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How Myanmar citizens feel about their cities

With Myanmar still in the early stages of democratic transition, there remains a lack of reliable data on the needs of the public, making the management of its cities more difficult. James Owen, an economist with the Asia Foundation, spoke to Southeast Asia Globe about the organisation’s pilot City Life Survey in Myanmar, which aims to document how citizens feel about the cities they live in

A photo taken with a long exposure shows a general view of the Sule Pagoda and the city skyline during twilight in Yangon, Myanmar Photo: Lynn Bo Bo / EPA-EFE

What is the goal and purpose of this survey?
The City Life Survey is a multi-city, multi-year survey designed to help shed light on what Myanmar’s cities are like as places to live and work. The survey will provide snapshots of urban life during a period of great political, economic and social change in Myanmar. In doing so, we hope that it will support government policy and decision making that will in turn contribute to these dynamics and help make Myanmar’s cities better places to work and live.
Have there been any surprising findings?
There were many findings that surprised us. Respondents were not as anti-tax as government officials expected. Tax paying is a relatively new experience for many in Myanmar. Government officials often presume that people don’t pay taxes because they do not believe it is a civic duty. The government has run big poster campaigns across the country with the slogan “It is a citizen’s duty to pay taxes”. Yet, at least in the cities we surveyed, this is already widely understood. A full 96% of respondents agreed that paying tax is a civic duty.
Respondents were more optimistic about the direction their city was headed in than the country overall, and incredibly proud of the city they live in!
There is a strong sense that people are willing to support their government if it will mean improvements for them and their city. The responses to our questions on tax provided some evidence of this. For instance, 66% of respondents said they were willing to pay more property tax if it meant better services for them and their city. And somewhat contrary to what you might think, it was the poorest respondents who were more likely to agree to this question than the richest.
As per the survey, are there any particular reasons as to why women have lower levels of health?
That women reported lower levels of health than men surprised us, especially as the City Life Survey found no noticeable difference in men and women’s perceived access to hospitals and clinics. There are considerable differences between cities, and this issue is worth investigating further.
The City Life Survey can bring evidence to light and help us test some of our existing assumptions about how people experience urban life. On its own, however, it is not enough. Our hope is that the government and interested actors dig deeper into the findings, bringing together other evidence sources so as to better understand the reasons behind some of the findings, and ideally to come up with ideas on what could be done to address challenges.
What can the survey tell us about the differences between women and men in terms of education and work?
What the City Life Survey can show us… is that even while women’s educational qualifications are similar to men’s, their experience of work is very different. Women are much less likely to be employed in paid work, and instead spend much more time conducting unpaid work such as childcare and housework. Some 14% of women reported spending between 11 and 15 hours per day on childcare and housework, compared to just 3% of men.
How do you think this survey will be beneficial for the people of Myanmar?
Cities are difficult to manage at the best of times. Decisions made now in Myanmar’s cities can have long-lasting impacts. Good decisions require access to good information. Our hope is that the survey can bolster the data and evidence available to Myanmar’s policymakers and municipal authorities… to enable them to make the tough decisions that can make Myanmar’s cities better places to live and work.
The full report can be read on the Asia Foundation’s website here

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