Burma, Birmingham & Benefits

Foreign Affairs II have just returned from the most amazing trip to Burma, but whilst I was there I knew I had to share a few thoughts when I got home.

I was in Burma for a family wedding but naturally we had some time to tour around the city of Rangoon.  The city of Rangoon is home to 6 million people and so is a busy and bustling place.  What I wasn’t expecting however, was the throng of traffic everywhere!  Since mid 2012, various trade sanctions have been eased, allowing for the import of thousands of cars.  Whilst sitting in a taxi in endless traffic jams in the sweltering heat was not always the most pleasant experience, air con does not come as standard, there was something uplifting about it.  Here Burma was unfolding in front of us; the potential for investment and a booming tourism industry was obvious.  In just five years, tourist numbers have increased from 200,000 to 2 million a year!

On our second day we crossed the Rangoon River to the explore the other side of the city.  This area was devastated by the 2008 cyclone, but even before then, this part of Rangoon was very different, inhabited by the very poorest families.

We crossed the river on a boat that was full of people taking their goods to market: fruit, vegetables, fish and meat (see photo below).  On the other side we were taken to our trishaws, our transport for the next couple of hours.

Ferry crossing

The roads were well-worn dirt tracks pitted with more pot holes than a Liberal Democrat County Councillor would know what to do with.  We rode past large scummy ponds with hand pumps next to them.  The 200,000 people that lived in this part of Rangoon had no access to clean running water, but instead the rain water collected in these ponds was what they drank, washed in and cooked with.  


The Burmese homes were made from wooden planking and consisted mainly of one room for the whole family to eat, wash and sleep.  These rooms seemed to have nothing in them but a few cooking pots.  With no doors to these homes, privacy didn’t exist either.  Although I couldn’t have been in a more different place to the UK, it was as we cycled past these homes that I was suddenly shot back to my sofa at home, remembering the controversial television show ‘Benefits Street’, filmed in Birmingham where I used to live.

burma towns

What I was witnessing in Rangoon was real poverty, real deprivation.  People there exist to work, for without work there is no food to themselves or their children.  And by ‘work’ I mean going out onto the land to grow and collect food, to fish, to keep chickens, all with the intention of selling at the market.

So where does Birmingham fit into this scenario?  In that trishaw I was soaking up the atmosphere, but I couldn’t help but think about so many of the comments and situations prevalent on James Turner Street, Birmingham.

When you watch people with nothing, existing with a big smile on their faces, it’s difficult to listen to parents complaining at how difficult it is to live on benefits worth more than £26,000 a year. It is difficult to watch a show where a single man appears not to value or look after the three bedroom property he has to live in at no expense to himself.

Many commentators rightly point out that far too often, people are better off out of work as they receive more in benefits.  This is the fault of the welfare system and those that continue to allow it to be that way, but has this system instilled in so many a complete lack of desire to work.

So what exactly is my point then?  It is essential that the Government continues with its welfare reform programme.  The system must be reformed so that being out of work never pays more than being in employment.  Having any job provides a routine, demonstrates what individuals are capable of doing, opens up opportunities and introduces us to a range of new people.

My trip to Burma gave me proof, if it were ever needed that poverty is a very relative term and even the poorest here in the UK have access to support and standards well in excess of many other countries.  But I am resolute as ever in my belief that we do a great dis-service to thousands of people across our country in allowing them to remain shackled to an unreformed monolith of a welfare system.  More power to your elbow Mr Duncan Smith.


Sophie Shrubsole

Deputy Chairman, Parliament Street


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