How Myanmar can curb corruption to boost development

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim at the Shwedagon Pagoda during his first visit to Myanmar, where he announced a $2 billion pledge to spur the country's development progress. Photo by: Aye Zaw Myo / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

Right after announcing its $2 billion pledge to boost Myanmar’s development progress, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim warned the government to crack down on corruption or stand to lose official development assistance funds.

Despite having enacted some reforms since it started opening up to the world in late 2010 after decades of military rule, Myanmar — like many other poor nations emerging from conflict and poverty — still has a long way to go to ensure transparency and accountability in its development efforts.

“There is an increased awareness, both by donors and receiving countries, that aid is not reaching the poor effectively unless corruption is proactively countered,” Samantha Grant, Transparency International regional coordinator for Southeast Asia, told Devex. “Corruption is a particular problem … in [poor countries].”

Grant added that Kim’s warning “demonstrates [the World Bank’s] willing[ness] to pull out if [there is] evidence of corruption in any of the programs” — which “would send a clear signal to other investors that too much of their funding may be siphoned off, and put [the country’s] development at risk.”

In a recent report, the Washington, D.C.-based institution ranked Myanmar among the worst (182 out of 189) countries for doing business, while it placed 157 out of 175 on Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index — not a small feat considering that only six years before the country shared the bottom spot with Somalia, and up until 2011 only slightly outperformed failed states like Afghanistan, Iraq or North Korea.

This progress is however not enough, and further reforms are needed for Myanmar to truly fast-track its development progress and standing with donors who don’t want to see their funds go to waste.

Ways to address corruption

The problem is: how do you curb corruption in Myanmar?

For Transparency International, one of the biggest steps would be to show commitment and discipline in putting anti-corruption and transparency measures into concrete actions — not just words on paper.

“In the past year, the country’s opening has already led to a number of new regulatory frameworks … however, the country has a long road ahead to strong governance,” Grant explained. “It is key that the government of Myanmar demonstrates its commitment to anti-corruption.”

Myanmar is widely considered to be Asia’s “donor darling” for the next decade, as the huge influx of foreign aid — including massive commitments from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank — since 2010 has shown. But corruption, as well as ethnic conflict in border areas, continues to hamper development progress. This need to sort out several facets of governance and development issues was emphasized by Grant when she said that frameworks, institutions and increased collaboration can be the solution.

She laid out four specific steps, including:

  1. Ensure the full independence of the new anti-corruption committee so it can work to fight impunity in a meaningful way.

  2. Continue to show respect for an open and inclusive approach in fighting corruption, creating space for civil society and the media to monitor progress. The quality of the new civil society law, which is being considered, will be critical.

  3. Enact a right to information laws which will be key in order to effectively monitor these new laws and aid flows in the country.

  4. In the case of the proposed laws, it should be quality over quantity.

Aid community’s role

Aside from the government fighting corruption in the country’s political and development systems, Grant said the global aid and development community can also play a key role in all these efforts, particularly in breathing down the necks of local officials to ensure they are always on the ball in anti-corruption measures.

“The aid and development community can play a role in keeping the pressure … to develop its internal governance system along with infrastructure and healthcare,” she noted.

Grant further explained that members of the development community themselves should also be keen in implementing anti-corruption measures in their own programs, especially to those implemented in countries tagged as highly corrupt.

“Globally, we recommend that the international aid community integrate good governance measures in all of their aid programs by committing certain percentage of aid money on anti-corruption measures,” she said. “In addition, we recommend that the post-2015 [Millennium Development Goal] agenda has a ‘good governance’ goal that would set targets for more transparency in government and greater citizen participation in decision-making and monitoring of public services.”

Aside from lack of transparency and corruption, Myanmar also faces a huge challenge in addressing power supply problems and sufficient health care as the economy continues to grow at a rapid pace. Currently, almost 75 percent of the country’s population lacks proper access to quality health services, and around 70 percent don’t have a reliable energy supply.

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.