Myanmar’s Development Agenda – Opportunities and Challenges

I was fortunate enough to participate at the recent Myanmar Development Summit held in Yangon on the 10th of August 2014. I participated in a panel discussion on the opportunities and challenges for Myanmar’s development agenda.

 

Panel discussion: Myanmar's development agenda - opportunities and challenges
Panel discussion: Myanmar’s development agenda – opportunities and challenges (L-R: Dr Thet Thet Khine, U Aye Chan, U Kyaw Tin, Dr Maung Maung Lay, Reza)

The panel was moderated by U Kyaw Tin, Chairman of the Myanmar Institute of Certified Public Accountants and I shared the panel with Dr Maung Maung Lay, Vice President of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, UMFCCI, Dr Thet Thet Khine, Secretary General of the UMFCCI and U Aye Chan, CEO of IMA Group.

Developments to date

Over the last few years as Myanmar has opened up economically and politically, there have been some major strides made in a number of areas:

1. Social and political reforms:

Politically we have seen a greater freedom of speech, improved press freedom and broader steps towards national reconciliation. The ongoing dialogue with armed groups in a number of states is also a step in the positive direction.

In the last three years government spending on education has more than trebled (it was increased by 30% in the last year alone) and government spending on healthcare has almost increased five-fold (it grew by 78% in the last 12 months alone).

The government has also implemented a strategy for greater public financial management reforms to enhance efficiency and transparency of government spend.

 

2. Improved monetary policy and central bank independence

The monetary policy has improved starting with the unification of exchange rates (there used to be a time where the official kyat to US dollar rate was 8 kyat to a dollar whilst the market rate was closer to 800 kyat to a dollar!).

The regulations governing central bank independence have also been brought more in line with international best practices, granting the central bank greater independence and autonomy.

 

3. Improved tax collection and reforms

With support from the World Bank, Myanmar is also embarking on a series of ambitious tax  reforms to strengthen revenue administration, which will increase the effectiveness of tax and non-tax revenue mobilization.

This was further supported by the passing of the Union of Myanmar Revenue Law of 2014 and four other tax bills in March this year.

 

4. Improving business, investment and trade climate

Approved FDI has increased to US$4.1 billion in 2013/2014 (almost 300% from 2012/2013 when it was only US$1.4 billion). The investment has also been distributed across a diverse range of sectors from manufacturing (45%), telecommunications (30%) and hospitality hotels (10%). This will prove beneficial in the long term as it will increase employability whereas investment primarily in the resource sector would have not necessarily created sufficient job opportunities. The investment has also come from unlikely trade partners including Ooredoo of Qatar and Telenor of Norway (both in the telecommunications sector).

This improved business climate has come on the back of passing of the Foreign Investment Law (FIL) in late 2012 which provided better clarity for international businesses seeking to do business in Myanmar along with the removal of restrictions and barriers to foreign investment. The highly efficient Directorate of Investment and Company Administration (DICA) have also reduced the time for businesses to establish operations in Myanmar (this is also on the back of my own personal experience as we established our operations in Myanmar).

 

5. Progressive financial sector developments

The government is working very closely with industry stakeholders as Myanmar seeks to establish its first stock exchange in Yangon – the Yangon Stock Exchange (YSE).  This is following the passing of the Securities Exchange Law last year.  Japan’s Tokyo Stock Exchange (TSE) and Daiwa Securities Group, a Japanese investment company will supporting Myanmar in delivering the YSE by October 2015.

A microfinance law was also passed last year to improve access to finance for small and medium sized firms and to increase the level of liquidity in the market.

Banks are also being held to more stringent regulations and are required to improve their capital adequacy ratios to be more in line with international best practices.

 

Some key facts to consider:

  •  GDP growth was 7.5% in 2013 (forecasting 7.8% in 2014).
  • Agriculture provides jobs for over 50% of Myanmar’s workforce.
  • Government budget for 2014 was US$ 19.5 billion (a third of Myanmar’s GDP)
  • Inflation has been creeping up and is expected to increase to 6.6% in 2014 from 5.8% in 2013. This is as a result of the weakening of the kyat vis-à-vis the US dollar, increasing wages (both in the private and public sector), a real estate boom/bubble and increased credit.
  • According to McKinsey, Myanmar has the potential to achieve a GDP od US$200 billion per year by 2030 (it was just under US$60 billion in 2013).
  • The average productivity of a working individual in Myanmar is currently only US$1,500 per annum (which is 70% less than other Asian economies including Thailand, China, Indonesia, India, Vietnam, etc). This low productivity also results in the low GDP per capita.

 

Key areas of focus for sustained development and progress:

Below are seven areas I view as critical for Myanmar’s continued development and progress. The achievements to date remain delicate and can be easily derailed if some of the below trends and developments are not addressed sufficiently.

 

1. A need for harmonious development.

One of the biggest perils faced by rapidly emerging economies is a severely widening income gap. It is vital that Myanmar addresses the issue of income inequality by providing broader employment opportunities and increase the number of middle-class Burmese.

It is also important that Myanmar’s leadership resolves on-going ethnic and sectarian tensions and friction in the country. This can severely destabilise the country and reduce the quality of life for Myanmar’s people. There has to be greater social and religious tolerance. Persistent incidences of communal violence between the Buddhists and Muslims are exacerbating the tensions. The government should support further initiatives by centrist leaders of the Muslim and Buddhist communities and support greater dialogue between the various communities. There needs to be greater efforts to reform education starting with the primary levels, to encourage greater tolerance for the different ethnicities and religions in the country.

The role of the military is still not entirely clear and this ambiguity needs to be resolved for a greater entrenchment of democracy taking root in the country so as to produce the optimal opportunities for further growth.

 

2. Improving access to education and creating educational opportunities for all.

Myanmar’s investment in education has increased significantly over the last three years but it still has one of the lowest averages of schooling the world at just four years. The universities and institutions of higher learning remain chronically underfunded and after four decades of neglect, do not yet have adequate infrastructure. However, this is slowly changing with the likes of Yangon University, Yangon University of Economics and Dagon University striking up partnerships with other top universities and organisation. This will help improve the teaching faculty and also provide greater exposure for the students and staff of these universities which will in turn improve overall performance.

A good national education is also essential for enhanced social mobility. The notion of social mobility is critical in helping people move out from the cycle of poverty and in increasing the middle class segment of a nation. Social mobility can only take effect if the right opportunities and education is provided to the people. As Myanmar continues its growth and development, the educational institutions will need to prepare Burmese youth with the right skills and capabilities so that they can gain meaningful employment and support Myanmar’s development.

 

3. Improving employability, productivity and efficiency

For growth and development to remain inclusive and sustainable, it is important that investment continues in the areas of labour intensive industries and sectors such as manufacturing.

The majority of the population still live in poverty (GDP per capita based on purchasing power parity is about US$3.60 per day)

The government is focusing on an export-led growth supported by productivity gains in agriculture and industrial development. President Thein Sein’s ‘Framework for Economic and Social Reforms’ launched in 2011 emphasised the need for a market-driven economy to support economic growth and to provide jobs and opportunities for Burmese.

There must be greater support provided to farmers and the agricultural sector (which as I’ve stated above provides employment for more than half of Myanmar’s working population) to introduce modern practices and improve productivity. Over time, this ensures greater food security for Myanmar and it also helps to boost the export-driven economy which Myanmar is gearing up towards as food production increases. Myanmar’s agricultural sector is also endowed with the 25th largest arable land in the world and has ten times the per capita water endowment of China and India. This gives the opportunity for Myanmar to be a true powerhouse in agriculture and help feed the world’s growing population.

 

4. Increasing access to finance

As Myanmar’s banking sector continues with reforms, increasing access to finance for smaller and medium sized businesses will help increase further growth, productivity and employment. There isn’t sufficient liquidity in the market and SMEs in Myanmar do not yet have the same impact as SMEs in other ASEAN countries. Part of this is due to a lack of sufficient access to finance which will allow for Myanmar SMEs to compete with their regional counterparts.

On an individual level, more than half of Myanmar’s population have no access to financial services, 30% are using unregulated services and only 20% have access to regulated financial services. The limited access to regulated financial services not only impose significant costs on poor people given interest rates of up to 240%-a-year compared to up to 36%-a-year for regulated services, but informal mechanisms also offer individuals limited protection, less choice and lower returns.

 

5. Sustained commitment to reforms and global standards.

Myanmar has adopted international standards in a number of areas. They adopted the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) along with the International Standards on Auditing (ISA). The government, in an effort to boost transparency and greater fiscal control and management have also adopted the International Public Sector Accounting Standards (IPSAS).

Myanmar is also currently reforming the Companies’ Act which is still loosely based around the 1914 Burma Companies Act! This will ensure greater clarity for enterprises operating in Myanmar and also improve business and investor confidence and sentiment.

Myanmar has also recently become a signatory to the Extractives Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a global anti-corruption scheme that requires member governments to disclose payments earned from oil, gas and mineral wealth. Burma’s EITI arrangement could also be expanded to include hydropower and forestry.

Such initiatives will support Myanmar’s reform efforts and development and pave the way towards strong frameworks that support sustainable and inclusive growth.

 

6. Greater transparency, accountability and robust governance

President Thein Sein set up an anti-corruption committee to weed out corrupt public officials. Corruption poses one of the most severe threats to Myanmar’s reforms and development. Crony capitalism exacerbates issues of income inequality and social discontent and the government will need to continue to act to curb corruption.

He also implemented various initiatives to improve administrative reform and cutting red tape.

Though efforts have been made to establish a stronger rule of law, the daily papers recount stories of land grabs, ethnic and sectarian conflicts and corruption and the pervasive conflicts of interests across all levels of government and business. There needs to be grater efforts in the areas of establishing an independent judicial system that will allow for a stronger implementation of rule of law. A clear and robust rule of law improves public confidence, enhances investor sentiments and paves the platform for sustainable growth.

 

7. Capacity building with an eye on sustainability

Myanmar has to undertake sufficient capacity building – both in terms of people capacity as well as physical capacity.

Myanmar’s current physical infrastructure is not adequate to meet future growth demands needs. Massive infrastructure investment in the areas of power, water, rail, road are being planned both locally and with foreign investors’ assistance. However, as Myanmar builds more roads, more railway tracks, better power grids and improved water systems, it will be important that there is effective and well-managed town planning and resourcing. We already are witnessing severe traffic congestion and delays, particularly during peak periods, and it this continues, Yangon’s traffic issues could well rival Jakarta’s or Bangkok’s and this becomes a huge social and business cost. Investment in technological upgrades and telecommunications must also continue as Myanmar’s telecommunications and Internet infrastructure still lags that of the rest of ASEAN.

These infrastructure improvements must also consider the wider impacts on sustainability (including social, human and environmental). Myanmar’s decision to suspend the construction of the Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam in Kachin state due to environmental concerns was a step in the right direction. It is important that Myanmar’s leadership consider the longer term impacts over the possible short-term benefits when making infrastructure plans and decisions.

Physical capacity building must be matched by sufficient human capacity building too. As has been described earlier, there needs to be appropriate educational, training and development opportunities for people to ensure that they have the right skill sets, aptitudes and capabilities necessary to support Myanmar’s development. People and physical infrastructure development go hand in hand and a holistic approach needs to be taken to ensure longer term, viable and sustainable development for Myanmar.

Ultimately, it is vital that the right implementation approach is taken to the policy developments taking place in Myanmar. Policy must translate into action or inclusive growth, economic and social progress and sustainable development will merely remain a pipe dream for Myanmar.

 

References:

  1. Myanmar Economic Update, Asian Development Bank
  2. Myanmar’s Moment, McKinsey
  3. Myanmar:  Between Economic Miracle and Myth, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS)
  4. Sustaining Myanmar’s Transition, Asia Society

 

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