COUNTRY BRIEF | APRIL 2013
Maximizing Development Plans in Myanmar through the Infrastructure of Public Libraries Broad-based access to information is required for all citizens to participate in Myanmar’s development. There are 5,000 public libraries in the country — existing infrastrucure and key development partners. Re-imagined as community information and service hubs, libraries can expand skills and opportunities for all.
A time of rapid change Spurred by unprecedented openness in the government and a sweeping reform process, Myanmar is changing at breakneck speed in every sector. Red tape has been reduced, government transparency increased, and international partnerships launched. A country that had been isolated for forty years is now actively engaging the international community, looking to leapfrog development stages and integrate its population into the global economy. This transition will require an engaged citizenry that can access and use the information increasingly available to improve their lives and their communities. Technology will play a pivotal role in this transition, but there is a long way to go. Reliable electricity reaches less than 15% of the country, and even the capital city of Yangon suffers periodic blackouts. Mobile phone penetration is among the lowest in the world at 7%. At 1%, Internet penetration is even lower, and only two ISPs currently provide broadband services.
Myanmar’s government appears to recognize that access to information is integral to development plans. Censorship has been removed, and privately owned newspapers are allowed for the first time in 50 years. New legislation and regulatory reforms seek to rapidly scale access to technology with a target of 75% mobile penetration by 2015. Laws that kept SIM card prices artificially inflated and out of reach for the majority have been scrapped. Public wifi hotspots are a requirement of the new broadband infrastructure tender.
Public libraries in Myanmar are already frequented by people looking to find and use information.
Myanmar is divided administratively into 66 districts, 262 townships, 89 subtownships and 69,000 villages. The majority of Myanmar’s 5,000 public libraries are located in rural areas.
Public libraries are valuable existing assets Of course, technology is only part of the solution. For technology to have a meaningful impact on people’s lives, there must also be relevant and useful information to access, and guidance available to apply the information practically. One ingredient is a government committed to ensuring information is open; another is a feedback loop so that needs can be conveyed by citizens. Myanmar’s stated intention to join the Open Government Partnership by 2016 is evidence of movement in the right direction. Experience from other countries indicates that the next ingredient is a local community institution that can connect people with the information they need. Fortunately, Myanmar benefits from a vast network of public libraries that operate throughout the country, in every kind of community, rural and urban. Many of these libraries have been a community effort – built through volunteerism and philanthropic contributions, in cooperation with local and national government.
Supporting a participatory approach to development In undertaking its reform process, the government of Myanmar has asserted the importance of transparency, participation and inclusiveness. President Thein Sein has introduced a policy of “Clean Government and Good Governance” meant to reorient government processes and perceptions. In January 2013, the government set out the “Naypyidaw Accord,” setting out “Developing a culture of democratic practices that…empowers citizens through participatory processes” and “improving access to justice and information” among the core national priorities for development partnerships. With 135 separate ethnic groups in the country and 70% of the population located in rural areas, ensuring information access and participation is a daunting task. E-government
is being revived within the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology. Ministries are gradually responding to new requirements such as maintaining a web portal and developing online functionality for major public services. The advent of a new ethnic language TV channel, to be introduced in September 2013 by the Ministry of Information, and newly allowed ethnic language newspapers, are testament to the government’s sincerity in reaching those previously excluded from national dialogue. But with its existing library infrastructure, part of the answer lies ready to seize. As the government strengthens channels for government-citizen communication, provides improved government services throughout the country, works to integrate rural and ethnic populations, and uses community meeting space for informed consultation, public libraries are ideal community partners.
These public libraries can support the development of a knowledge society, even as forms of knowledge transition from print to electronic. As Myanmar’s government and people put into action their plans for increasing opportunity and improving lives, it will be important to avoid overlooking a native institution that can provide a head start.
Children visit the Kyaung Sate Village Library in Mandalay District. Public libraries are among the only free public spaces where children can go for recreation in rural areas
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Myanmar’s public libraries already serve their communities Some libraries have already taken steps that provide a model for how Myanmar’s libraries can support community needs:
The Dr. Chit Maung Library serves the community with a computer center, gym and fish farm In a disadvantaged corner of Yangon, the Dr. Chit Maung Library has developed over 18 years into a model community library that meets a range of local needs, providing books and complementary services through its computer center, gym, and fish farm that generate income. It also provides basic library training to librarians from elsewhere in the country through a partnership with the Myanmar Library Association.
Tharapar Library partners with the Ministry of Information to run a mobile library Tharapar Library, also located in Greater Yangon, provides access to hard-to-find English books. The library also provides public computers and wifi, and in partnership with the Ministry of Information, runs a mobile library that distributes both English and Myanmar language books to remote areas. Its founder and head librarian Ye Htet Oo has trained government public librarians in customer service and library management.
“It’s a transition from military rule to democratic rule, from 60 years of armed conflict to peace and from a centrally controlled and isolated economy to one that can end poverty and create real opportunities for all our people.” President of Myanmar Thein Sein
Than Lyin library offers public computer access and community computer training programs In Than Lyin, a public library based in the That Dahamaza Ti Ka’Yon Monastery has secured 24-hour electricity from the government to power its 10 public access computers. A computer trainer provides training to students and community members.
The potential of Myanmar’s public libraries The process of modernizing Myanmar’s libraries has already started. One Ministry of Information initiative put computers in 33 of the country’s 66 district libraries last year and invited US embassy staff to conduct training on community library service. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is finalizing plans to launch two mobile library vehicles equipped with computers to reach people throughout her rural constituency. Such initiatives speak to the promise in store for Myanmar’s public libraries.
With official support and investment, the country’s committed public librarians and libraries can gain the space and freedom to reimagine their institutional purpose, fulfilling their potential as sustainable, trusted and accessible forces for Myanmar’s inclusive development.
Recommendations for the government Expand public access to the Internet and training through Myanmar’s public libraries The equipping of 33 libraries with computers is a promising start to ensuring the country’s libraries can provide 21st century access to information. Such programs must be strengthened with partnerships that provide corresponding training and service development. Future investments in public internet access and training should be made in libraries, where existing facilities and community familiarity are an asset.
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Include libraries as public service points in open government plans Should Myanmar choose to join the Open Government Partnership, it should include in its action plan public libraries as a preferred community point for people to learn about and use government data and online services. Ukraine and Georgia are two examples of countries that have included public libraries in their open government action plans.
Explore how libraries can serve as community civic education centers In the run-up to the 2015 elections in Myanmar, the government is committed to ensuring citizens make informed choices and have access to information about the countryâ€™s new laws. There is no better infrastructure for delivering civic education than Myanmarâ€™s 5,000
libraries. When producing materials in ethnic languages, the government should make sure to provide access to digital versions, so that they may be accessed and discussed online from libraries.
Recommendations for the library system Improve the training infrastructure for public librarians Library training infrastructure already exists within universities, the Ministry of Culture, the National Library and the Myanmar Library Association, but many public librarians never receive training. The library system should develop appropriate training to help public librarians broaden their services to meet 21st century needs.
Foster networking and ideasharing around innovation There are innovative librarians throughout the country, and they should be given encouragement and opportunities to share their experience. Librarian conferences should provide space to share new ideas about practical ways public librarians can help communities make use of new information resources, and provide exposure to international experience that may be adapted in Myanmar.
Develop partnerships to expand the reach and scope of library services. Partnerships with organizations outside the library system, such as with local government agencies and NGOs, are an effective way to bring in new services and expertise, as well as increase prospects for sustained funding.
Beyond Access is an initiative of IREX, EIFL, IFLA, Makaia, Facilitating Change, Development Gateway, the Asia Foundation, TASCHA, the Riecken Foundation, and READ Global, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This brief was developed in cooperation with the Myanmar Book Centre.