Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Myanmar's long walk to freedom

The last time I travelled to Myanmar was in June 2006. I was travelling in Shan State at a time when the ruling military government was presiding over a plummeting economy, had silenced iconic democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and was engaged in a devastating conflict against many of Myanmar’s ethnic groups. Access to the country for foreigners was very difficult, much less the presence of foreign iNGOs. The refusal to allow foreign aid agencies to assist the survivors of the deadly Cyclone Nargis – which killed 130,000 mostly farmers in the Irrawaddy Delta in 2008 – was just one example. The prospect of a transition from military rule where the people could take control of their own development seemed a distant hope. Many of the challenges faced by Myanmar still persist today but I would not have predicted the degree of change since my last visit. General Than Shwe’s rule has given way to a new leader, President Thein Sein, who has ushered in a period of reform since 2011. Control of the press has been relaxed. I was able to discuss politics in Yangon’s street food restaurants in a way which would have been impossible a few year before. Aung San Suu Kyi has not only been released from over a decade of house arrest but the party she founded, the National League for Democracy, has been officially registered and its party leaders released from prison. Suu Kyi herself is now a serving MP in the transitional parliament – something that seemed inconceivable back in 2006. Fragile ceasefires have also been signed with some of the ethnic armies, including with the Karen, which has seen a general reduction in fighting. A greater number of NGOs have been allowed to open offices and start to run programmes for the first time since the military took power in 1962. Economically, Yangon is opening up like a tulip in the spring sunlight. The modest market liberalisation is starting to take effect with new hotels, apartments and offices being constructed on Yangon’s ancient streets. The price of consumer goods like mobile phones has fallen sharply. Two years ago, it cost $1500 to purchase a SIM card. Today, it costs $1.50, opening up communications technology to ordinary people for the first time. Optimism should be tempered by the reality that the military is still in control in Myanmar with a minimum of 25% of the seats in the parliament. The health and education indicators are still the lowest in Asia, especially in the ethnic areas. According to Transparency International, Myanmar ranks 157th least transparent out of 177 countries. Aung San Suu Kyi has been effectively barred from standing for President in the 2015 elections on account of the Anglo identity of her two children and there continues to be significant oppression against ethnic minorities and in particular, the Muslim Rohingya people. However, VSO have grasped the opportunity to make a positive contribution to Myanmar’s development. Over the last 18months, VSO has established an office, recruited a talented and committed staff team and have currently got 30 volunteers placed across the country – mostly focused in building the capacity of English language teachers in 21 of Myanmar’s teacher training colleges. Having already established a program in education, the team in Yangon have set a three pronged strategy to make an impact in the sectors of health, education and strengthening civil society. While the civil society strategy is still emerging, the focus of the health and education teams will be on equipping Myanmar’s teachers and health professionals to increase the quality and access for children receiving an education and to increase neo-natal survival rates and maternal mortality rates. For a country that has experienced isolation for so long, VSO’s model of sharing expertise and knowledge, could scarcely be more important. Furthermore, because of the context of the country, working with national volunteers is not yet feasible, meaning that international volunteers are the critical intervention with which the team intends to deliver impact in Myanmar. The team’s aspiration is to grow its impact and influence rapidly and to have a strong presence of volunteers across the country by April 2016. Funds and volunteers will be needed to ensure VSO’s newest country program can help continue the pace of change in this remarkable country.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Memories of my brother

My memories of Dan - who died aged 38 on 6th Oct 2013

'Don't be so ridiculous, Mark' were some of the words I would most commonly hear being nearly spat from Dan's mouth. It was usually in response to a preposterous idea or an all too obvious ruse.  Dan could be endearingly credulous.  You could spin him a yarn and he would nod along until he would come to his senses and shake off his natural preference to accept people and ideas at face value. 

I had a recurring joke with dan that despite his fulsome facial hair and my hair free baby face, that I in fact had more stubble than him when he was my age.  This line was stretching it when he was 18 but was clearly ludicrous when he was 38! Instead of casually dismissing me, he would launch into a thoroughly unnecessary defence that he was the Esau of the family and i was patently the Jacob. It always ended in him telling me how ridiculous I was.... I will really miss that flailing fist in my direction.  

Dan didn't feel the need to observe social conventions.  He was liberal and spontaneous with his use of affection. I would often find his nose nuzzling in my neck in a completely outrageous invasion of my personal space (which is saying something coming from me!).  When he was feeling in need of physical attention, he would sometimes cling to me in a sort of homo-erotic, full body hug. Only a brotherly battering would be able to prize him off me. 

He was also quite casual with Cohens physical well-being too. I remember Cohen agreeing to a pillow fight with his uncle, aged around 4. Dan took no time in leathering a pillow around Cohen's head and sending him sprawling. Dan was unusually confident that Cohen would rise again,smiling - which he (almost) always did.. But, it was Cohen's uncle Dan who amazingly caught Cohen when he fell from a tree on the same holiday after stepping on a rotten branch from a height I shouldn't have allowed him to reach. 

Dan would not ask permission to be him; I recall introducing my then wife to be to the family -  all was going well when Dan decided to lay in the middle of the floor with a pile of books underneath his head to get into the Alexander position - seemingly oblivious of those who were trying to work out if this was some weird Rowland rite of passage and if they had to follow suit....

It was his zany energy and creativity was what made Dan hilarious fun as a father and uncle. He was at his best when he was gallivanting into a wood, trousers tucked unedifyingly into his walking socks, setting clues for a treasure hunt or starting a camp fire. Adventure and fun were the themes of what seemed like dozens of holidays that Dan would organise for us and our boys. 

Of course Dan had a complicated relationship with clumsiness. We all knew he wasn't clumsy but it was also true that glasses did smash and plates did drop in and around Dans orbit. Dan would repeat the mantra that he wasn't clumsy and I didn't dare dispute that. In the end you had only to conclude that these inanimate objects were to blame for getting in Dan's way....

Dan had great intellectual curiosity. A  cursory glance at Dan's unopened mail since he died  revealed copies of the new internationalist, new statesman and third way - testament to his interest in international affairs, theology and social justice. He was a spiritual man with a reflective faith I admired. I loved sparring with him - secretly using debates with him to educate myself on everything from the 2008 credit crunch (i learnt what credit default swap was from Dan) to the role of the Mau Mau in colonial Kenya.  Post university, we even completed a huge chart of western philosophers with a summary of each thinkers key contribution since the renaissance. It was a wonderful product of Dans thirst for understanding.  Dan didn't see it but I was hanging onto his intellectual coat tails and am so grateful that he let me hang there....

It is embarrassing how wide Dans interests and skills lay. Accomplished sailor, tennis player and cyclist. A-grade student, amateur dramatist, photographer, drummer and guitar player. Fantastic chef and skilful artist. Resourceful Builder, carpenter and fantastic scout.  Devoted father and husband. What a panoply of gifts. 

Dan was also vulnerable. His vulnerability was to find in others reasons to doubt and undermine his self worth. Perhaps because of this, more than anyone I have known, Dan didn't put up a pretence or hide behind image. Instead Dan had depth of thought and true integrity. Dan never saw how precious his gift was to people; radically giving others permission to be who they really were and to let go of the image. And yet he couldn't extend to himself the acceptance he offered so freely to others. 

I will always remember being loved by Dan and how much I love and treasure him. Nothing ridiculous about that.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Wax on Wax off

I have signed up to run the Paris Marathon in April with a target of raising £1000. As the Head of Fundraising for VSO, I of all people should have no problems in raising the cash – right? As Greg Wallace would say, ‘jobs don’t get easier than this.’

Well, I don’t mind admitting it but I don’t find fundraising easy. At first I thought I’d make the fundraising job simpler if I upped the stakes in the challenge itself. So, I have publicly declared my goal to run the marathon in under three hours. A part of me hoped that by making a big claim, I could just sit back watch the money flow in. Like running a marathon, I knew it took more work than that.

So I have set about doing the basics; set up my just giving page, breaking down the target to manageable chunks, found a good case study, emailed friends and family and posted links on facebook. For more ideas see our Fundraising page. That has got me most of the way. I have now raised £700 towards my target. But really good fundraising now demands we go the extra mile. The guys who do this well find ways to surprise, delight and provoke generosity.
I needed a plan. If I was a tweeter, I would have tweeted. If I was a baker, I would have baked cakes. If I was a musician, I would have serenaded colleagues. If I was a poet, I would penned a sonnet. Turns out I am none of those but in a moment of inspiration, I realised I do have hair on my legs!

So, on March 19th, I am going to wax both my legs. We are going to sell wax strips and even sell the right to tear the strips off! One colleague told me that it took him one year to grow back hair he’d waxed from his legs! The waxing industry must be grateful that isn’t the same grow back period for women.

Anyway, with the waxing plan in place, I am confident I can reach my goals (both financial and running-wise). The pain will be worth it; both when I sail through the finish line in Paris and crash through my fundraising target - or will it be the other way around!

See the leg wax here:

Helping Africa Develop pro-poor growth

Our view from the summit of the Rwenzori mountain range in Western Uganda was breathtaking. A young Ugandan entrepreneur, Vincent Biyara, had been our guide as we struggled to the top. It was from here that he described the development he wanted to see in the Karagutu valley that tumbled before us. It was a vision of enterprise: a community able to utilise its natural assets to establish agricultural and tourist businesses that would create jobs and enable the community to prosper.

There is now widespread recognition in the development community that poverty cannot be defeated without stimulating enterprise and achieving inclusive economic growth. This is especially important when you consider that six out of the top 10 fastest growing economies are in Africa: Uganda, for example, is one of the fastest growing non-oil producing countries in the world. Growth alone is not enough; it must be harnessed to ensure the resulting job creation, development of management capacity and the transfer of technology benefit the poorest. This will require NGOs, businesses and governments to collaborate in new ways to provide greater opportunity for the next generation of entrepreneurs, to ensure that the benefits of growth are not just shared with the poorest but are generated by the poorest.

This won't happen by accident. Starting your own business is difficult in any context; if you are from somewhere like Karagutu, the challenges are multiplied. That is why VSO has developed an innovative partnership with Ben & Jerry's, who source fair trade vanilla for their ice-cream from Western Uganda. Together, we are combining Ben & Jerry's experience of doing business in Uganda with VSO's knowledge of local communities to support fledgling enterprises – from an eco-tourism initiative to a briquette business.

We brought together 15 young entrepreneurs from Europe, who all had experience of setting up a businesses to address a social issue, to work with 15 Ugandan counterparts. Their task was to answer a single question: how can we accelerate the building of enterprises that are commercially viable and also create prosperity for poor communities?

The process highlighted three key obstacles that stand in the way of enterprise flourishing in Uganda and across Africa. These are the challenges of capital, capacity and corruption.

No business can succeed without capital to invest in an idea or take it to scale. In much of Africa, that capital is a very scarce resource. Across the world, only 1% of global capital markets are invested in Africa. That is a scandalous disadvantage to Africa's entrepreneurs. For example, one entrepreneur I met in Uganda described his difficulty in finding an investor to help him purchase new technology that would allow him to fuel a cotton factory through biomass technology instead of using thousands of gallons of diesel per month. The savings on fuel would enable the 30,000 local farmers who supply the factory with cotton to get higher prices for their products. And yet the investment for the technology is not forthcoming.

NGOs have both reach and local knowledge that is often invisible to commercial capital markets. VSO, for example, is working on strengthening livelihoods with 275 local partners in 18 countries. Despite the much-needed emergence of online lending sites such as Kiva and the launching of some innovative social impact funds, NGOs' role in linking opportunity to capital is still nascent and remains a fundamental challenge.

Second is the challenge of capacity. Investment flows to Africa will be inhibited unless there is confidence in the management capacity of those who are entrusted to use that investment to return a dividend. One potential investor told me "I don't invest in ideas; I invest in management teams who can execute on a plan."

It's in the area of people that organisations like VSO and our partners such as Ashoka are ideally placed to play a proactive role. Volunteers with the right expertise and knowledge can act as a catalyst and build the capacity of African entrepreneurs to compete effectively. Our Making Markets Work for the Poor partnership with Accenture over the last 10 years has focused on just that: using its commercial expertise to help analyse value chains and support poor communities to access them better.

Finally, there is the threat of corruption. Studies by economists such as Joel Kurtzman have demonstrated that there is a clear correlation between levels of opacity (the degree of easily discernible and transparent business governing practices) and levels of per capita income. If one falls, the other falls with it. Corruption was cited as a death nail by the Ugandan entrepreneurs we worked with, increasing the cost of vital products and eating into already slim margins. A strong and vibrant civil society is a prerequisite for exposing and confronting corruption, and NGOs' contribution is a vital part of work to create an enabling environment for trade and enterprise.

Working on enterprise-based approaches to development is still new ground for many NGOs. For some, it doesn't sound like the sort of activity NGOs should be engaging in. But what this visit to Uganda made clear to me was that enabling people like Vincent to realise his vision for Karagutu is exactly what we should be doing.

Mark Rowland is the head of fundraising and partnerships for VSO and has spent the last 15 years working for a range of international development agencies