The story of a single act of kindness went viral in Yangon last week, and now residents are clamoring to get involved in poverty alleviation projects in the city.
“Dear people of Yangon!” begins the post in the popular Facebook group Yangon Connection, which tells the story of two friends helping a houseless family overcome some of the most challenging aspects of poverty.
On December 28, Julius de Jong, a Dutch waste-management entrepreneur living in Yangon, and his friend Khine Myat Thwe Aung, a business researcher, set off to see what they could do to “empower street children and youth to help themselves”, as Julius puts it.
Julius and Khine Myat Thwe Aung started their day at the Bohtataung Jetty, where they had heard many people struggling with poverty spend their days. However, when they turned up, they found only dockworkers, so they headed to the Hledan flyover.
The act of searching for poor people, according to Julius, was transformative in itself.
“The problem for disadvantaged people is that they’re not being seen,” he told Coconuts Yangon.
When they arrived under the flyover, they saw a man instructing his three children to beg for money from people walking by. They approached the man and his wife and asked them how they had ended up begging to make ends meet.
The couple listed a series of unfortunate circumstances that had lead them to the belly of the overpass – the woman suffered from a chronic disease; the man had an injured knee and had lost his ID card; they were both unemployed; and they were US$500 in debt. Their children – aged two, four and seven – were not attending school because the parents needed them to solicit donations.
When Julius and Khine Myat Thwe Aung asked the family what could restore them to financial independence, the couple was surprisingly specific and quick to answer.
“Investments for selling water and sodas was their reply,” wrote Julius in the Facebook post.
The two friends made a deal with the family. They would give the couple K5,000 to buy a Styrofoam cooler that they could use to sell cold drinks, and if they showed up with it at the flyover the following day, Julius and Khine Myat Thwe Aung would also buy them their first round of inventory.
They family exceeded the pair’s expectations. Not only did they show up with the cooler; the evidence of their previously hopeless state had been washed from their bodies and replaced by fresh clothing. The parents were eager to start working.
“It was beautiful. The whole family was washed, they were wearing clean clothes, and their energy was very different. Maybe [after] a long time, somebody had finally SEEN them?” Julius wrote in his Facebook post.
He told Coconuts Yangon that “this was a sign that they regained hope and some dignity”.
In addition to buying the family soft drinks to sell, Julius also drove them to Hlaingthayar Township, where they met the man to whom they owed $500 and negotiated a repayment plan.
As they drove, the matriarch of the family, who had been somber the previous day, was brimming with business ideas.
“If they build up the ability themselves to get out of debt, that’s a huge thing,” Julius said.
Julius’s post in Yangon Connection has received over 700 likes and over 50 comments, most of them laudatory, since December 29. In his replies to the comments, Julius repeatedly returns to the idea that taking notice of people in need, instead of ignoring them, is where change begins.
One commenter writes: “I’m just a university kid for the time being, but in the near future I do wish to lend a hand in a project like this.”
To this, Julius replies: “No! You’re NOT just a university kid. You’re a human being with all the potential to make a difference! You don’t need any money or resources to make somebody else feel SEEN or HEARD. Only a bit of time and attention, and it can make all the difference.”
Faisal Kazi, the Myanmar country representative for BRAC, one of the world’s largest development organizations, rephrased this need for awareness in industry terms: “The key vulnerability of this particular group of people stems from the fact that they do not have any social capital (let alone financial capital) to be included into group-based microfinance models. They are poorer than the poor and hence need special assistance.”
Most of the other comments on the Facebook post contain messages of support and interest in scaling the initiative to help more families and children in Yangon. Many propose cooperation with other poverty alleviation initiatives such as Food Not Bombs and Books Not Bombs, initiatives spearheaded by members of the Rebel Riot punk band, as well as schools and monasteries involved in charity work and the education of street children.
However, some commenters were skeptical of the family’s intentions. One says: “Lol…you met scammer again…[good] luck with that.”
Julius is not deterred by this possibility. He said: “When have I been dishonest? When I’m depressed, in a bad situation. Not because it’s my nature. So I still feel compassion [for these people].”
In the days since the story was first posted, Julius says, people in Yangon have offered jobs to the parents from the flyover, and the parents have committed to enrolling their children in school.
Khine Myat Thwe Aung is compiling a database of people and organizations who have have expressed interest in scaling the initiative, and the pair are seeking ideas from professionals and enthusiasts on how to do this responsibly.
Faisal Kazi, the BRAC representative, said an expanded version of the project would address a need that few organizations are addressing.
“A country like Myanmar still may not consider urban poverty as a priority issue, making things even more complicated for drawing attention from donors and investors. There are only a few who are actually working on urban extreme poverty. So seeing some positive impact should be encouraging for others,” he told Coconuts Yangon.
He added: “I would say this is a very good example of how to help people who are bypassed by traditional microfinance.”
The encouragement is welcome to the pair leading the initiative.
“I’ll be very open to learn from as many perspectives as possible,” Julius said. “Right now, we need to learn from what other people are doing, what their challenges are. Then, we can plan.”
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