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.

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