Paths out of poverty in Myanmar: Haircuts, textiles, rice and more

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Marvin Pannell

You may have heard about CWS and the ACT Alliance before. ACT is a coalition of churches and faith-based organizations that work in countries all over the world. It’s a platform for its members, including CWS, to coordinate our programs to be as efficient and effective as possible.

To that end, many countries, including Myanmar, have ACT national forums. There are 10 ACT Alliance members who work in Myanmar, and we meet regularly. We’ve taken this partnership one step further and have a joint program in Kayin State, near the border with Thailand. We’re working with a key local organization, the Karen Baptist Convention, to help families improve their livelihoods. All 10 organizations are involved with financial support, technical advice or implementing. CWS is helping to fund this program.

Recently, I traveled with a group of ACT leaders to two of the participating communities to see the program in action.

One of our first stops was a Farmer Field School (which, by the way, is not unique to our work in Myanmar. CWS also supports Farmer Field Schools in Nicaragua). The FFS is a place for local farmers to come together and improve their collective experience. They share challenges they are facing and ideas for how to address them, and they can receive information and support from experts. In this case, the FFS was focusing on how to adapt planting techniques in the face of climate change. One technique is called the System of Rice Intensification, which uses less water than customary rice planting in Myanmar usually does. This is critically important in areas with water challenges, which is most of southeastern Myanmar. This system involves transplanting rice seedlings earlier in their development than usual and spacing them less densely. Since the seedlings are younger and more productive in their lifecycle when planted and then compete less for nutrients in a less crowded plot, each seedling can yield more rice when harvested.

We talked to four farmers who had been introduced to this technique in 2019. I was excited to hear them report that their first harvests had yielded three times as much rice as usual. This is great news for families, since they have more rice to eat or sell. And it’s great news for Myanmar, which is among the world’s top rice exporters. Many rural families make a living selling rice. As climate change makes rainfall less predictable and consistent, climate adaptive agriculture is growing in importance.

Our next stop was to visit some Village Savings Groups. These are an important way for villagers to get credit to start or expand business, or to meet basic needs during periods of shortage. By joining and using these groups, families don’t have to use loan sharks and fall into vicious cycles of debt. During the visit, we saw how small loans of $100 or less helped entrepreneurs start or expand businesses in bamboo handicraft making, rice farming, pig raising and vegetable gardening. People told us that raising cattle and cultivating rice were some of the most profitable ways to earn a living. The groups are continuing to explore different business opportunities, and they’re pooling about $1.50 per month from each saver. They give loans at a modest 2% interest rate.

Speaking of small businesses, our next stop was a barbershop that was set in a bamboo grove. It offers haircuts for about $1.50. The barber told us how the program paid for his vocational training course. Once he graduated, he bought clippers, scissors, a chair and a mirror and got to work!

Finally, we visited a mill and training center where apprentice weavers are learning to weave traditional cloth to make longyi. These are the long skirts that both men and women in Myanmar wear. After finishing their sponsored vocational training, the weavers can purchase a wooden loom and start producing textiles in their own homes or with others.

Throughout the visit, it was clear to me that this jointly funded program, which is called Building Resilient Livelihoods in Kayin State, is paving paths out of poverty and dependence. It is facilitating cooperation and coordination among ACT members, too. Programs like this enable people to find stability and independence without needing to use migration as a coping mechanism.

Marvin Pannell is the CWS Country Representative in Myanmar.