11/01/2013 01:56 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Growing Independent Co-operatives in Myanmar, One Person at a Time

In 2013 Moh Moh was the first woman ever from Myanmar to participate in the Canadian Co-operative Association's Women's Mentorship Program, a specialized training program for women credit union professionals from around the world. Her participation is all the more striking when one considers Myanmar's recent history.

Aung Bon Gyi is a small village of several hundred people in the Bago Divison of Myanmar. It is located about 100 kilometers North East of Yangon, Myanmar's commercial capital. Getting there takes a full day, using unreliable public transit over unpaved roads. During the three-month rainy season, the village is often inaccessible.

Without electricity or access to the Internet, most people in Aung Bon Gyi are rice paddy farmers, living from crop to crop, from day to day. Aung Bon Gyi is like a lot of other villages in Myanmar, which are home to 70 per cent of Myanmar's estimated population of 55 million. Sixty per cent of the population works in smallholder agricultural production.

Khin Moh Moh was born in Aung Bon Gyi, the oldest of four children. Raised largely by her grandparents, she left home for good at the age of 10. She first lived with an aunt in Bago, the division capital, to pursue high school studies, then moved on to Yangon to pursue university studies, where she focussed on accounting and improving her English.

Today Moh Moh, as she is known to her friends, is almost 28 years old. She lives with eight women in a three-bedroom apartment in Yangon, sharing a bathroom and kitchen. For the last seven years she has been working at the Central Co-operative Society, Myanmar's national co-operative association, in its micro-finance program.

In 2013 Moh Moh was the first woman ever from Myanmar to participate in the Canadian Co-operative Association's Women's Mentorship Program, a specialized training program for women credit union professionals from around the world. Moh Moh spent 10 days in Manitoba, where she was warmly received by the province's credit union system.

Moh Moh's participation is all the more striking when one considers Myanmar's recent history. For most of Moh Moh's life, Myanmar was subject to the strictest economic sanctions allowable by Canadian law, which were put in place to isolate a military regime that had been in power since 1992.

Myanmar's former military regime imprisoned thousands of people for their political opinions and waged war on numerous fronts with some of Myanmar's minority ethnic populations. These sanctions not only isolated Myanmar from Canadians, but Canadians from Myanmar as well. Organizations like the Canadian Co-operative Association could not engage in Myanmar.

But all that changed in 2010 and 2011. Reasonably democratic elections were held in 2011 and a civilian government was put in place. Political prisoners, including Nobel Laureate and honorary Canadian citizen Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, were released. Western governments such as Canada's have flooded back to the country, turning Myanmar into a new frontier for business, development assistance and co-operatives.

Myanmar faces numerous challenges as it attempts to develop. Infrastructure such as roads, power and sewage systems all need to be modernized. Things we take for granted, such as Internet access, affordable mobile phones and secure banks are all being developed. Schisms between different religious communities are being opened, threatening the stability needed to pursue sustainable economic and democratic reform.

Co-operatives in Myanmar have a chequered past. The first co-operatives were formed in 1904 by British colonizers. Despite some initial success in helping overcome the usury practices of money-lenders, co-operatives were considered by many as a foreign intervention controlled by the authorities of a non-native power. Following the country's independence in 1948 and the gradual implementation of a socialist economy, co-operatives became a pillar of a state-planned economy. Memories persist of standing in line for poor quality products or services from the local co-operative, which people were often forced to join.

In a popular uprising against the government in 1988 co-operatives were amongst the first state-led institutions targeted by the people. The government attempted to resurrect co-operatives after 1992, ostensibly with an orientation to participate in the free market. However, the repeated sale of co-operative assets by the government to raise revenues, and increasing government involvement in the operations of co-operatives, left them a bankrupt business model, both financially and in the minds of many people.

But since 2011, co-operatives have once again gained prominence in Myanmar. They are identified explicitly in the Government of Myanmar's five-year development plan, as well as in its Rural Poverty Alleviation and Development Framework, and there are plans to provide access to rural finance through village co-operatives.

Co-operatives in Myanmar face an uphill battle as they work to address deeply ingrained skepticism about the usefulness of the model. This is one reason why the Canadian Co-operative Association has entered into a three-year Memorandum of Understanding with the Central Co-operative Society in Myanmar to promote the development of independent and autonomous co-operatives. The transition will not be easy. Experience in other countries tells us that it will take place slowly -- one-co-op at a time, one co-op member at a time, one co-op employee at a time.

Moh Moh's participation in the Women's Mentorship Program was part of these efforts. Since her return to Myanmar she has focussed on trying to integrate the five Cs of lending used in Manitoba's credit unions into her own work. She believes a better understanding of Credit, Capacity, Collateral, Capital and Character will improve the savings and borrowing practices of Myanmar's financial co-operatives and eventually allow financial co-operatives in Myanmar to offer larger, savings-driven loans - for cars or homes - as their members become more affluent.

Moh Moh and her team at the Central Co-operative Society are keenly aware that co-operatives in their country are still a long-way from the member-driven model that she was exposed to in Canada. Decreasing that distance will take time, patience and young, strong-willed men and women like Moh Moh.

By Michael Wodzicki, Director (Market Development) for the Canadian Co-operative Association's International Development Program.