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Taking a long-term livelihoods perspective in rural Myanmar

Addressing  issues in Myanmar through rural development

How can we rethink our approach to rural development to catalyse meaningful and sustainable change addressing poverty, landlessness and food insecurity?

While poverty has declined substantially in Myanmar over the last decade, 24.8% of the population still lived below the national poverty line in 2017, according to the Asian Development Bank.</p>

Development programs have traditionally focused on promoting entrepreneurial forms of agriculture in an effort to address this challenge. Yet this approach fails to grasp the local context, argues Assistant Professor Mark Vicol.

His research in Myanmar invites us to rethink the role of agriculture as a driver of social and economic transformation and adapt development interventions to better support rural households.

Photograph of group of people farming in rural Myanmar

A common assumption that development agencies make, is that households engaged in farming are better off in terms of their food security and nutrition because they can consume the foods that they grow. But our data told a different story.

Photo credit: Stefan Munder via Flickr

Rural Myanmar is undergoing significant change. After decades of economic and political isolation, the rural economy is rapidly shifting from a narrow reliance on low-productivity agriculture, to a more diverse array of farm and non-farm activities. Understanding the best way to support households in rural Myanmar requires taking a long-term perspective and looking at these dynamics from a livelihoods perspective. Yet, policy makers and development organisations continue to promote interventions that are at odds with the realities of life for people in rural Myanmar.

I was involved in a major ARC-funded study from 2014 – 2018 that sought to investigate the changing relationships between livelihood patterns, land, poverty and food security across three different regions (Chin state, Delta, Dry-Zone). One of the questions we wanted to answer was what impact different income generating activities had on food security and nutrition. We conducted a large-scale survey with close to 3,000 households, and asked people to document the income generating activities of each member of the family. What we found was that rural households in Myanmar rely on a diverse range of income generating activities including agriculture, yet increasingly the livelihoods of rural households depend on non-farm activities, such as wage labour or running small businesses.

Increasingly the livelihoods of rural households depend on non-farm activities, such as wage labour or running small businesses.

After decades of economic and political isolation, the rural economy is rapidly shifting from a narrow reliance on low-productivity agriculture, to a more diverse array of farm and non-farm activities. 

Photo credit: Franc Pallares Lopez via Flickr

A common assumption that development agencies make, is that households engaged in farming are better off in terms of their food security and nutrition because they can consume the foods that they grow. But our data told a different story. We found that farming does offer a certain level of food security for rural households, but in fact it was those households engaged in high value and dynamic non-farm activities that experienced really marked increases in food security and nutrition. This was because they were better able to access food through markets. The very high rates of landlessness in rural Myanmar also played an important role in this dynamic. In some villages, as a result of historical policies and practices, up to 80 per cent of households do not have access to land. For these households, agriculture is not a viable livelihood strategy, and non-farm activities, including migration, play a much more important role.

These patterns have important implications for how development organisations and policy makers think about rural development and agricultural policies. I believe that it is very important to take a livelihoods perspective when thinking about these policies. In practice, policy makers and development organisations tend to view rural economies from a macro level, which leads to development interventions that prioritise interventions, like commercial agricultural programs, that are at odds with the lived reality of rural Myanmar people. For example, a current popular approach used by development organisations is to develop programs that connect rural farmers to global value chains. The idea is that agribusiness firms can help small farmers to ‘upgrade’ their skills and capacities to achieve better returns in the global market. But from the perspective of a rural household, life is far less defined by commercial agriculture than these policies assume. Those households that can take advantage of commercial agricultural interventions are usually the top 10-20 percent of households who already have land and capital. This approach risks missing or making invisible those 80 percent who do not own land and depend on the non-farm economy.

History also matters. Development organisations often do not take a long-term perspective, which is risky because it means that their interventions are often not based on the realities of the context that they are seeking to shape. Our work in the Delta looked at the history of how the rice economy has developed over the last 200-300 years, during which time it was integrated into British colonial economy, then isolated for 50 years of the Burmese military era, and in recent year has become reintegrated into the global economy. These developments have had a significant impact on patterns of landholding, the distribution of advantage and disadvantage, and on class structure. Without this long-term view, it is easy to misunderstand or misinterpret the ways in which farming and other livelihood strategies are embedded within the social and economic structure.

Tragically, the gains and newfound freedoms that rural Myanmar people have experienced during the last 5 years of democratic government are now under threat after the military coup of 1 February 2021. The lessons from our research are that we must put the lived experiences of rural people at the centre of rural policy making. Previous decades of military control were characterised by chaotic, ineffective and exploitative rural and agricultural policy, including the major role played by the military in episodes of land grabbing and confiscation. A return to these policies and practices will have significant implications for livelihoods and food and nutrition security of this vulnerable group within Myanmar’s population. Yet, in the face of such oppression, there is cause for hope in the agency, capacity and struggle of rural Myanmar people to shape their own livelihood pathways just as they have done for centuries.

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Photograph of cows in a field in Myanmar

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Rethinking Rural Livelihoods and Food Security in Myanmar

Listen to our SSEAC Stories podcast with Assistant Professor Mark Vicol about the changing relationships between livelihood patterns, land, poverty and food security in Myanmar.

About the author

Photograph of Assistant Professor Mark Vicol
Assistant Professor Mark Vicol, Wageningen University and The University of Sydney
Mark Vicol is Assistant Professor in the Rural Sociology Group at Wageningen University, and an honorary associate of the School of Geosciences, University of Sydney. Mark is a human geographer by training and his research focuses on the intersections between rural livelihoods, smallholder agriculture and patterns of agrarian change in South and Southeast Asia.