, this exists for clients who already are seeing their business profit, and hope to expand or grow it even more.

The Value of Microfinance

While conventional microloans have not been so effective, researchers have found that by providing microloans with little to no collateral, there are usually better results. Specifically, when given to women, these results are even more effective. This is because, especially in developing countries, microloans are among the only things that increase women’s decision-making power. In other words, microloans undeniably empower women.

So, Rafode’s efforts to give 85% of their microloans to women, focusing on rural communities and offering a plethora of different types of loans, all with very little collateral, have enabled this startup to do extremely impactful work that provides mutual benefits to the clients and back to the company. The most successful microfinance products allow flexible payment periods, individual liability contracts and one of Rafode’s main tools, the use of technology.

By believing in microfinance and adjusting to what will work by trusting in their clients, Rafode has raised individuals and families out of poverty, as well as revitalized economies in the process.

– Olivia Fish
Photo: Flickr

5 Facts about Poverty in Myanmar
Myanmar is a country in Southeast Asian and is is one of many developing countries facing the same issues as those on other continents. Poverty in Myanmar can be solved with greater access and investment in resources such as food and safe drinking water. Here are 5 facts about poverty in Myanmar.

5 Facts about Poverty in Myanmar

  1. Living under $1 per day. In Myanmar, the percentage of those living on less than $1 per day was 24.8% in 2017. Although this is a large drop from 48.2% in 2005, there is still a long way to go to measure up to other developing countries. The Myanmar economy has improved, however, since 1987 when ill-prepared monetary and fiscal policies sent the country into a depression.
  2. Wars with the Rohingya Muslims. One of the most significant and recent culture wars was with the Rohingya Muslims. This event happened only 3 years ago, with the Myanmar military burning down villages and abusing women. As a result, three out of four of Rohingya Muslims were chased out of their homes and forced to find a new life.
  3. Maternal mortality rates. In 2017, the maternal mortality rate was 250, which is significantly better than in 2000, when the number was 340. Improved healthcare access was the main driver for saving Myanmar mothers. However, there is a lot of room for improvement.
  4. Agriculture factor. Poverty in Myanmar persists because farming, which can serve as an economical boosting point and form a tax base for a more ambitious industry. A worker in Myanmar can only harvest 23 kg of rice per day. Additionally, this is around 20 kg less than in neighboring countries such as Thailand and Vietnam. Increasing agricultural output will promote self-sufficiency and political stability. There are many programs in place that try to provide such solutions through loans and community outreach. For example, the World Bank approved $200 million in loans to farmers that were facing increased animal feed prices and the inability to move food to local markets, hoping to prevent an economic contraction because of COVID-19.
  5. Access to sanitation. Mobilizing local citizens to improve sanitation, improving health for small communities and limiting dependence on foreign aid can be extremely beneficial. That is what WASH (Wash, Sanitization and Hygiene) services aim to do. They give technologies such as anti-defecation water pumps and toilets to community centers. As a result, this improved conditions for more than 150,000 Myanmar citizens in 2018 alone. Such programs help in many other sectors than public health. Children stay in school longer when proper hand washing reduces disease. In addition, this creates even more positive effects in the country such as reduced poverty rate and maternal mortality rates.

Reducing poverty in Myanmar through actions such as improving access to proper sewage treatment is a manageable goal. All it takes is the improvement of existing infrastructure to make measurable and positive impacts on the world.

Michael Straus
Photo: Flickr

Humanitarian Aid for the Rohingya Refugee CrisisThe Muslim Rohingya population in Myanmar, a Buddhist country, has been severely discriminated against throughout history. Discriminatory policies in Myanmar deny citizenship to the Rohingya people. Additionally, Rohingya individuals cannot obtain birth certificates, receive an education or be employed legally. In August of 2017, violent attacks and persecution against the Rohingya people forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to seek refuge in Bangladesh. Almost one million Rohingya refugees currently live in refugee camps in the Cox Bazar region of Bangladesh.

Many organizations and international agencies are providing aid and support to the Rohingya refugee crisis. In addition to improving access to basic needs such as food, water, and shelter, UNICEF and the UNHCR have recognized access to education as a top priority.

The UNHCR

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is supporting the refugee population with basic needs such as food, water, shelter, and health services, including mental health resources. One of the largest challenges that the refugee camps face is flooding from annual monsoons in the Cox Bazar region. The UNHCR was able to relocate over 24,000 Rohingya and provide more than 150,000 monsoon preparation kits in anticipation of the monsoon season. These efforts continued through 2019 with the additional construction of 50 miles of infrastructure including bridges and roads and the distribution of post-disaster kits.

The UNHCR also provides first aid training for refugees and has trained more than 1,200 individuals. They also lead sessions to raise awareness about emergency preparedness within communities and have reached more than 80,000 Rohingya through these programs. Providing the Rohingya with access to education is one of the main goals for the UNHCR. Many children were not receiving any formal education in Myanmar due to discriminatory policies. The UNHCR has reached 502,000 refugee children with some form of education by building 1,602 learning areas and bringing 1,251 teachers to the area.

UNICEF

In collaboration with the government of Bangladesh, UNICEF has recently launched a plan to increase access to education for Rohingya refugee children in the Cox Bazar region. The curriculum will be tested on 10,000 children in grades six through nine during the first half of 2020. From there, it will expand for all ages. Education is a key factor to help the integration of the Rohingya people into society in Myanmar. Refugees are already at a significant disadvantage as a result of discrimination and consequential displacement. They lack basic resources such as nutritious food, proper housing and medical services. Access to education can help Rohingya refugees to reintegrate into society instead of further exacerbating disparities. It can increase their chances of finding employment and decrease poverty rates.

UNICEF has also been running informal education programs that have reached 315,000 refugee children in 3,200 learning centers. Subjects studied include English and Burmese language, Math and life skills or science depending on the level. The majority of children are still at levels one and two which are comparable to pre-primary to second-grade level. UNICEF has programs in place for adolescent education as well which include vocational and life skills. Education can tackle the Rohingya refugee crisis by reducing the chances of children being exposed to trafficking, child marriage and abuse as well as empowering refugee children.

Southeast Asian Governments

Two boats carrying hundreds of Rohingya refugees set out in February 2020 but were stuck at sea for months after setting out to find refuge. Many countries have denied them entry, leaving the refugees stranded without sufficient supplies of food or water. Bangladesh has taken in over one million Rohingya refugees since the violence and persecution began in Myanmar. However, in April 2020 the Foreign Minister Abdul Momen stated that Bangladesh would not allow any more Rohingya into the country. Momen cited the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the numerous refugees already in Bangladesh, as reasons for this decision.

Other Southeast Asian governments such as Malaysia and Thailand have also failed to assist the refugees. The Malaysian officials who initially found one of the boats attempted to bring it back to international waters but about 50 refugees were able to swim to shore and are currently detained in Malaysia. The UNHCR has requested access in order to support these refugees with humanitarian aid with no response from Malaysia.

Nearby governments should cooperate to provide assistance to Rohingya refugees in their own countries. They need to provide resources such as health services and basic needs, especially during a global pandemic. These governments should be cooperating with international agencies to address the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar.

– Maia Cullen
Photo: Human Rights Watch