Apr 6, 2014

Co-operatives in Myanmar

For the past three months, I was in Myanmar supporting the co-operative movement on behalf of the Canadian Co-operative Association. Bringing a Canadian and international perspective to a movement that is both old (in the stale, entrenched sense) and new (in the sense of great potential).

The first part of my job was to design and pave the way for a "New Model" co-op, working with sesame farmers in the "Dry Zone" in the hot middle of the country. I was unable to ever meet with these farmers due to government authorization snafus (see "Late Night Eviction"), so I had to be learn about the co-op scene through visits to neighbouring co-ops, government officials, and non-profits doing similar work in other regions. Through this creative process I uncovered the challenges and opportunities we would be facing, including:

Challenge: Co-ops have been around for decades, but as an implement of the former government's socialist movement, hence some negative associations for Myanmar people.
Opportunity: I demonstrated how co-ops in Canada and around the world have a higher success rate than private businesses. Then we created a business plan for the farmers' co-op that showed how farmers would increase their income (ie, it fits into a profit-oriented capitalist model).

Challenge: Co-ops are currently a central part of the government's poverty alleviation plans (good!), but narrowly conceived as just a way of channeling much-needed micro-credit loans to farmers and small businesses.
Opportunity: I was able to give multiple examples from Canada (all here in the Cowichan Valley) of other types of co-ops and co-op activities. We then designed the farmers co-op to include farmer education, joint seed and fertilizer order, technical support for uniform planting and harvesting techniques (thereby ensuring higher quality yields), and finally joint marketing to avoid the middle man and ensure fair dealings with purchasers.

Challenge: Co-ops are seen basically as corporations, owned and run by others, often with the suspicion that the co-op management is corrupt.
Opportunity: The pilot co-op will of course emphasize proper elections, reporting and accountability, and education will centre on the member-owned, "self-help" principle of co-operatives. More concretely, farmers expect that whomever they sell their sesame to should pay them right away, then take the product to market and recoup their costs plus profit. They initially expected this of the proposed pilot co-op too. Instead, we are putting it back on them -the co-op is not some other business buying your sesame; the co-op is all you farmers coming together, pooling your product, having elected representatives sell it on your behalf, then returning the money to you. This delayed payment is the single biggest challenge, and probably the most important innovation to make this truly a member-owned, member-operated co-op.

The second part of my assignment was to be the first on-the-ground person for the Canadian Co-operative Association (CCA) in Myanmar, mucking around to see how CCA might establish a long-term presence in the country. I met with other NGO's, governments, co-ops, and the Co-op University/College network to see where CCA might be able to play a role. Despite limited time and chaotic/changing schedules, I was able to identify several areas where CCA would be a important partner, such as:
- teaching and curriculum review at the university and training colleges
- partnering with other NGO's who are doing large-scale development projects, so CCA personnel provide the co-op design and training expertise
- convene a network of other NGO's and agencies working in the co-operative sector. Great interest was expressed in regular meetings and correspondence to share training materials, project opportunities, advocacy, mutual education, and creating a consistent approach to co-op development by agencies from around the world

I was the first of 3 Canadian co-op technical advisors to go to Myanmar this year. The Saskatchewan farmer/co-op developer who took my place got to actually start the farmer education and buy-in process, and the third person will hopefully complete the work by getting the co-op up and running, while also continuing to develop national and international links for CCA's future projects. My other blog posts have been about the amazing personal learning and family experience we had, but professionally this was an extremely rewarding contract. My respect deepened for the Canadian co-op movement and what we have to share in other countries, gave me new tools and perspectives to bring back to my co-op development work here in Canada, and I believe that the foundation was laid for a successful pilot co-op and long-term program for CCA in the region.

Feb 21, 2014

Late Night Eviction

For almost 3 months now we’ve been living and working in Myanmar, sharing photos and writings about beauty, cultural learning, spiritual growth, and friendship. All of that is true, but what I haven’t shared is the undercurrent of frustration and legal challenges culminating in being literally run out of town in the middle of the night.

This whole time I have not had “travel authority” – legal permission to live and work in this Township. I have a house, staff and office here, but am not officially allowed to use them. After over a month we got a letter from the national Minister of Co-operatives authorizing the project, but we still had to await “remarks” from the Regional “Prime Minister” and immigration and co-operative departments, then the District, then the Township immigration and administration authorities. It meant that I could visit co-operatives and partner agencies all over the country but not consult with the farmers I’m here to design a project with; I could meet with my staff quietly at my dining room table, but only sneak into the office before or after hours to “quickly” do emails (which takes over an hour each time).

It also meant that for the first 2 months we moved our family to 23 different hotels. Finally the most local level of government – the Quarter Administration – took pity on our emotional and financial plight and quietly granted permission to move into the house. The huge exhale of “We Are Here” relief, and inhale of “Welcome” and friendship I’ve been writing about, started then, just 3 weeks ago (Sarah made me double-check – we slept exactly 21 days in that fuzzy pink love nest).

Then it all fell apart, in the final week. At 10am on Wednesday, 3 days before we our final departure, we received official “oral” permission from the Regional level to live and work here. But at 10pm on Wednesday, we were informed by the Township level that we’ve been illegally staying in our house and given 15 minutes to pack a bag, wake up the kids, and leave town. By 11pm we were safely across the river in our old hotel, desperately trying to hold onto the neighbourhood warmth we’d been basking in, and honestly worried about arrest or deportation.

Today they have given us permission to go back to the house just to pack up our things, but under strict rules to not leave the house and to be out before sunset. We are not allowed to go to the market to pick up our clothes from the tailor, can’t take our favourite walk past the noodle-maker’s bamboo house, can’t play one last game of soccer or chinlone with all the neighbourhood youth. My mom arrived the morning after to find us in a hotel across the river instead of our home. She flew 17 hours and 14.5 time zones to visit us here, and all she’ll get to see of our town is through the bars of our windows.

This abrupt ending is in sharp contrast to the endless warm embrace of the people of Myanmar – presumably even the same people whose official government role forces them to take this inhospitable action. I wonder what inner conflict they are feeling between what their heart would want to do and what they believe their laws tell them they have to do. I’m never allowed to even meet with them, which is probably a good thing since I too vacillate between wanting to yell at them and feeling compassion for them.

Compassion – that’s a good word. Also patience. Acceptance. Embrace. These have been the lessons of Myanmar. We only got 3 weeks of living in the place we thought we’d have 3 months, but they were rich, real and full. We travelled and saw much more of the country than expected, and felt held and awe-struck and blessed everywhere we went. I did not have permission to follow my very ambitious and very detailed workplan, but still managed to creatively accomplish all the goals.

The legal restrictions and complications may have confined our stay here, but they did not define it. The people and culture of Myanmar were the real Stuff of our stay, and our family’s own resilience and togetherness the Strength. Today the house will be flooded with people who genuinely Know and Care for us, giving and receiving presents and hugs and tears. How can I remain angry or frustrated at our eviction, or even sad at our leaving, when we’ve been gifted with such lessons in love?


PS – I wrote a whiny, apologetic Please Please Please letter to immigration, and they did allow us to be outside the house today. So the boys got to proudly parade their Grandma through the market, we got a final visit with our tailors (who as always insisted on feeding us), and there were even more tears and hugs and presents than I could have imagined. The twins got permission from the school headmaster to stay home all day with us, and there were rarely less than a dozen people helping us pack and feel held. A perfect ending to a perfectly bizarre and beautiful episode of our life.

Feb 20, 2014

The Myanmar Testosterone Club

Boys will be boys. Whether Myanmar or Canadian, white- or brown-skinned, boys will be silly, wild, creative, bored. Teenagers will be aggressive, tender, high, low, smelly. The mutual thrill of befriending someone from another culture (see 3 blog posts ago) has quickly and naturally transformed into kids’ friendship, and our living room has transformed into the same loud, smelly-feet clubhouse as our Canadian home.

The twins – now somewhat distinguishable as “Nee-Nee” and “Ko-Ko” – usually arrive first, ready to launch into living-room badminton or guitar or whatever’s on hand. Pyo Zin Oo (the short joker and our favourite) comes a bit later and alternates between the Kill-The-Man badminton attacks and quieter artwork with G’s geometry set. The other two boys are a bit more irregular. How these 5 have ended up being the gang is a mystery, but they’re lovely and real.

Saturday we rented a “moto-taxi” – motorcycle attached to a cart – into which we stuffed all 7 kids, John Bo and his parents, and me and Sarah. For $5 we motored to 2 ancient temples and the local volcano – a series of burping black mudpools that are slowly creating hills and a surreal lunar landscape on the edge of town. We bought a variety of beautiful mystery fruit and two lava-clay owl ornaments, the twins bought 3 sparrows to be released for good luck, and we still got home in time for the daily soccer (“football”) game at the stadium.

Presents and food are still central. The boys arrive with local sweets or fried mysteries that we usually struggle to enjoy. On them we inflict chocolate chips and sushi and cilantro pesto, with equally baffling results. We celebrate and play with the cultural differences, while mostly enjoying the common elements that make us people and friends first.

Sunday the boys walked us down to the river and hired a fishing boat to take us out to the sandy island in the middle of the river. The 7 kids erupted onto the island doing everything you’d expect kids to do – run, swim, sand castles (looking alot like the temples we visited yesterday), scooping tadpoles, racing, digging canals to bring water in from the river, chasing birds. We were 8 dirty, wet, panting bare-chested boys on a beach (and one amused wife) – is there anything more universal?

At first I babysat them, helped the boys integrate and learn how to navigate language and cultural barriers. Now they toodle through town with their gang or hang out here while Sarah and I do what good parents everywhere do – hide in our air-conditioned bedroom, coming out to break up the occasional argument, redirect bored kids, feed them regularly, and arbitrarily send them all out to the street when they need some air.

John Bo laughs at me when I flash the neighbour. The twins laugh at G when he farts. Boys will be boys. And friends.

Feb 17, 2014

Natural Beauty

I can’t remember the last time I wore pants. Undies, however, may need to come back into use.

When I wear my longyi (traditional skirt that pretty much all Myanmar men and women wear), I’m not trying to fit in and be fashionably cool and local. I’m trying to stay cool, and comfortable, and, um, free. I simply love wearing it, and happily my wife loves me in it too.

But there’s a fine art to tying the knot that keeps a longyi up. Locals are constantly re-tying it while walking down the street, happily flapping the skirt a few times to refresh the air supply before the ritual double fold, tease-out-2 ends, twist-once and tuck in. Young men playing chinlone pull the bottom edge up and tuck it in at the waist, creating the sexiest diaper look imaginable. Fashions include tight neat knots, Big Bulging Man knots, let a long end flop out free in the wind knots, and clever ways to tuck your money into the knot for market days. I’ve gotten good enough that I can go hours or even a full day without needing to re-tie, nor worry about what I need to wear underneath as a precaution.

Until yesterday, that is. Our newly-befriended neighbour came over with a gift of fresh watermelon. At one point during the visit with this young woman and the usual other folk who gather at our house, I gave Sarah a high-five. John Bo’s parents were so amused that they did a two-handed slap (high-ten?) Not to be outdone, I motioned to Sarah to do a jump-in-the-air high ten.

As we both gracefully launched into the air and slapped hands, the longyi knot strained against this new vigorous motion. When our feet triumphantly landed on the concrete floor, my longyi triumphantly landed around my knees. I quick-as-lightning pulled it back up, laughing and looking to see just how much had been revealed to our friends. John Bo’s quick commentary settled any doubts about modesty having been spared:

“It’s Okay, Mr Rick. Natural beauty.”

It takes 5 minute to walk over to the office, but much less time for a good story to travel. By the time I reached there, knowing smiles and giggles met me at the door. My other co-worker, Thein Thein Win, greeted me with a coy question – “So, Mr. Rick, how is the longyi tying going?”

“Good until today”, I replied. She smiled, then outright laughed, and said, “I heard. Natural beauty!”

Feb 4, 2014

Confessions of a Co-operative Missionary

What am I doing here? Every overseas person – whether development worker, missionary, or in my case, “Co-operative Expert” – must ask that in at least one crisis, and hopefully as a reality check on a regular basis.

I’ve been sent to Myanmar by the Canadian Co-operative Association for 3 months to help promote/support the co-operative movement. For better or worse, co-operatives are a central pillar of the government’s Poverty Alleviation strategy. Co-ops are being set up in every village in the country, through which the government is channeling micro-finance loans for farmers and entrepreneurs. This presents a tremendous opportunity to work within the existing framework – on the surface, at least, we are not swimming against the current.

The first of two major challenges is the limited understanding of cooperatives. Co-ops are almost exclusively used for micro-credit loans, without seeing the potential to cooperatively address many other community issues. They tend to be run similarly to other businesses or non-profits. Leadership is often not rotated, and usually not shared by women. Overall (and please note that there are strong exceptions to each of the things I've just listed), members do not feel or exercise a true sense of ownership – the co-op is merely the necessary vessel to receive necessary aid.

I deeply believe that the co-operative model, comprehensively applied, would bring great benefit to the member farmers. Our hope is to help create a model co-operative that demonstrates:

• Community ownership – people understand the co-op to be owned by them, for the benefit of their own members
• Initiative – members use collective action to creatively address their own challenges, not just the narrow vision of receiving loans or other assistance from external sources
• Democracy – leadership elected openly, rotates, and is responsible to the members
• Gender balance – true women leadership and representation
• Accountability – members understand, exercise, and demand their right/responsibility to be part of the financial and operational oversight of the society
• Open and Voluntary Membership – co-op resists the impulse to close the doors after founding members receive benefit, but rather see the strength and mutual benefits of increasing membership

A co-operative embracing these principles will thrive. But how to help the farmers understand this, when there are no co-ops that I have found that model all of these principles? We can and will do endless education workshops, share Canadian examples, search out those few brave souls willing to try something new. But in the end, we have to be honest with ourselves – the initial participation will happen because we are also providing loans or fertilizer or something.

The second challenge, therefore, is how to develop a true co-operative in a place where people do not currently want, trust, or believe in such a movement? Co-ops have been forced down people’s throats for decades. First by a socialist government who made co-ops the way to start a business or acquire farmland. Then a current government –equally well-intentioned, I believe – tying access to credit to co-op membership.

Are we well-intentioned NGO’s any different? For two exciting hours last week I met with the co-op department staff envisioning an “integrated farming” co-op with seed saving, organic fertilizers, collective farming/processing/marketing. But in the third hour, we managed to get down to reality, which was that farmers do not want to farm collectively. They will jump through these hoops in order to get whatever assistance our project can offer, but their preference would be to receive the inputs then farm on their own.

So I am the missionary offering free meals in exchange for bible lessons, the government mandating co-ops to get loans. “It’s for their own good,” says the government Minister. “They’ll thank us for it later once they’ve seen the light,” says the church minister. “Once they see the true benefits of a true co-op, the movement will spread of its own accord, even without assistance bribes,” says this co-op development preacher. (And I can’t help but add Mary Poppins – “Just a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.”)

My own FreeRange Consulting business is the result of this type of mutually-agreed-upon coercion. I entered a government business-start-up program just to get the financial assistance it offered. They knew that was my reason, and I knew they were hoping to convert me into a businessman along the way. But through this dance I did learn a great deal about how to launch and run a business, and in retrospect I am glad that they forced the training on me.

Just like that government business program, I can offer training/vision that will benefit farmers in ways that they can’t fairly be expected to understand or believe before experiencing. I’ve travelled 14.5 time zones from my home precisely because I have a unique perspective and expertise in this area. I can give examples, handouts and fancy power-point presentations, but until they’ve tasted the difference for themselves they deserve to remain skeptical. It is my job – and the reason that the local sponsoring agency has invited me here – to introduce people to new ideas that may or may not take root eventually.

This story has a happy ending, or at least interlude. After visiting several strong but not cutting-edge co-operatives, we finally found an inspiring example. It’s an integrated farm that was started in 1979, the only way these landless farmers could get land from the government. In 1996 the military expropriated ¾ of their land, but the remaining 123 acres are still farmed by 22 member families. The whole project was imposed by the government and almost destroyed by it, and there is still an undercurrent of being forced to exist as a co-op in order to get ongoing aid. Not a promising base.

But after 34 years of functioning together as a co-op, watching new generations grow into membership, they’ve grown together. They built a school for the children, and provide scholarships. They’ve launched a fish farm operation together. And most importantly, over 34 years they have naturally formed real co-operative bonds, even if it takes a nosy foreigner to point it out to them:

“What happens if a member is sick during planting time?” I ask.

“We all go and help them, of course,” is the automatic and somewhat incredulous answer. “Why even ask such a question,” I see them thinking.

I press my point home, and in the process remember why I’m here. “Because in a normal place where each farmer only sees to her own farm, coming together to help might not be the automatic answer. THAT is what a co-operative is.”

THAT is the seed I’m here to plant, with enough passion that people are inspired or at least curious enough to try. And there’s nothing coercive about presenting an idea and the opportunity to try that idea out if it’s offered with respect and honesty.

Feb 3, 2014

Myanmar Welcome Wagon

On day 6 of living in this small Myanmar town, word got out that we are friendly or we’d passed some kind of test. And around here, that means Presents (one of the most commonly known English words in this country, which says a lot about the people).

It started innocently enough. A quick walk to check emails at the office in the relative cool of the morning. As I reached the “tea shop” next door, two office workers called me over and made me sit down for tea and some fresh fried bean buns. The young waiter with light brown “thanaka” paint on his cheeks smiled as I ate their local food, and looked just as surprised when it was my co-worker, not me, who pulled out the cash to pay. All I could give was a heartfelt “chezu ten bedai” (thank you) – a phrase I’d be repeating all day long.

The young waiter looked equally surprised when I showed up again for lunch, this time my co-worker John Bo insisting on treating since I’d failed to figure out the new pink rice cooker at home. At the same time, Sarah and the boys were wandering the market with an English-studies university student who is volunteering to teach us English, receiving free samples of sweets, digestive crumble and fruits that even our tutor could not translate.

Our zero-English house “helper” got into the action by inviting us to go play some games with the local kids. It started out to be a winding back-alley tour to the outdoor pool hall, where we gathered several “youth” (ages 18-30 – they grossly overestimate the age of my grossly-oversized boys) to walk over to the chinone field (a cross between volleyball and soccer). They were all there to oblige us, but in broken language we managed to agree to play later when it wasn’t 100 degrees.

At 4:00 some 14-year-old twins arrived at our house (not sure who arranged that) to take us to the soccer stadium, with several motorbikes and bikes and a dozen kids joining the parade. The energetic “football” game ended up with over 20 players and twice as many spectators. When we got tired, our volunteer Engligh tutor rode back to our house to fetch cold water for us.

Then at just the right angle of sun, they threw us back on motorbikes to return to the chinlone field, where atleast 50 people had gathered in anticipation of 3 white folk looking foolish at a sport we’re just learning. But it was fun for all, and we took turns playing or watching their highly-skilled game. Some woman handed a chocolate-icecream bar to Z, squeezing his cheek and saying “Beautiful baby” (he endures that alot, but not usually with the ice cream). Someone else brought a bottle of cold drinking water. As we announced finally that it was time to go, we were told we couldn’t because they were getting more food for us (3 more ice cream bars).

On the parade home, we stopped at one chinlone player’s house to see his chicken-egg operation, which of course resulted in the present of a dozen eggs, 5 ears of corn, and invitation to a future dinner. We said goodbye and Chezu Ten Badai to everyone at home, only to find another family waiting inside (for how long I don’t know). These folk live across the street and brought their 9- and 6-year-old children to play, which our boys joyfully accepted – it’s been tough always being paired with older kids. We visited with the parents for the customary half-hour, during which time they managed to gift us with some candy, a bottle of milk and a brand new “longi” (traditional skirt - see photo of mine) for Sarah.

We escaped upstairs for 10 minute when John Bo announced “your next guests.” Six of the lovely football boys /had come back for a visit, bringing this time two bags of street-food snacks – “Djo” (deepfried cucumber/chickpea/potato) and banana leaves with some sticky rice mystery stuff on it. We countered with grapes and tea for them, brought out the guitar and cameras, and had a good visit.

Miraculously we managed to squeeze in a 15-minute meal before the neighbour family returned with their niece, also an English-studies student who wanted to try speaking to foreigners for the first time ever. Exhausted but also impressed with her determination, we tried valliantly to keep a conversation going with this young woman whom Z later described as “dreary – I hope her visits are sparse.”

Oh, at some time in there the credit union manager brought over photos – in print and electronic form – that he had taken from my visit there a few days earlier. And there’s probably more that I’ve forgotten.

We struggle to remain open to receiving, not knowing how or what to give back. Or maybe being open is the best way to give back. It’s extremely rare, if ever, that a foreign family with children has lived here, tried a bit to learn the language, shop at the market, make friends, wear longi skirts, etc. They’ve seen us demonstrate that we want to be part of their world, if only for a short while, and this barrage of gifts and visits is their loving way of saying “Welcome.”

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PS – I’m writing this in the office, where it’s taken 70 minutes to download 48 of 51 email messages. Even though it’s a hot hot Sunday afternoon, John Bo (left in photo, right is his dad who also lives with us, and the lady is my other coworker Thein Thein)insists on staying with me until I’m done. “You will be lonely and bored” he says. So many ways to give and receive care...

Dec 28, 2013

Taking Care

We brought our children overseas to open their eyes. So they can see different ways and cultures, face poverty and need, learn tolerance and giving, and celebrate the goodness of life. And so they can see their own lives in perspective, maybe learn to separate “I need” from “I want”, put some weight into the good old “There are children starving in China so eat your food” platitudes.

But in learning about poverty, they also learn about privilege. In 2 weeks my boys have become used to having people scramble to open doors for them. To being able to afford whatever they want in the best restaurants, demand taxis, have people iron their underwear and slice their breakfast fruit into works of art.

Every time they complain of a lump in the mattress or tired legs after 20-minute walk, i wonder which message they are internalizing – the poverty or the privilege. After one of my useless “think about someone else” diatribes, my boy quietly said “You’re good that that dad – making us feel bad.”

Enter my Wise Wonderful Wife to the rescue. Instead of guilt or intellectual exhortations, she whipped up an experiential exercise. Each day one of us is taking the role of loving Caregiver. That person has on extra radar to read the rest of the family’s needs and find creative ways to serve. “I’ll go get the water”, “I’ll take the lumpy bed tonight”, “I’ll hand out the oranges and keep the smallest one for myself.”

In this way we are learning from and emulating our gracious Burmese hosts, who genuinely want to give and take care of us. They don’t do it from a place of servitude or caste, but from a place of love. They do it for each other – our taxi driver hit the brakes in the middle of a bridge to give money to a beggar – and especially for us since we are in much more of a place of need as strangers here.

By taking a step in their sandals, we are learning about Respect. The self-respect the Burmese people display when they give in such a healthy, loving way. And a healthy dose of respect for ourselves in this curious position of dependency we find ourselves in. We don’t speak the language, can’t read a menu or street signs, don’t recognize half the foods, have trouble buying a bus ticket, and can’t tell the difference between a restaurant, tea shop or bar.

So we still easily tell our driver to wait by the car for an hour while we go for ice cream, but it’s not ordering a servant. He’s the professional; we’re the ones who need him because we don’t know how to find places or cross 8 lanes of traffic, and would be terrified to drive these streets.

One day at a time, we integrate these learnings into our daily lives by caring for each other. And happily discover that we’re not so bad at it after all – we were already a family who watch out for each other and try to be good to others. We can hopefully come back from this brief exposure to the Burmese Buddhist culture with a bit more humility and greater awareness of how to lovingly serve others. To still want the softest bed, but maybe sometimes find a different comfort in giving that to another person who wants/needs it just as much or even more.