On a balmy evening in the giant empty city of Nay Pyi Taw I was drinking a warm beer behind a fluorescent-haired Burmese guy on a tiny motorbike cruising at speed down a 20-lane road that was completely deserted except for two executives from a global telco doing exactly the same thing on two other tiny motorbikes also helmed by fluorescent-haired men. This is a pretty normal start to a story in Myanmar, and in other frontier markets like it, but there was nothing normal about the Partnership Opportunity Delegation that I was on which was organised by the Aspen Institute and the Richardson Centre for Global Engagement.
The delegation brought together a rich menagerie of people from business and diplomacy from around the world to meet with a leaders of a similarly rich cross-section of business, political, government and community organisations in Myanmar. The only common denominators were a sense of adventure, and a genuine interest in engaging with Myanmar and its incredible struggle to reform. I don’t quite understand what machinations in the halls of Washington put us all together on the same bus and for what ends exactly.
But the result was awesome. We met with leaders of businesses, government, and political parties to hear their stories and their grand ambitions and how the international community can get involved. We also visited mango farmers, teachers, activists and former political prisoners to hear about their struggles against the very same people. From the blurry narrative of democratic reform and economic opening, these conversations bring into view Myanmar’s incredible complexities.
Myanmar is a country that was already familiar to me, having first come here in 2012 to launch a start-up incubator and consulting practice, and I have now come to be based here most of the time. But starting a business here is hard work, so until this delegation I rarely had the opportunity to properly observe, contemplate, and discuss Myanmar and its story with like-minded people.
It was dizzying to deal with the travel schedule and information overload. Being based in Asia meant no jetlag, but this home-ground advantage soon diminished with early morning wake-up calls punctuating late evenings of beer soaked conversations and debates on global and Myanmar affairs.
Conversations often had a cyclical flow. We would talk about problems in our own countries that merged into the challenges in Myanmar and what we were observing. After a few iterations it becomes apparent that, for all of its quaint eccentricities and shocking injustices, Myanmar isn’t always that different from our own countries: Leaders across all sectors in all countries struggle with social fault-lines and inadequate systems, and everyone’s just trying to do their best the only way they know how or the only way they can.
I was on the delegation to begin a new initiative in micro-insurance. M3RI (temporarily named the Myanmar Micro-insurance Market Research Initiative) is going to bring affordable insurance services to Myanmar’s poor. We feel that poverty isn’t a line – its vulnerability to events that can leave people destitute. By mitigating risks to such events with simple and affordable insurance services, we feel that we can reduce poverty in a way that is sustainable and scalable.
It was my business partner in this initiative that put me on the delegation. He felt that it would be a great opportunity to start building both the local and international networks that we’ll need to get it started, and he was right. The Delegation connected me with the key players in the Myanmar insurance industry, and the government organizations that regulate it, and I now have a privileged understanding of this environment and I know what more I need to learn. But we’re also going to need a lot of support from a diverse set of people that we don’t know yet. Having a small adventure with mix of interesting people is exactly what was needed to begin our story.