By Jaime Drew
This article was supposed to be for World Environment Day (June 5) but my varied activities in Myanmar have been taking up most of my time. I wanted to talk about development and how it could be structured in a way that benefits all. Rampant economic growth with little regulation appears to create pollution and shifts attention towards consumerism and profit rather than gaining knowledge about the world and yourself.
National security and trade remain the two foreign policy priorities for Western governments. Education, healthcare, environmental protection and welfare programs are secondary. So I question that when developing countries adopt these priorities, we actually modelling best practice.
Rather, should we be better regulating the social and environmental impact of our trade with recipients of Australian aid to not simply minimise harm, but maximise benefits?
In Bhutan, while their budget reflects a desire for economic growth, they also have a national happiness index that is used to guide certain decisions. On the opening page of the current budget for Bhutan, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck states “We must… …ensure all our resources are directed at improving the wellbeing of the people” (111th National Day Address, 2018). I had believed certain social media posts suggesting that Bhutan is all about happiness. While this is not the whole story, they do at least give it a prominent place in governing documents. Similarly, the New Zealand government recently made headlines for its Wellbeing Budget 2019. In her opening to the Budget, Prime Minister Jacinda Arden said “[this budget is] a reality because while economic growth is important – and something we will continue to pursue – it alone does not guarantee improvements to our living standards. Nor does it measure the quality of economic activity or take into account who benefits and who is left out or left behind.”
These models can be of immense benefit to Myanmar. Trade is thriving in Myanmar but it is having a negative impact on the environment in some regions. Many forests have been destroyed for timber. In some places, the Burmese government has taken proactive steps and has outlawed logging, but it still continues as people need to make an income. Plastic packages line the roads and can even be seen out in the rice paddies as waste management services and education are not common. Almost all the chairs are plastic, single-use packets and containers are very common. Fast fashion is thriving and clothes made from plastic fibres (that deteriorate quickly) are imported from China and create further waste when they’re soon thrown away. A comprehensive waste management/recycling system is not in place in all towns and such a system is needed to prevent tonnes of plastic being washed out to the ocean with each rain.
Trade stimulates the economy and provides some people with income but it is also destructive and polluting. It creates a materialistic mindset and can cause some to choose work over education, an iPhone over a qualification and new clothes over learning to repair and reuse. Mandatory education from grades 1-10 is a policy of the education ministry. However, in speaking with local residents I understand that some need to work to pay for basic items for their families. Others simply live too far away and are not connected by road to a school. The resulting absence of basic scientific environmental knowledge will doubtlessly lead to further pollution, degradation of the environment and limit these resident’s economic and educational opportunities in the future.
This challenge is not unique to Myanmar. However, while rampant consumerism has become almost inextricable from the economic foundations of many developed countries, it is actually in low-income countries that a more sustainable, wellbeing-based economic system can be established.
Here in Pathein, I have witnessed young children working in road construction. It was explained to me that this is better for their families than not working. A policy to balance a child’s need for education with a family’s need to support that child could be to introduce welfare payments for student attendance, incentivising education over child labour and breaking the cycle of poverty. The alternative is that people will continue to accept any work, at any rate, making them vulnerable to exploitation.
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