Power play How Chinese money damned Myanmar’s economic transition

Category: Best data-driven reporting (small and large newsrooms)

Country/area: Myanmar

Organisation: Frontier Myanmar

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 30/09/2019

Credit: Victoria Milko, Clare Hammond, Ye Mon, Eva Constantaras

Project description:

This project explores the secretive multi-billion dollar hydroelectric power agreements between China and Myanmar that will determine the future of millions of Myanmar’s impoverished citizens. The story unravels Myanmar’s broader financial entanglements with China and weaves together the limited data available to map out the future lives and livelihoods of Myanmar citizens, including indigenous communities who may be swept away in the dam floodwaters.

Impact reached:

The story was much discussed on Twitter and at events among the Southeast Asia aid community, Chinese Belt and Road Initiative scholars and regional English-language media. But the larger goal was to reach Myanmar citizens. This is the first story in a series that provides comprehensive data-driven explanatory reporting to Myanmar citizens in the Myanmar language about the long term impact of foreign investment on the country’s future, as they try to steer their way to democracy.

Techniques/technologies used:

Exploratory data analysis was done in R and R Studio. Final data analysis was done in Python. Notebook and cleaned data can be accessed in our Github repository. Visualizations were done with Flourish and Tableau.

What was the hardest part of this project?

Data reliability is a major challenge when working with data supplied by both Myanmar and China. Frontier analyzed economic data provided by Myanmar’s Directorate of Investment and Company Administration, UN Comtrade as reported by both Myanmar and China, which revealed significant trade flow discrepancies as highlighted in the story, and Myanmar’s Parliamentary Debt Report. Data on electrification was sourced from the Ministry of Electricity and Energy and geo-located data on active armed groups was provided by The Asia Foundation. The most elusive dataset, disaggregated data on planned hydropower dams, was collected by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation and the Ministry of Electricity and Energy and vetted by the IFC. Access to the regions of the country impacted by the dams is also challenging, with our team of in-country reporters making several trips to understand the on-the-ground dynamics in the region and capture the experiences of those who have already been displaced.

What can others learn from this project?

We hope we demonstrated that collaborative data journalism projects with deep roots in the communities impacted are essential to good data reporting on international issues. It’s possible and important to produce data journalism stories that resonate with international and local audiences. In a lot of countries, it does not take data to convince people of corruption; it is a fact of life. We figured out that the best way to tackle injustice is to focus on the people at the bottom, the ones who are being stolen from, not the ones at the top who are doing the stealing. We think that starting with a goal of enabling citizens to understand the forces at play and make better decisions about their country’s economic future allows a much more nuanced and enlightening story to emerge from the data. 

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