Myanmar: What a Difference 2 Years Can Make

When we first traveled to Myanmar two years ago, there was little to no Wi-Fi, few mobile phones (SIM cards could only be obtained by lottery and cost around $1,500 each, making it unaffordable for most), no ATM machines or credit card usage, and frequent electricity outages. Fast forward just two years: consistent access to Wi-Fi, excellent 3G, and little need to bring stacks of cash anymore (credit cards are now accepted at most hotels). The arrival of telecom providers TeleNor and Oredoo has reduced the price of SIM cards to $1.50 resulting in a reported 30%+ market penetration of cell phones. Electricity outages are still common, and traffic in Yangon is worse than ever, but major change is palpable everywhere, and ATMs and 3G are just the more visible manifestations of this extraordinary transition.

We returned this month to lay the groundwork for the expansion of IIE’s Myanmar Higher Education Initiative and to attend the Devex Executive Forum, a major gathering of international development and donor agencies, NGOs, community-based organizations, private sector companies, and other stakeholders who are working to accelerate the development of Myanmar.

Our engagement with Myanmar began two years ago when IIE led the first major delegation of U.S. colleges and universities to the country to meet with key academic and government stakeholders, resulting in a report that included key recommendations and a number of commitments by the U.S. institutions that have already been put into action. For example, Rutgers University, Northern Illinois University, and the University of Washington formed a consortium to support libraries in Myanmar, inviting two librarians from Yangon on a study tour of U.S. university libraries.

In response to requests from various government ministries and university rectors, IIE developed a training course for Myanmar universities on developing and managing an international education office. Thanks to seed funding from the Henry Luce Foundation and in partnership with Rutgers University, Northern Arizona University, the Monterrey Institute of International Studies, Knowledge Platform, the Association of International Education Administrators (AIEA), and the U.S. Embassy in Yangon, we piloted the five-month “Connecting to the World” course in 2013-2014 with 56 participants from 31 Myanmar universities. You can read more about this pilot effort and course outcomes in my recent blog and on the program website.

Because of the success of the pilot course and continued need for capacity development in the country, we plan to expand and strengthen this training program thanks to continued grant support from the Henry Luce Foundation. Plans for the next two years include bringing on new cohorts, developing an advanced level course, fostering a Myanmar International Education Network, and supporting participants to travel to partner universities outside of Myanmar for short-term job shadowing opportunities outside of Myanmar. We will again seek out the expertise of committed international education professionals around the world to serve as mentors to the Myanmar participants. Stay tuned for the call for mentor applications 2015-16 course, or email me if you are interested in serving as a mentor.

While some progress is being made towards the higher education reform process, students continue to protest calling for more autonomy for universities and the right to form student unions. In our visit last week with U Soe Win, the Ministry of Education’s Permanent Secretary, we learned that the Ministry will streamline budgetary and administrative oversight of all Myanmar universities (previously as many as 13 government ministries had oversight of universities) while gradually granting more autonomy to these institutions. The Permanent Secretary highlighted similar needs to those we heard from the Ministry two years ago: the need for English language capacity, teacher training, quality assurance frameworks, and more international partnerships.

Impressions from the Devex Executive Forum

While we were here, we also had the opportunity to attend the Devex Executive Forum, which covered issues such as how private sector investment and international donors can contribute to Myanmar’s development, how to do business responsibly in the country, and perspectives on recruiting and retaining talent in Myanmar. Our key takeaways were:

  • There is a significant shortage of skilled labor and a huge need for human resources, resulting in a highly competitive hiring market. Private sector representatives from companies such as Hilton, Microsoft, GE, and Chevron all talked about the major investments they are making in human capital development and training, several of them saying they are hiring first for attitude and then training up on skills, English language and basic IT skills being the most in need. 
  • In contributing to Myanmar’s development and transition, the international community needs to support inclusive growth by moving beyond the major urban centers to reach the diversity of people in all 14 states and regions. 
  • While there was relatively little discussion of the various ethnic conflicts, several NGOs, such as International Alert, are engaging directly in peace and conflict resolution projects. 
  • The rapid development of the mobile telecom sector will likely enable “leapfrogging technology,” namely mobile-to-mobile content sharing and “cloud first, mobile first.” 
  • Higher education was, surprisingly, absent from this discussion. From our point of view, it is essential that higher education is included in development agenda, not least because of the urgent need for a skilled workforce.

This is an unprecedented time in Myanmar’s history. A time when the country is undergoing a trifecta of transitions—political, social, economic—none of which stand independent from the other, and all of which warrant a healthy dose of optimism and skepticism. While the Myanmar government and key foreign partners are making huge investments (Stephen Groff of the Asian Development Bank estimates that least $80 billion will still be required in direct infrastructure investment alone), human capital development remains a major hurdle. Traveling here this week, however, we are astounded at the difference a couple of years can make.