As we enter the last 24 hours of our crowdfunding campaign, I want to take a moment to thank all of you that have made this a success and share with you a bit about why I am committed to making Mee Panyar a reality.
Almost exactly two years ago, I visited Myeik, a small city in the South of Myanmar, for the first time. I had no sense of how important the city would become to me. At the time, I was in the middle of a year-long research fellowship that focused on how rural communities deal with a lack of electricity access. During my time in Myanmar, people had told me that Tanintharyi, the region in the south-eastern tail of the country, was completely disconnected from the national grid. Immediately, I was intrigued. I wanted to see first-hand how communities had responded to this lack of infrastructure.
With little more knowledge than what the Wikipedia page and the government census had to offer, I jumped on a 21 hour bus to Myeik. With a handful of motorcycle breakdowns, a very brief police detention, and even an incident involving some lobsters, my trip was interesting to say the least. But I was most taken by what my time with the villages around Myeik taught me.
Seeing the community-made mini-grids in action gave me an immense sense of admiration, but also concern. I was humbled by what they had achieved on their own and deeply worried that it was undervalued. I saw the amount of time, money, and dedication that the meesayar and their communities had invested into building and sustaining their own electricity systems. My respect for their achievements continued to grow as I learned more about Myanmar’s history of self-help electrification and the scale at which it persists today, with 12% of people without grid access relying on these community systems.
But the more I learnt, the more I grew concerned that these mini-grids and everything that makes them possible would be ignored. During follow-up research, I was surprised to find that few others had taken the time to look closely at these systems, and that those who did largely focused on what they lacked. This sat in stark contrast with how proudly communities had shown me their commitment and achievements. I felt a deep sense of grief that their decades of skill-building, investment, and pride in their own resilience would be relegated for its flaws rather than celebrated for its strengths.
I strongly believe that the agency and ingenuity these communities have shown is exceptional, and something we need to nurture. It is by building on and developing local knowledge and skills, rather than flying in foreign expertise, that communities will be the ones who benefit most from future development. That is why I am committed to investing in people, rather than just infrastructure. To create better lives and livelihoods in addition to better electricity systems. The way I see it, if I do my job well, every day I am working to make myself obsolete. Rather than creating systems that rely on foreign assistance, we must support indigenous knowledge that is uniquely situated to have the most meaningful impact.
My hope for Mee Panyar is that we can provide communities with what they need to take themselves and their aspirations forward and that, above all, we are able to do their narratives justice. Thank you to all of you that have supported us on this journey. We will continue to work to prove that expertise can be found right here, in these communities.