A New Dawn for Equitable Growth in Myanmar

Making the private sector work for small-scale agriculture

A man holding small plantation of rice in Myanmar's dryzone, Photo by: Hein Latt Aung/Oxfam
Paper author: 
Jasmine Burnley
Paper publication date: 
Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Myanmar is hurtling towards unprecedented economic expansion. Real GDP growth is predicted to accelerate to 6.5 per cent in 2013,1 higher than successful neighbouring economies Vietnam and Thailand,2 with high hopes that this acceleration will continue to soar. The benefits of this journey could be spectacular: Myanmar currently ranks as the poorest country in South East Asia, and its performance on the Human Development Index sits firmly in the low human development category,3 but, along with democratic reforms, and action to end human rights abuses, inclusive, equitable and sustainable growth could turn this around by paving the way for the majority of Myanmar people – over a quarter of whom are living below the poverty line4– to gain their own place on the economic stage.

Markets left unregulated often fail to invest in the skills of the poorest and the economies that matter for them. Without levelling the playing field, small-scale farmers – the backbone of the Myanmar economy – will be kept poor, powerless and risk being even further marginalized. The pace of reform and the speed at which Myanmar is re-engaging with the global economy is breathtaking, but how the government chooses to direct this is yet to be seen. Targeted regulation, investment support and policy initiatives that are actively designed to level the playing field and protect the rights of the most marginalized can support small-scale farmers and businesses to grow and prosper. By investing in the right infrastructure and extension services, improving the functioning of markets and supporting institutions that are especially important for the poor, the government can increase the access of smaller players to markets and leverage their capacity to make real economic gains – as well as mobilizing their unique potential for reducing poverty and inequality.

After such a long investment drought, the temptation may be to seize every opportunity as if it were the last. But the pace of change magnifies the risks as well as the opportunities, especially for the poorest. That is why it is crucial to ensure that investment supports sustainable development and delivers broad-based and long term gains in prosperity. This means governments, donors and businesses must act in ways that empower poor people to influence policies and gain access to markets; that respect, uphold and promote basic rights, including land and water rights and gender equality; and that support the establishment of diverse markets that respond to varied rural contexts and needs. Crucially, political leaders must ensure an end to all human-rights abuses and address the underlying causes of ethnic conflicts, which threaten to undermine political and economic progress and stand in the way of long-term social, political and economic gains.
As business leaders gather for the East Asia World Economic Forum in Nay Pyi Taw, decision makers in Myanmar face a choice: the path to growth for all, or the path to growth for the few. In a country with dizzying levels of poverty, where decades of under-investment have left human resources and infrastructure weak and economic opportunities hard to grasp, the stakes are high. But forging a path to equitable sustainable growth through responsible private sector investment could mean the rewards will be even higher.