Late last year, an attack by an armed group on border police posts in Myanmar led to a government security sweep in Rakhine State and recurrent clashes and violence in many villages. As a result, access to a large part of the north of the state was closed off to humanitarian organizations, leaving the already highly vulnerable inhabitants of the townships to fend for themselves.
Unable to access the area since 9 October, WFP decided to use mobile surveys to conduct remote emergency assessments. While not as thorough as face-to-face assessments, mobile surveys could still provide a good snapshot of how people were coping in the areas that were closed off. Furthermore, mobile surveys serve as a means to address a critical information gap where there is little to no information about the needs of the most vulnerable and food insecure, as we have seen in complex emergency settings elsewhere such as during the Ebola crisis and Yemen. But let’s come back to Myanmar and rewind just a few years: hearing from people in these areas would have been impossible – essentially no one had mobile phones.
Myanmar’s mobile transformation
Myanmar’s telecommunication market has come a long way. Not so long ago, Myanmar was one of the “least–connected countries in the world” – just seven years ago, SIM cards cost up to $1,500, and few people had them. In 2013, after the government awarded contracts to two foreign mobile operators, the price of a SIM card fell to $1.50 and network coverage began to roll out across the country. Once the mobile revolution began, things moved fast. Soon, mobile penetration exceeded even that of much better-off neighboring countries, such as Thailand. By 2015, 96 percent of wards and 87 percent of villages in Myanmar had a mobile signal, and nearly 60 percent of households owned a mobile phone.
A case for mobile surveys in Myanmar
WFP’s first mobile assessment in Myanmar took place in November 2016, with 32 key informants from 12 villages in Maungdaw and Buthidaung north, complementing face-to-face interviews of 48 WFP beneficiaries at 8 food distribution points in Buthidaung south. This was at the end of the lean season (the period between harvests when households’ food stocks tend to be the lowest), and respondents told us that due to the deteriorated security situation, people faced serious difficulties in reaching markets, were not able to go to work, nor access agricultural land and fishing areas and. Resulting crop losses could result in mid to long-term impact on food security while households’ terms of trade had decreased and posed a serious concern regarding their ability to purchase sufficient food.
Though low mobile penetration in rural areas of the country posed a challenge for phone surveys, people were nonetheless eager to participate in the survey and share their stories. In order to participate, some people even arranged to borrow phones from neighbors if they did not own one themselves.
A second phone survey in December allowed for a greater sample size and therefore a better understanding of the living conditions in the surveyed areas. WFP spoke to 116 respondents in 70 villages in Maungdaw Township. By this time, the people we spoke with mentioned that there was widespread food insecurity throughout the township. The situation was particularly problematic in the north, where markets were not functioning and access to agricultural land or fishing grounds was restricted. Livelihood opportunities were scarce and the lower demand for daily labour had had an immediate impact on the most vulnerable.
The data collected through the phone surveys helped WFP to get some understanding of the needs in the no-access areas, and to use this information for advocacy with the Government and humanitarian stakeholders. On 9 January 2017, after three months, WFP was finally granted access to all areas where it had operations prior to 9 October, and was able to distribute food to 35,000 people in the villages of Maungdaw north. With the area open again, WFP and its partners are now preparing for thorough assessments on the ground, which will give a fuller picture of the food security situation and also allow us to validate the findings of the phone surveys.