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Why CSR is the right tool to break into Myanmar markets

As companies move to enter Myanmar following its emergence from decades of international isolation, there is a growing consensus about the benefits of leveraging corporate social responsibility (CSR) as a component of market entry.

The thinking is that entering Myanmar with a strong CSR campaign helps companies meet key local stakeholders in the public and private sectors, build infrastructure and collect insights about the business environment and mindset of the local people. Add to this the fact that Myanmar's support needs are huge, and the concept of CSR as a market entry tool makes good sense.

In Myanmar, CSR is not obligatory, as it is in India, where companies are required to set aside two per cent of profits. But CSR in Myanmar does offer a unique opportunity to make a big impact.

"CSR is an important component of the relationship we have with every community where we do business and Myanmar is no exception," said Abhijit Dutta, head of Government Relations & Public Policy (Asean) at Procter & Gamble, and vice chair of the US Asean Business Council's Myanmar Committee. Dutta says P&G supported clean water projects in Myanmar long before sanctions ceased and the country reopened for business. "In Myanmar, every contribution goes a long way. There is a pull from the government to do CSR. In any other market you would have to go through a deep process to find opportunity. But in Myanmar, there is a real request from the government to do more."

Ooredoo, one of two foreign telecom operators to set up business in Myanmar, has coordinated a range of CSR activities since the announcement of its bid win in June last year. The company views CSR as an important part of integrating into the local community. Ooredoo has put special emphasis on support for building capacity in technology and human resources. The company has also stepped in at times of crisis, offering support to southern regions of the country hit by floods last year.

"CSR is an important part of the Ooredoo culture and is evident across all of the markets in which we operate. Launching a company in Myanmar is a great opportunity and we are fortunate to be in a position to enrich people's lives," said Ooredoo Myanmar CEO Ross Cormack. "On the one hand we are working to develop a strong communications ecosystem, foster and incubate entrepreneurial talent and offer opportunities for local business. On the other, we are actively collaborating and developing initiatives in the areas of health and education that will make a sustainable difference."

Myanmar's leaders also publicly voice support for responsible business practices. President Thein Sein has talked about his desire to see responsible business practices which can contribute to the country's growth and sustainable development. He also said foreign investors must consider CSR strategies. P&G's Dutta supports this notion, saying: "The current administration in Myanmar really wants to see corporate social responsibility as a priority. In conversations with officials, the first question investors usually receive is about investment levels. The second is almost always about CSR investments. This is unique."

At the inaugural EU-Myanmar Task Force held in Yangon last November, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was direct in her comments about responsible business practices. She said, "I want good, hard-headed businessmen who are intent on making a good profit for themselves, but in a responsible way so that we also may benefit from your presence. That means that when you talk about responsibility, it's not just CSR, it's not just social responsibility. It's political responsibility, legal responsibility. It's responsibility in a very broad sense of the word."

Myanmar already has an established culture of private and corporate philanthropy, which is strongly associated with the Buddhist practice of merit-making. New business activities should thus synchronise with the basic social requirements and values of local communities - and with a long-term mindset. For example, building a primary school as part of a CSR programme might seem simple and direct to the foreign investors, but business decision-makers should keep in mind that schools will surely require more support and further assistance in the future.

All in all, doing CSR programmes in Myanmar, a country with many needy areas, is not difficult. But, what is important is implementing CSR activities that fulfil the real requirements of local communities without harming longstanding social, cultural and religious values.

Soe Thu Ra is an account director and principal of the Vero Public Relations office in Myanmar. Brian Griffin is the general manager of Vero Public Relations.


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