Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Charting Times of Change: Money Practices and Behaviors in Myanmar

There are dozens of mobile money trials globally addressing part of the financial inclusion puzzle, and, like many start-ups, many of these will fail to reach the critical mass needed to become sustainable businesses. While to transact is universal, how and why we transact is inherently local. To build new services requires not just technological, financial and regulatory nous, but a foundational understanding of local consumer needs.

Two weeks ago a team from Myanmar-based Proximity Designs, design strategy consultancy frog, and Studio D Radioduransfunded by the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion, started a journey to map the financial landscape in Myanmar. Our aim over the two month project is to understand the formal and informal ways in which the poor transact, save, and invest. Over this period, the team will traverse the country, use services, interview dozens of farmers, traders, and day-labourers, people for whom the current formal financial instruments that each of us take for granted are mostly out of reach. Our findings will provide a foundational understanding to develop future services that meet the financial needs of the poor.

Myanmar is at a special moment in its history, with the easing of sanctions and an opening of the economy, significant inward investment, rapidly increasing land/property value (in some areas, property is more expensive than Singapore), and the introduction of 3G (2G mobile penetration is currently at 12% and according to a study by Deloitte is expected to rise to up to 50% in the next 3 years). Our research is focused on understanding the complexity of this shift. What are the current needs of a society that is primarily agrarian, and how will these needs shift as urbanisation increases? How has a turbulent and unpredictable economic and political history shaped the expectations and behaviours of the people of Myanmar? In a nation that is mostly Buddhist (with growing religious minorities) yet multi-ethnic, what roles do religion and ethnicity have in how people spend, save, and borrow? When a largely agrarian society uses the lunar calendar and harvest schedules as yardsticks of measure, how does a wholly different notion of time affect what the words “long-term,” “savings,” and “debt” mean? Finally, for a cash-centric nation in which airplane tickets are still handwritten on paper and internet connectivity (if it exists) is dependent on weather, where does the opportunity lie for technologically mediated/enabled financial tools?

Money and practices around money are never easy to research, and Myanmar presents particular challenges. The subject of income and savings is a taboo the world over, forcing any team researching the subject to come up with innovative ways to build an accurate picture. Myanmar has had a tumultuous and unpredictable political and economic past. As an example, in both 1982 and 1987, a number of banknotes were removed from circulation, rendering a percentage of peoples’ savings worthless overnight. While there is not the widespread NGO fatigue found in neighbouring countries, some contexts are still wary of outsiders. The ceasefire between the central government and ethnic regions is fragile. Significant contributors to the economy such as mining are naturally shy of researchers and probing questions. All of these factors make for an interesting research challenge. 

Myanmar is strategically wedged between China to the north/east and India to the west, countries that are garnering political, economic, and environmental attention worldwide and for whom the significance of Myanmar's development goes beyond neighbourly interest. How will Myanmar develop from here? For each comparison that is made to countries such as Thailand, South Africa, and Indonesia, we're reminded daily that there are myriad factors that make Myanmar unique.

The team's research will be published in early April 2014. To be notified when it is available, please use this form

For now, we’ll leave you with a quote from a market vendor in Shan State, which was a telling reminder of similarities and differences to what is familiar to many readers: "If I die before I repay my loan, in my next life, I’ll become a servant to the person who lent me the money." There are debts that last a lifetime. And debts that carry to the next life.

Su Mon, Yin Yin Oo, Ye Lin Oo, Aung Ko Ko, Lauren Serota, Venetia Tay and Jan Chipchase.

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