Myanmar’s Centre for Responsible Business challenges traditional business practices with the blessing of the government.
Less than a decade ago, Myanmar was under a military dictatorship, human rights abuses were amongst the worst in the world, and business practices corrupt and irresponsible.
Itwas more than a case of putting profits before people: businesses were subservient to the military regime, and operated at their beck and call. Cronies – those big businessmen who dominated the economy – were at best beholden to the generals in power, enmeshed in an intricate network of interconnections associated with the military, or actually owned by former military officers and serving soldiers. Bribery and land confiscation were endemic. But since a quasi-civilian government – under the former general who was elected president, U Thein Sein -- came into existence some six years ago, things have begun to change.
The new government was keen to roll back the US-led international sanctions that were in place and reestablish itself in the international community. As a result the Myanmar government dismantled many of the unethical practices in place, in their search for international acceptance. They understood that for this to happen, they had to adopt international standards, especially if they were to attract responsible foreign investment. Of course that entailed seeking international assistance and know how.
There was a strong emphasis on learning from the “best practices” abroad, especially the West. While the Asian Development Bank, International Monetary Fund, the United Nations and the World Bank led this thrust to change business practices and government policy, many donor countries provided bilateral technical assistance – often at a sector level. Norway in particular provided support, especially in the oil and gas and hydropower industry.
Developing terms of reference and
allocating government contracts through a tender system, which allowed open bidding, has begun to replace the old system of patronage. The tender for two international telecoms licenses in 2013 – which were awarded to Telenor and Ooredoo – were hailed internationally as one of the world’s fairest and open tenders. Now all government contracts are awarded this way. But much progress has also been made to have private companies -- local and foreign -- embrace responsible business conduct.
Since 2010, the government and businesses have become much more responsive to public opinion and civil society and local community concerns, according to several NGO activists. President Thein Sein’s suspension of the controversial Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam was a clear indicator of this new environment. The NLD – since its became the government a year ago – is perhaps even more responsive to local protests against investment projects.
“If anything the pendulum has swung to far the other way,” according to Vicky Bowman, director of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB) which is leading the way in promoting responsible business. “We’ve perhaps reached a point where Government is so scare of civil society protests isn’t taking any decisions.”
“The way of doing business in Myanmar is changing for the better,” Luc de Waegh, a consultant with Roland
Berger and a Myanmar resident for more than twenty years told NABR. “Corruption is less prevalent. The mindset is changing; there’s a realization that it is wrong to condone corruption or to try to offer bribes.” This in part reflects businesses willingness to adopt international practices and norms. But is also the result of international efforts to improve the business environment in Myanmar.
A non-government organisation – the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business – based in Yangon, and funded by international donors, has done substantial pioneering work in this area. It is undoubtedly a leader in changing business attitudes, especially amongst local companies. Set up in 2013, it has earned a reputation for its professionalism and impact.
In that time the Centre has produced major reviews of critical sectors in Myanmar’s economy -- oil and gas, tourism, ICT and mining – and has advocated for legal and regulatory changes to bring business practice into line with international human rights standards. It also provides a neutral platform for networking and discussion.
“MCRB’s main concerns are to boost the practice of responsible business, encourage businesses to operate according to international standards, and increasingly include them in the legal framework,” MCRB Director, Vicky Bowman told Business Review in an interview. “We want to encourage more investment, but investment that is responsible.”
MCRB’s main activities are “on the ground research, advocacy and promoting dialogue, through connecting businesses with businesses, businesses with civil society and businesses with government,” Ms Bowman explained. Initially the research function allowed the organisation to break new ground, give its advocacy an authoritative base, and develop an important network, including businesses, social activists and government. It also fed into MCRB’s approach to advocacy.
But MCRB does not plan more major sector-wide impact assessments, according to Ms Bowman. “We’re not trying to create a ‘ Lonely Planet’ series covering every sector,” she added. Rather MCRB will bring a social lens where it is missing, for example by working on the oil palm sector with Fauna & Flora International, who have already conducted a survey of its environmental impacts.
“Our concern is human rights,” she said. “Companies have a responsibility to respect human rights: that’s what the 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights says. The Guiding Principles are our Bible. And that responsibility to respect human rights requires them to do human rights due diligence to understand their potential impacts.”
While the first three years included a lot of on-the-ground research, MCRB’s main priority now is to promote dialogue between business, civil society and government and better public consultation. This is particularly important in the drafting of new legislation – something that is acutely needed. “A responsible business’ first duty is to obey the law,” said Ms Bowman. “But if the laws are unclear, confusing and contradictory, it creates a major obstacle to the practice of responsible business. Better laws are needed as well as better enforcement.”
The initial sectoral research has been very useful because it has given us some great anecdotal evidence to build on, said the MCRB director. “But we’re not a name and shame organisation. We don’t point out failures or bad practices by particular companies. We highlight practices that should be avoided, and promote good practices.”
From the research into the mining sector, MCRB discovered that some companies who said they had budgets for so-called ‘ CSR’ were in fact using it for regular payments to village headmen to have them sign off and say they supported the project. “We avoid the term ‘CSR’ because it’s heavily associated in Myanmar with donations. We think it’s better to ask a company how they plan to invest responsibly and sustainably, not how big a donation cheque they will be writing,” Ms Bowman explained. “The focus on money is at best a red herring or distraction; at worst it fuels corruption.”
Different issues emerged in the different sector studies. For example in the ICT work, MCRB looked at the human rights in the telecoms sector, sometimes known as digital rights. These include surveillance, or ‘ lawful interception’, as well as hate speech and cyber bullying. When it comes to surveillance, there are major gaps in Myanmar law concerning access to data and data protection.
“This is something which concerned the Norwegian telecom company, Telenor in particular. They raised this in our very first meeting,” said MCRB. “It’s good that they since been transparent and very proactive in reporting the number of requests they have received from government for intercept evidence, and the number they have responded positively to. But what’s needed is an effective rights-respecting legal framework.”
One of MCRB’s major advocacy roles has been promoting consultation and dialogue -- involving civil society, business and government – on the government’s draft laws to improve the respect of human rights and ensure responsible business practices. The process of consultation on the recently enacted Investment Law and the subsequent Rules has been an important milestone, according to Ms Bowman. “There were a series of public consultations on the published draft. I hope this will become a model for drafting future legislation.”
MCRB also highlighted problems around another piece of draft legislation, the draft Foreigners Law, tabled late last year, which proposed red-tape requirements on foreigners to seek government permission before staying away from their homes for more than 24 hours. MCRB pointed out that it would make it more difficult for businesspeople bringing Foreign Direct Investment to obey the law and avoid corruption.
“If it had been adopted, it would have been a set back to the government’s stated objective of reduced corruption, encouragement of foreign companies to invest and attracting back Myanmar ‘repat’ talent,” Ms Bowman said. The legislation is now being redrafted. MCRB is also actively involved in promoting consultation on the Disability by-laws between businesses, disability groups and government.
MCRB is a unique organisation – there is nothing similar anywhere else in the world. It has been very important to changing attitudes in business and government according to Luc de Waegh, who has been involved in Myanmar as a businessman and consultant for more than twenty years. “It’s done a remarkable job,” he told Business Review. “It is unique and daring. And the government response was not to reject or ignore it, but to embrace it. The transparency index was an excellent trend setter.”
There was a time when sending messages on phones was straightforward. In recent years, propelled by falling data prices, cheaper devices, and improved features, the simple services for exchanging messages, pictures, videos, and GIFs have evolved into complex ecosystems, with users logging in to messaging apps to not only chat with friends but connect with brands, browse merchandise, broadcast and interact with content.
Smartphone business is booming. Statista, an online statistics portal, reports that the number of smartphone users is forecast to grow from 2.1 billion in 2016 to around 2.5 billion in 2019, with smartphone penetration rates projected to hover just over 36% of the world’s population by 2018, up from just 10% in 2011.
In terms of popularity, Facebook’s mobile app topped the charts in 2016, according to Nielsen. The social networking app pulled over 146 million average unique users each month, a 14% growth y-o-y. Facebook Messenger came in second with over 129 million average unique users each month, trailed by YouTube with more than 113 million average unique users each month.
Diving deeper into messaging apps, Statista reports that both Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp (acquired by Facebook since 2014) have now breached the 1 billion mark of worldwide users, with QQ Mobile and WeChat (both owned by one of the largest internet companies in the world, Tencent Holdings Ltd) boasting 877 million and 846 million users respectively. Moving down the list, Skype and Viber both can count 300 million users among their ranks, followed by Viber at 249 million and LINE at 217 million.
SimilarWeb, a digital market intelligence company, conducted research using Android data from 187 countries, in order to determine the most popular messaging app over the world.
The report found that of the 187 countries that SimilarWeb examined, WhatsApp was the world leader claiming 109 countries, or 55.6% of the world. WhatsApp’s countries include Brazil, Mexico, India, Russia, and many other countries in South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Oceania.
Facebook’s Messenger app came in second overall, claiming 49 countries including Australia, Canada, and the U.S. After Messenger, Viber was the only other messaging app to claim 10 or more countries. The app shows strong
popularity in Eastern Europe, and is the top app in Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, and others. In fact, as of April 2016, Viber was installed on 65% of all Android devices in Ukraine and was used for an average of 16 minutes a day. Viber’s popularity also reaches other parts of the world including countries such as Iraq, Libya, and Sri Lanka.
Line, WeChat, and Telegram are 3 other messaging apps claiming multiple countries with China, Iran, and Japan representing countries using one of these apps. In Japan, home grown LINE unsurprisingly ranks supreme, and people who have it use it for 40 minutes per day on average.
There were a few more obscure options, apps that only claimed one country include KakaoTalk in South Korea, imo in Cuba, Zalo in Vietnam, ChatOn in Eritrea, and BBM in Indonesia, the report found.
Coincidentally, Similarweb found that in nearly all of the countries they looked at, messaging apps dominated all other apps, making them more popular even than social networks.
At work, too, instant messaging, either embedded in project management software or standalone versions, is fast replacing face to face interactions around the water cooler. Here is a brief overview and standout features of the most popular ones: Workplace by Facebook Launched at the beginning of this year following a massive PR campaign, Workplace by Facebook (formerly Facebook for Work) is available for both iOS and Android devices. It was conceived in the hopes to combat the pandemic of people using Facebook during office hours and also to keep work separate from private lives, eliminating the need to add colleagues to personal social networks.
Since most people are already familiar with Facebook, there are no training costs involved – this is why the Royal Bank of Scotland adopted the platform in late 2015. What sets it apart from the competition, especially for larger companies, are the detailed profiles for each employee, with the idea that a manager can use the app to find the right person for the job; or they can post about it on what amounts to a business’ personal Facebook feed.
Workplace by Facebook is still in its infancy and it remains to be seen how it will fare against other enterprise heavy hitters, but based on initial reviews, the social media giant might have another winner. Slack Slack, which markets itself as work-communications app, has seen growth which most enterprise software could only dream of. Just to put it into perspective, there are 5 million daily average users, up from just 16,000 on 1 Feb, 2014. It has 1.5 million paid accounts (77% of Fortune 100 companies among them) and roughly 60,000 teams using the software, with an average user spending 320 minutes on it on a regular weekday.
The magic formular for Slack’s success stems from its intuitive user experience and its open API to connect various other services to the platform. The desktop and mobile cersions allow teams to chat in channels, with conversations divided by subjects, and you can chat and share photos, videos and music - it’s akin to having an ongoing meeting which you can dip in and out of.
Slack is free to download, but premium editions go between USD 5.5910.50 per user per month. Voxer What sets Voxer apart from the competitors is not having to type out the conversations - they are conducted by recording the conversations, a feature the company calls “push-to-talk”, which are stored in the cloud until they need to be delivered. Marketed as a walkietalkie communication tool., Voxer aims to streamline communications and cut down on email usage. It syncs across devices and is available in all apps stores.
The personal version is free to use, with the premium, enterprise targeting version going for USD 3.99 per user per month. Yammer It’s the latest major” teamwork collaborator app” that is more akin to a social network than a Chat app, to be added to Microsoft Office 365. “In Microsoft’s vision of a mobile-first, cloudfirst enterprise, teams collaborate across distances using shared documents, video conferencing, and applications that tie it all together in one virtual location.”
Yammer involves the creation of groups where members can post ideas, comments and various media. The posts themselves are archived as a repository and are fully searchable for future reference. Groups can be formed in a matter of a few clicks and are typically created based on subject-matter areas, teams of employees, or across teams of employees. Contributions, including attachments such as Word or PowerPoint documents, pictures and videos, can be added with ease.
Yammer is part of the Microsoft Office 365 package, with packages ranging between USD 5-12.50 per user per month. Google Apps for Work (G Suite)
For decades, Microsoft Office has been the de facto leader of Office productivity software, but Google in recent years has been catching up. With all of its bells and whistles, Office is certainly jam packed, but why pay for them when most users never use many of those features? Such is Google’s rationale behind G Suite.
G Suite is organised 11 products into four categories: “Communication” comprises Gmail, Hangouts and Calendar; “Store” has Google Drive; Sheets, Forms, Slides and Sites can be found under “Collaborate”; and under “Manage” there’s Admin and Vault, which is built to archive corporate email for organisations with a mandatory regulatory compliance to retain data.
Obviously, Google apps like Gmail, Docs, Sheets and others are indeed free, so why invest in the enterprise edition? The short of it is more storage, management and the ability to use your own domain, meaning emails come from the company address instead of a Gmail one. Users on the base version of G Suite get 30GB of storage, which is twice the amount of the free products, and users on the Premium version get unlimited storage, while you also get improved admin controls and the Vault email archive. Both the base and premium versions come with HD videoconferencing via Hangouts and 24/7 phone, chat and email support.
There are two pricing models: the flexible plan, which goes for USD 5 per user per month for G Suite and USD 10 for G Suite Business, and the annual plan, which is USD 50 per user for G Suite.
With all of the options available, it may be slightly daunting and time consuming to find the suitable productivity software to boost efficiency, but data says it’s well worth the effort. While apps like Slack haven’t managed to kill off email entirely as of yet, its latest survey among paid users has revealed that productivity increased by 32%, reduced internal email by 48.6%, meetings by 25.1%, and increased transparency by a whopping 80.4% on average - and that can only be a step in the right direction.
Danish Institute for Human Rights: it receives its financial support – around
a million dollars a year – from the UK (DFID), Norway, Switzerland, Denmark (DANIDA), Netherlands and Ireland. Norway contributed NOK 1.2 million between 2013 and 2015 and NOK 600,000 in 2016-17. Ms Bowman proudly insists that they receive no money from business. “We’re not working for businesses; we’re independent and working for responsible business.”
This will not change, but how MCRB works will change over time, she predicts. This is likely to mean spinning off part of their work to other organisations that are forming. The Myanmar Responsible Tourism Institute – which has just been established – should take on a greater role in the tourism sector. The planned Asian Development Bank – World Bank environmental safeguards learning center, could undertake training for government officials, which MCRB currently is involve in. A future Myanmar Institute of Directors is planned, which could take MCRB’s focus on company transparency, good corporate governance and fighting corruption.
Of course there may come a time when the MCRB is no longer relevant or needed but Vicky thinks that won’t be for a while. “At the moment we are extremely busy, so it’s some way off – probably not in the life time of this parliament.”
MCRB remains in Vicky Bowman’s own words: “unique; there are no models elsewhere in the world. We are aiming to be a neutral player and bridge between business, civil society and government. And I think we have broadly succeed.”
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Above left: Participants at a recent MCRB workshop discuss sustainable tourism in Myanmar's southern archipelago. Above: Ms Vicky Bowman, Director of MCRB.