A tale of moon and mountains

While governments typically drive basic infrastructure investments such as rural electrification and farm-to-market roads, the private sector is well positioned to help mountain communities by providing financing, market linkages, knowledge and other services.

When it came to Myanmar, there was little talk of the special needs of the nation’s remote piece of the Himalayan region at a recent conference in Kathmandu on mountain poverty in the Hindu Kush-Himalayas. “Appropriate data sets,” it was said, “could not be obtained and analysed for Myanmar.”

Perhaps that is understandable given the nation’s long isolation from much of the world and its secrecy in relation to its border states. The nation’s share of the Himalayan region falls in northernmost Kachin State, once home to the British colonial outpost of Fort Hertz. Today, the remote town of Putao is known as the starting point for the few visitors who get permission to reach the base camps of Mount Khakaborazi and the chance to see first-hand the differences in life between there and an increasingly money-driven and modern Myanmar.

At the conference on poverty reduction, which marked the 30th anniversary of the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, marked differences were noted in mountain areas relative to non-mountain areas in many of the other member nations of the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region, which includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan.

Headquartered in Kathmandu, ICIMOD is an intergovernmental knowledge and learning centre founded on December 5, 1983, to serve the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region.

The differences are particularly sharp between Afghanistan, a nation still struggling to break free from a turbulent modern history that seems at times to keep the country mired in poverty and the past, and China, which has just joined the United States and the former Soviet Union as only the third nation to soft-land a spacecraft on the moon.

Yet even as Asia looks skyward to the tremendous success to date of China’s 20-year-old, multi-billion dollar space program, much more needs to be done here on Earth to bring business growth to some of the highest parts of Asia and the Pacific, a region that is still home to the vast majority of the world’s poor. It need not be a tale of moon versus mountains.

Poverty remains a persistent challenge among the people who continue to make their lives in some of the world’s most remote mountain regions in Asia, whether in Myanmar, Afghanistan or China. Limited economic opportunities still characterise sparsely populated communities on the Tibetan plateau as well as Himalayan villages that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa passed through 60 years ago this year en route to the first successful ascent of Mount Everest.

Here and elsewhere in Asia, however, the reality remains that while government has been the key driver in putting a lunar lander, or man, on the moon, it is the private sector that is key to sustainable economic growth, job creation and poverty reduction. That is as true in the plains and lowlands of Asia, as it will be in its remotest mountain regions, typically home to indigenous peoples and characterised by inaccessibility and fragile agricultural ecosystems.

To address this, business, government and civil society must come together and move beyond the politics, stereotypes and animosity that have for too long divided the Hindu Kush Himalayan region – home by some estimates to more than 180 million people, as well as vast water, forest and other resources at risk of unsustainable exploitation – and focus instead on partnering for sustainable economic growth.

At the recent ICIMOD conference, I joined with several business and chamber of commerce counterparts on a panel moderated by CSR Asia. Together, we outlined three important areas that must be addressed to spur private sector engagement in Asia’s remote mountain regions. This includes in Myanmar.

The first is innovation. The private sector is often ready to explore partnerships, but joint activities and plans for engagement must be innovative, with a business model that is not purely philanthropic but structured to ensure both end beneficiaries in the community and the private sector can benefit.

The second is involvement. Too often, the business community is invited to “participate” in a project or asked to fund a piece of research that already has been outlined and decided. The message is, in essence, we want your money, but any other involvement is not welcome lest it “taint” the effort.

Instead, the private sector must be engaged early on. An innovative partnership would go beyond business as usual and involve the private sector in fashioning programs that also leverage a commercial partner’s market experience and knowledge. Such innovative, involved and engaged partnerships can be to the long-term benefit of both mountain communities and the bottom line. This is critical to success and sustainability of any private sector involvement.

One spotlighted example of private sector intervention discussed in Kathmandu was a pilot effort to work with marginalised farmers in South Asia, helping catalyse linkages – just as other programs have facilitated cooperatives – to share information, improve agricultural products and yields, and ultimately build better supply chains and profits.

The third is impact. For the business community, impact assessment is critical. Unlike government, business depends on past success to fund future successes. Results must be measured to ensure there is rationale for sustained or expanded business involvement.

The remoteness of mountain communities cannot be an excuse for the lack of financial returns on a business investment. When a pilot program is brought to the business community for assessment and possible expansion, its impact and scalability must be clear and transparent.

Pilot projects help demonstrate that something is possible, but impact assessment is necessary for the business community to decide on scaling up an engagement. Don’t throw good money after bad, as it were.

While governments typically drive basic infrastructure investments such as rural electrification and farm-to-market roads, the private sector is well positioned to help mountain communities by providing financing, market linkages, knowledge and other services.

The innovation, involvement and impact of government in a nation’s initial journeys into space are clear and unquestionable in the US, in Europe and now in Asia. As China sends forth a rover onto the lunar surface, South Korea makes plan for its own lunar mission, and an Indian spacecraft is en route to Mars. Japan has long launched satellites from a space centre in Kagoshima.

But here on Earth it is clear that business can be a powerful partner in any endeavour. This must include the fight against poverty in Myanmar and elsewhere in the Hindu Kush-Himalayas.

Even as Asia reaches for the stars, let’s not forget the poorest of the poor still at home, in the shadows of Asia’s tallest mountains.

Source: Myanmar Times

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