Monday, March 6, 2017

10 students, 19 meetings, 5 days

This is the first student guest post about winter break activities. Our guest blogger this week is Lisa Jenkins, who is a first year Master of Arts student concentrating in Energy, Resources, and Environment

SAIS in Myanmar: 10 students, 19 meetings, 5 days
When I and nine other ERE students arrived in Yangon, Myanmar on a Sunday in January, the first thing we noticed was the heat. Coming from our respective winters in Washington D.C., Bologna, and Nanjing, the shock of the sun almost overshadowed the culture shock.

However, when the sun set in the evening, we noticed something else about the city: the lack of lights. While most large cities glow at night with artificially-lit streets and apartment windows, Yangon was noticeably darker. And, when we attended our first meeting on Monday morning, this image of a not-quite-electrified city set the tone for our conversation.

You see, we were in Yangon to research Myanmar’s electrification process: its successes, its challenges, its (slow) progression. Myanmar currently has only about 30 percent of the country electrified, with far fewer connections in the rural communities. However, the country’s new administration hopes to change this, with the goal of 100 percent electrification by 2030.

So, we examined the plans that various organizations had given to Aung San Suu Kyi’s young government, and met with various stakeholders about their thoughts. It was gratifying that so many people were eager to hear our thoughts in turn, from the IFC to JICA, from Myanmar’s Ministry of Rural Development to the United States embassy.

The week was spent primarily in Yangon, with 19 meetings spread out over 5 days. Some days we would stick together on a school bus in business-casual-adapted-for-90-degree-weather clothing, and some days we would divide into smaller groups and take taxis to different corners of the city.

On one of these days, a group of us woke up early and took a small commuter plane for the hour-long flight to Nay Pyi Daw, the country’s very new capital city. We were told in advance of the city’s strangeness, of its lack of real city enter, its virtually empty 10-lane highways, and its enormous hotels with more employees than guests. However, we still gaped out the window as we drove to our meeting with the government; I had never seen such an empty place, seemingly poised for the arrival of millions who did not seem to be coming. After our meeting we explored the city’s pagoda (apparently 30 centimeters shorter than the Shwedagon pagoda, as a gesture of respect for the country’s most sacred stupa), and were practically the only people in the vast space, lit up with gilt.

The rest of our meeting days in Yangon were interspersed with other tourist activities: a walk through downtown, a sunset by the docks, a Burmese massage, and even a sampling of street-side noodles (during which we successfully avoided dripping sauce on our meeting clothes).

Our last night in Yangon was a good one. We invited a combination of Yangon’s SAIS alumni and other people we had met over the course of the week to a rooftop bar downtown, and discussed our work, and Myanmar more generally, over drinks. It was remarkable to see so many current and former SAIS students in the same place, on the other side of the world from our campuses.

The goal of our trip was to conduct research on the implementation of Myanmar’s electrification plan, which we will ultimately compile into a report to present to the country’s government and its other stakeholders later this spring. However, as we made our way through the country, another goal of the trip became clear to us; Myanmar is a country in transition, a country where development and investment and brand-new policy-making is happening at a rare speed. For me, the opportunity to see the policy-making process in action was the most interesting part of the trip.

As policy students, we usually only read about decisions and regulation in the aftermath of their implementation. In Myanmar this January, we had the chance to be a part of those conversations. I think each of the 10 of us felt this to be the most valuable part of our SAIS education so far (though learning how many ways Myanmar cuisine utilizes eggplant was a close second).

The opportunity to see the policy-making process in action was the most interesting part of the trip.