The past few years have seen an influx of foreign aid and investment into Myanmar. And although government officials are working at breakneck speed on reform, doing business in the former pariah state remains a challenge.
That challenge will be at the core of discussions this weekend at the third Myanmar Development Cooperation Forum in Naypyitaw, the country’s biggest gathering of foreign aid officials and investors eager to interact with partners in government and, increasingly, civil society. Representatives from some of Myanmar’s top donors — including Japan, the United Kingdom, United States and European Commission — are among the invited speakers.
In his opening speech, President Thein Sein is expected to highlight one of his top priorities: to improve the country’s investment climate after years of isolation ended in his ascension to the top post in 2011. Myanmar currently ranks 177th out of 189 countries in the World Bank’s Doing Business 2015 report; while the ease of trading across borders has improved markedly in the past year, the country continues to rank poorly on most measures — especially starting a business, protecting minority investors and enforcing contracts.
One of the highlights of the Feb. 7-8 conference includes a review of the Naypyitaw Accord — considered the country’s development blueprint moving forward seeking for a more developed, democratic and inclusive Myanmar — two years after it was approved during the first edition of the forum. Panel discussions, on the other hand, will focus on rural development and poverty reduction, land and natural resources, public financial management and capacity development, as well as ways to improve cross-sector collaboration.
Such collaboration has been complicated by the vast scope of reform the Thein Sein administration has been pushing — often without the type of outreach or communications plan that foreign partners tend to rely on. In such an environment, building trust can be difficult.
But there are promising signs that some of these efforts will bear fruit: The Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry is drafting a national land use policy, and reforms of the country’s education system and the government’s financial management are moving ahead. Myanmar has pledged to join the Open Government Partnership and Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which none of its neighbors — including Vietnam — has done to date.
“The pace or environment is very hectic,” said Kim Ninh, the Asia Foundation’s country representative for Myanmar, on the fringes of an event in Washington. D.C., that showcased results of the nonprofit’s recent public opinion survey in the Southeast Asian nation.
Surendrini Wijeyaratne, coordinator of Myanmar’s INGO Forum, suggested that great strides have been made in collaboration and coordination after the country’s new NGO law passed last July, indicating the government’s intention to “listen to the views of civil society organizations.”
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Huge questions remain, to be sure: Will the country’s constitutional referendum tentatively scheduled in May usher in a more inclusive and stable development progress? Will a peace deal finally be struck between government forces as well as ethnic and armed groups which now control parts of the states of Rakhine, Shan and Kachin, among others? How will relations between minorities and the majority elite develop? Will the country find a way to address the thorny issue of the ethnic Rohingya, a Muslim minority that’s been persecuted and, in many cases, violently driven across the border into Thailand? And how will general elections slated for November affect ongoing reforms?
Political polarization in Myanmar remains high and the knowledge of government institutions and processes low, according to The Asia Foundation; there’s little trust in freedom of speech especially — and not surprisingly — in Rakhine state. Burmese people ranked religious conflict as the main cause of the country’s problems, followed by the “bad economy,” poverty and high unemployment; poor road conditions and a lack of electricity were cited as the main challenges at the local level.
Meanwhile, the role of civil society organizations is changing, according to Sai Sam Kham, executive director of the Metta Development Foundation: They’re not just shaping public opinion, providing services and protecting residents especially in rebel-controlled areas like northern Shan, but also increasingly facilitating the dialogue between government and the public.
CSOs often frown upon international organizations coming in to “build capacity” or seek local subawardees, Sam Kham said, because they are wary of foreigners taking charge of development. At the same time, local organizations are often not used to work on the sort of strict timelines foreign aid implementers operate under.
Many of them chase one project after another but, meanwhile, can’t sustain themselves — and international support often doesn’t pay for overhead.
“It’s a good time to think about [organizational] sustainability” if empowering civil society is a goal for the international community in Myanmar, Kham added. Sector- and cause-specific networks like the Land Core Group have sprung up in recent years to work on issues from food security and poppy farming to health and women’s rights.
But the root of the issue, according to Wijeyaratne, still goes both ways. The government has to clearly know — up to the minutest detail — where it wants to so other development stakeholders don’t go wandering in the dark while keeping in mind to always include the people in the processes.
“One of the most important development priorities of the country should be making sure that whatever plans the government will be developing … should include the perspectives of the Myanmar people themselves,” Wijeyaratne told Devex. “That means that the government must be consulting with the communities and having inclusive development processes.”
That development strategy and the painstaking process of creating a climate for businesses and organizations to thrive — with a focus on addressing corruption and transparency issues — should remain a top priority for the government. Myanmar remains at the bottom of the Corruptions Perception Index last year in Southeast Asia along with Cambodia, ranking 156th out of 175 countries surveyed.
Wijeyaratne said she hopes the development forum can act as a foundation for Myanmar to continue to be more open, democratic and participatory while making sure that no one gets left behind in the process.
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