Economic Transformation, Development and Cooperation: The Past, The Present and The Future - Address by Country Director Toily Kurbanov at the International Myanmar- Poland Conference

Dec 2, 2015

Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to be at your conference; to meet so many experts and development practitioners from Myanmar and Poland, from within and outside of the governments. Special thanks go to the organizers, for inviting UN and UNDP and for giving me this opportunity to say few words to the audience.

For me – as for many of you – today is the second time we have opportunity to get in-depth insights of Eastern European, particularly Polish reforms since late 1980s, and possible takeaways from those experiences for the transition process in Myanmar. Previous event of this focus was organized about two years ago in what today seems to have been a different country.

Joining other distinguished presenters this morning I will take few minutes to present few reflections on Myanmar’s national development priorities. These will be mostly informed by my experience as a UNDP official in this country, joint collaboration with members of government, civil service, political parties, civil society, private sector, as well as frequent travels throughout the country. I will not even begin to pretend that I can offer ‘an international perspective’ or special insights about Myanmar’s development trajectory. In fact, you may have even heard that when someone was traveling through the country, she got lost and stopped to ask a UN development worker for directions. He called New York for approval and so she should be getting those directions any day now.

I did not ask New York for approval before coming to this meeting (which should give my superiors plausible deniability) and cannot offer any directions. Instead, I would like to use next few minutes to submit to you four, in my view, relevant arguments:

1.    Whilst Myanmar’s development journey may lead to some (as of yet an uncertain) destination, it does not have one starting point – I will explain this argument later in some detail;
2.    Myanmar’s development – as is the development and transition of any other country – is going to be non-linear;
3.    For external actors especially, development partnerships will matter more than development solutions;
4.    Myanmar’s development discourse could be – and perhaps even should be – framed around more than poverty reduction

Let me now go through these arguments one by one…
Different development contexts

The argument that Myanmar’s development trajectory has more than one starting point is a reflection of simple fact: there is no single “development context” in Myanmar. The country is too diverse to be described by one set of conditions.

On one hand there is Rakhine State, where challenges are largely humanitarian: recurrent violence, displaced populations and continued human suffering.

Then there are Kachin, Shan and States in southeastern Myanmar, where armed conflicts have stopped but peace remains fragile, and needs to be reinforced through a political process and post-conflict recovery that can show a tangible peace dividend.

There are distinct characteristics of regions dominated by the Bamar majority, including rural poverty, land disputes, outward migration, and issues of trust between authorities and communities. When experts refer to a “least developed country”, the label is entirely accurate for upper and lower Myanmar.

And finally, there are also Yangon and Mandalay: not least developed cities at all, but fast-growing Asian megalopolises facing issues of congestion, access to services and sustainable use of scarce resources.

Given this almost unparalleled diversity of development contexts, policy priorities in Myanmar cannot be examined through a single lens or context. One size fits all simply does not apply. Development terms like poverty reduction, community resilience or inclusive governance will mean different things in different states and regions.

Non-linearity of development progress

Straight lines exist only in geometry. No reforms take a country straight from point A to point B in a linear fashion. As we are seeing in Myanmar, one step is to announce a reform – whether on rule of law or decentralization – and another is to start actually implementing it. That there might be a lag between the two does not necessarily suggest a deficit of intentions.

It takes time to broaden the reform coalitions or to tailor intended policy change to Myanmar’s different development contexts. Once a reform is being implemented, it may pick up momentum, lose it and get back on track again because of competing agendas or the government’s implementation capacity.

Under the future government we should carefully manage expectations; allow for non-linear progression; expect the process to go in circles; and make room for trial and error as long as the overall direction is not lost and the momentum continues.

Partnerships and solutions

In development, “partnerships” matter more than “solutions”.

UNDP has expanded its partnerships in Myanmar in the last few this years. Working with ministries, parliament, civil society and local governments we have learned to pay more attention to their evolving perspectives and develop a more nuanced understanding of the capacity of partners. In the process we also learned to de-emphasize the purity of development solutions. As UNDP administrator Helen Clark once said, “Our role is never to deliver ready-made solutions, but rather to support the emergence of networks of change agents empowered to decide what needs to be done.”

That Myanmar’s reforms have so far been driven by relatively small circle of people within the government did pose some challenges. Slowly but surely, however, the reform momentum has expanded outside of the centers of power. Increasingly, it is about the leadership of people, including remarkable individuals I have been privileged to meet throughout the country: a township administrator in Mon State who has strong commitment to providing essential people-centered services; a female NGO activist in Mandalay who courageously stood up for woman-led households that lose out in land disputes; a newly minted entrepreneur in Myitkyina who worked his way out of poverty through a microfinance loan and is creating jobs for others.

It is these hardworking and courageous people who personify my Myanmar lessons in development. As we are beginning to see the full potential of the networks of change agents dispersed across the country, we hope these emerging leaders across the country will keep this historic transformation on track.

Framing the development discourse

Finally, a lot will depend on how the leading national actors will frame the development discourse. Will it focus on income poverty reduction, which has decreased from 32% to 25% in the 5 years preceding the current reforms? Or on multi-dimensional definitions of wellbeing, around which there seems to be stronger global momentum, recently encapsulated in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals? Or, will the development narrative – and therefore also development goals – will more explicitly focus on the nurturing of Myanmar’s new middle class?

Each of these possibilities has their own advantages and disadvantages. The income poverty focus might be easiest to measure and monitor, however, as we know from the experience of other countries it does not guarantee long term success: income growth may come at the expense of future generations as result of unsustainable exploitation of natural resources. The more multi-dimensional definitions of poverty help to avoid various ‘development malfunctions’, while the focus on the creation of the middle class also contributes to most explicitly on changing the power dynamics in a society and put both development and democracy on much more solid, durable foundations.

The framing of the development narrative is part discretionary on the foresight of the leading development thinkers and decision makers in this country, but at the same time it is also likely to be a function of how various national actors will coalesce together and form different configurations of reform champions. For example the focus on creating middle class is more likely where reform champions are comprised of various political actors, medium-size businesses and the creative class, than will be the case where the development narrative is based on a coalition of senior policy makers and big business in rent-based sectors of the economy.

To sum up, we are still at early stages of Myanmar’s transformation. Using Poland’s ‘political calendar’ we are in June 1989 – the month when Solidarity had landslide win in the elections. Closer to Myanmar, using China’s ‘reform timetable’, we are in year 1983 – five years after December 1978 CPC Plenum which adopted the mantra of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. Both Poland and China are unrecognizable today and similarly uncertain – and, hopefully, astonishing – will be the transformation of Myanmar after 10-20 years. But it seems at least four factors highlighted in my presentation will contribute to the change: (i) profound sub-national dynamics and requisite policies which will need to have strong policy focus and high degree of customization to take account of vastly different regional characteristics; (ii) very non-linear change process; (iii) crucial role of domestic alliances among change agents at all levels (beyond parties and political coalitions); and (iv) the framing of development narrative by national stakeholders with possible shift away from narrowly defined poverty reduction to nurturing of the new Myanmar middle class.

Kye zu ti ba de. Dzekuiu. Thank you very much


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