Podcast: Bulldozing ASEAN’s Digital Divide
September 2, 2020
The internet has been part of life in Myanmar for less than a decade. Barely 1 percent of Myanmar’s 54 million people were online in 2011. The cost of a SIM card was prohibitive, and mobile phones were simply unavailable to most people. No one then could have imagined using a mobile app to hail a taxi, order food, or shop online.
Yet, by January of this year there were 22 million internet users in Myanmar—a million more than the year before—and online marketing companies have estimated that nearly all of those users are on Facebook. Myanmar may be one of Asia’s internet latecomers, but the rate and enthusiasm of adoption are hard to overstate.
Digital literacy in a broader sense, however—genuine comfort and familiarity with the digital tools and technology that are reshaping business and education—has not kept pace with this online transformation. Too many small enterprises are still hobbled by older ways of working. Upgrading and diversifying the economy was already a key priority for Myanmar’s development, and as Covid-19 has upended businesses at every level, mastering the new digital landscape has become increasingly important to the future of Myanmar’s economy.
When I started to manage The Asia Foundation’s new Go Digital ASEAN project in Myanmar, I traveled to Shan, Kayin, Mandalay, and Yangon to assess the state of digital literacy among young people and businesses. This new program would set out to “bulldoze” the digital divide, and my purpose was to better understand how a new generation of job-seekers, MSMEs, and micro-entrepreneurs could build the skills they needed to take full advantage of the digital economy and face the hyper-digitalized competition that was on its way.
Even before the pandemic, I had been spending time with underemployed youth; migrant families; ethnic minorities; women entrepreneurs; owners of micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs); librarians; educators; and policymakers at both the national and the subnational level. In conversations with students and job-seekers around the country, from a small town in Kayin State to the thriving business center of Yangon, the question I heard most often was what is digital literacy?
Again and again, I found that young people in Myanmar confuse digital literacy with their prowess using Microsoft Word for their college assignments or preparing presentations in PowerPoint. Others, with eyes sparkling, would declare, “Ma Mi Ki, I am pretty confident in my digital skills. I now have a Facebook account!” Unfortunately, most of them did not know their passwords and had never learned about online security, because their accounts had been set up by their friends or the shops where they purchased their mobile phones.
On the other hand, there are many young people not yet employed who are intensely driven to master these digital tools, especially in this time of Covid-19, but have been unable, for various reasons, to do so. One young job-seeker, from Shan State, who had quit high school and moved with his family to Yangon to find work, told me: “It was already hard to find a job before Covid-19. Now, I really need to make money, and I’m working to improve my digital skills on my own. I’m learning how to write a professional email and submit my CV and a cover letter digitally. Otherwise, I will never even get an interview.”
I asked this young man if he knew anything about the digital tools he would need for work, especially during the pandemic, and if he knew how to find a job online. He said no, and that he would very much like to learn, adding that he was looking for free training, either online or in person. I have heard similar answers everywhere I’ve visited: young people have an intense desire to acquire skills for the digital economy.
Myanmar’s MSMEs and micro-entrepreneurs are also eager to master online payment systems, enter new markets, and better serve their customers. The owner of a mango plantation in Mandalay shared his vision with me of using an online platform to expand his business to the greater ASEAN market, but he needed the coaching to do it. He was looking for ways to learn digital marketing, online banking, and other tools he sees businesses using in neighboring countries.
Other business owners I met with were less eager, saying these new digital skills were just for the younger generation or for IT professionals. But all of these conversations have led me to conclude that the rapidly changing digital landscape is outpacing the capacity of Myanmar’s citizens to compete. The concept of the digital economy is still unfamiliar to many of Myanmar’s MSMEs (though the government is taking some steps to promote it). Knowledge of the internet and proficiency with the tools to use it are unevenly distributed, hindering the personal and professional growth of large parts of the population and leaving them vulnerable to the risks that also lurk online. In both rural and urban Myanmar, there is a widespread, unmet need for training and resources to build digital skills and literacy.
With Go Digital ASEAN, The Asia Foundation will bring digital skills to underserved communities throughout Southeast Asia. Supported by Google.org, Google’s philanthropic arm, and endorsed by the ASEAN Secretariat, this regional initiative will train 200,000 MSMEs, women, and rural and underserved young people throughout the association’s 10 member states to unlock opportunities in the rapidly evolving digital economy. In Myanmar, we will be working closely in the coming months with the Ministry of Finance, Planning, and Investment; the Ministry of Education; and our partner, the Myanmar Library Association, to provide customized training to 2,000 underemployed youth and 6,000 MSMEs.
At this unique moment in history, Myanmar must rapidly increase the ability of micro-entrepreneurs and MSMEs to use online tools and markets to compete and grow their businesses, and it must make sure that young people and other jobseekers have the knowledge and resources they need to find a productive place in the digital economy. Myanmar has been slow to adapt to the rapidly changing digital landscape. But better late than never! With initiatives like Go Digital ASEAN, Myanmar can put itself on the right track to catch up with the digital revolution.
Mi Ki Kyaw Myint is manager of The Asia Foundation’s Special Projects Unit in Myanmar. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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