Managing diversity in Myanmar

Jane Carter, 16 February 2015
Managing diversity in Myanmar

Earlier this month, I was in Laos to facilitate a one week regional workshop with staff and a few partner staff from five of our country programmes – Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Laos and Vietnam. The topic was working on gender and development in contexts of ethnic diversity. It was a week of much sharing and learning, and a lot of fun. Whilst I’ll set out some of the key conclusions in another posting, here I’d like to focus on one particular presentation by a relatively new member of our small Myanmar team, Min Oo Tan.

I have never visited Myanmar, so this is entirely reported material. Of relevance here is the country’s ethnic diversity – whilst the Bamar form the majority of its total population of some 51.4 million, there are over 130 ethnic groups in total, with concentrations in different parts of the country. Min Oo Tan shared with us some experiences from his previous employment, in which he was a Project Manager overseeing an ethnically diverse team implementing a project in Mon State, South-East Myanmar. The team comprised 30 field staff, from the three major ethnic groups of the State: Bamar (40%), Mon (35%) and Kayin (25%). Min Oo Tan himself is mixed Mon-Kayin. Staff members were assigned to work amongst their own communities; this made sense from the point of view of understanding local customs and language, although according to Min Oo Tan it rather reinforced differences within the team.

Min Oo Tan observed that there were certain clear gender differences within the team that applied across all three groups. Thus in general the men found it easier to meet with local officials and organise village meetings than did the women; they could also travel to remote areas more readily than their female counterparts. Women staff, meanwhile, were generally better at data collection, monitoring and evaluation, and report writing. (I am tempted to see certain parallels with my Swiss-based colleagues in this respect, but this would be a digression!) At the same time, there were definite differences between the groups. In team discussions, Bamar and Mon women were reasonably forthright, and defended their interests; Kayin women did not. But whilst they hesitated to express their opinions, Kayin women were more ready to travel to remote areas than their Bamar and Mon colleagues, and generally accepted more difficult and uncomfortable working conditions.

At community level, Mon ethnic women were much more active than Kayin women in taking part in meetings and making decisions. The project managed by Min Oo Tan entailed the construction of community infrastructure, with community participation both in the planning and in the implementation. Here Mon ethnic women enthusiastically gave their time in meetings to discuss issues and solve problems; develop action plans, and raise additional funds. Kayin women meanwhile mostly contributed their labour in the construction, and rarely participated in meetings.

Of course in making such observations, there is always the danger of propagating stereotypes. Yet it is also important to recognise and appreciate differences, as ignoring them could create major imbalances in local power dynamics. Min Oo Tan is a strong proponent of the “Do no Harm” approach – which for those not familiar with it, essentially entails careful analysis of the local situation to identify “dividers” and sources of friction between different groups, and “connectors” – issues that they share. The aim is as far as possible to build on the connectors, or at least not erode them; and to reduce, or at least avoid deepening, the dividers. Min Oo Tan also found this helpful in analysing team interactions. The team regularly discussed their activities in monthly meetings, and sought to promote mutual understanding amongst themselves, as well as in the communities in which they worked.

Min Oo Tan’s presentation nicely illustrated two points. One is the importance of openly discussing differences within a mixed team – both valuing the diversity that this provides, as well as exploring any tensions that might lie beneath the surface. The other is the very obvious need for a tailored approach at community level to working with men and women belonging to different ethnic groups – which was indeed the theme of our workshop.

Jane Carter
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