When Michigan State University (MSU) first began working in Myanmar in 2012, the country was just emerging from 50 years of military dictatorship and 25 years of international isolation. After a wave of democratic reforms, the country began a rapid economic transformation. To better understand how this transition towards democracy would impact Myanmar’s food security and agricultural development, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Livelihoods and Food Security Fund (LIFT) awarded MSU’s Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Security Policy (FSP) more than 10 million dollars, over a five year period, beginning in 2014. This effort has been led by two researchers within MSU’s Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics’ (AFRE) Food Security Group (FSG), Duncan Boughton and Ben Belton, who give credit to two more senior AFRE faculty – Steven Haggblade and Tom Reardon for laying the foundations of their work.
According to Boughton, “Our program set out to guide USAID and the Myanmar government on how to overcome decades of oppressive agricultural policies that left many farmers and rural communities impoverished and malnourished. Despite the enormous challenges the people of Myanmar face, we sensed an immense desire to undo the damage of 50 years of failed agricultural and economic development policies.”
One of the ways the researchers sought to improve Myanmar’s agricultural policies says Belton, “was to generate up-to-date accurate information about the nature of the rural economy and the rapid transformation it was experiencing. This information was particularly valuable for government as it sought to design policies that promoted growth and reduced poverty, along with international development partners planning investments and interventions to accelerate rural development.”
To accomplish their goals, Boughton and Belton have worked closely with other researchers within AFRE’s Food Security Group, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and local and civil society partners in Myanmar, including the Centre for Economic and Social Development (CESD).
When Boughton and Belton first began working in Myanmar, economic data on the country was limited. The existing literature often characterized Myanmar’s agriculture as predominately subsistence based, with low wages, limited access to farm credit, and poor infrastructure and market access. However, according to Belton, once they arrived in Myanmar, “We immediately found evidence that the rural economy was far more dynamic than existing reports suggested.”
MSU and Myanmar Researchers Worked Together to Fill an Enormous Data Gap
Policies and programs cannot improve human lives without an understanding of the conditions those people are operating in. With this conviction as a driver, MSU set out, with its Myanmar colleagues, to fill the massive “data gap” that 50 years of a closed economy and top-down polity had generated.
Over a period of five years, FSP researchers conducted surveys with close to 8,000 rural households, 800 communities, and more than 1,150 enterprises in agricultural value chains. The researchers found that extraordinary changes were taking place. In only five years, agricultural wages in some locations rose 40%, 94% of farm households in some locations reported using some form of mechanization on their farms, infrastructure and rural mobility improved and so did access to farm credit. Furthermore, the researchers found that small and medium size enterprises were being created throughout the agricultural value chain, including many farm equipment rental companies and other service providers to farmers anxious for technological advances and higher incomes. All of these findings have important implications for government policy and investment aimed at improving rural people’s lives.
Reflecting on the policy impact of FSP, Aung Hein, a former research associate with CESD who participated in the project and is now a doctoral candidate at Oxford University, says:
The project has been instrumental for the reforms in Myanmar at various levels. First, the amount of new and, at times, challenging information that it generated on Myanmar’s economy contributes tremendously towards the shuttering of old paradigms and perspectives and the discovery of new ones. Second, I believe that the project is having an impact on capacity building at various levels. There has been national-level policy and reforms engagement—both short-term ad hoc and long-term programmatic.
One of Aung Hein’s former colleagues at CESD, Eaindra Theint Thein Thu, also sees great value in the research conducted by the FSP team, saying, “the FSP project is very useful for Myanmar agriculture and rural development, social security, land tenure security and other social-economic development.” As a member of the FSP team, Eaindra Theint Thein Thu was able to engage directly with government officials and NGOs, where she says she found a receptive audience.
The data collected by FSP researchers and colleagues has been shared with Myanmar’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Irrigation as well as with faculty at Yezin Agricultural University for further analysis. In a recent press release from the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar, USAID Mission Director Teresa McGhie stated, “USAID is happy to see our Myanmar colleagues use this data, which can inform their decisions on how to develop the agriculture sector, nutrition, and rural livelihoods across the country.” McGhie’s comments reflect USAID and the FSP project’s commitment to developing the research capacity of their local partners.
During a visit to Myanmar in January of 2019 Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics (AFRE) professor and chairperson Titus Awokuse visited the country to learn more about the impact of AFRE’s work in the country. The beneficial impact of the program as seen by the young Myanmar researchers was reflected in the sentiments of Awokuse, who upon returning from Myanamar said, “though it was my first time visiting the country, I was able to clearly see the significant contribution and impact of the work of AFRE faculty and collaborators.” You can read more about Awokuse’s visit to Myanmar by following this link.
FSP Focused Heavily on Improving the Research Capacity of their Collaborators
Beyond the implications of the research, FSP has had a lasting impact on the young Myanmar researchers they partnered with. The FSP project has mentored students at the Yezin Agricultural University and offered workshops on data analysis, including the use of statistical software.
For Boughton, these capacity development efforts have been some of the most important outcomes of the project. Boughton says, “The young Myanmar researchers we work alongside are the first generation since 1962 with the freedom to choose what they study and what career path they would like to follow. They are committed to making a difference for the future of Myanmar.”
After participating in the FSP project, Zaw Min Naing, from CESD, said:Every single activity of the project was very fruitful for my career development. I have learned a lot, not only from international experts, but also my colleagues, such as how to develop questionnaires, how to design sampling areas, how to approach government officials, statistical skills for data analysis, how to interpret data and social skills [for engaging] with the community.
For Hnin Ei Win, a researcher at CESD, she says her participation in the program gave her the confidence to not only conduct further research but also to train others in agricultural policy analysis.
After completing the five-year research project, many of the Myanmar researchers on the FSP team, including Zaw Min Naing, hope to continue developing their agricultural research skills. So far eight of the FSP’s Myanmar team members have received scholarships for graduate training, including three at the doctorate level.
MSU and their Myanmar’ Partners Concluded the Project with a Major Public Workshop
As the FSP program’s work drew to a close, a public event entitled, “Agriculture, Value Chains, and Rural Transformation in Myanmar: Half a Decade of Evidence-Based Policy Research” was held in Yangon. The event highlighted the program’s findings but also celebrated the hard work and success of the program. The event was attended by researchers, policymakers, media, and the U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar.
Reflecting on the program’s completion Boughton says, “The work MSU faculty are doing together with our Myanmar colleagues is exactly in line with the vision of former university President John A. Hannah, and which the late University Distinguished Professor Carl K. Eicher referred to as ‘nation building.’ This is what inspired me to attend MSU as a graduate student in 1988, and it is an enormous privilege to be part of this tradition.”