Myanmar: A Critical Moment for the Country's Future

Kyaikthiyo Pagoda in Myanmar

Myanmar is emerging decisively from conflict, fragility, and isolation toward a prosperous and peaceful future. It is in the midst of a triple transition: from a military government to democracy, from conflict in border areas to peace, and from a state-centered to a market-oriented economy.

I just spent two days in the country, during which the World Bank Group announced a $2 billion multi-year public and private sector investment program. This funding will help us ramp up work in three areas that are closely aligned with Myanmar's priorities: energy, health, and agriculture.

Seventy percent of Myanmar's people lack access to electricity. In villages, people still pump water by hand, children read by candle light, and meals are cooked over indoor wood fires. While progress has arrived quickly in urban areas, it has been much slower in coming to rural Myanmar, where poverty is concentrated and jobs are scarce.

We share the Government's commitment to expanding reliable, affordable access to electricity, especially to rural areas. That's why, over the next five years, we're seeking to invest $1 billion dollars in Myanmar's power sector -- including generation, transmission and distribution.

Moreover, our investments will be designed to attract additional private sector funding. With this funding, with support from donors and the private sector, and with swift action by the government to enact policy reforms, Myanmar could increase access to electricity to 50 percent of the population in 2020. This will lay the foundation for the government to achieve its goal of universal electricity access by 2030.

Investing in Myanmar's electricity potential will not only improve the lives of its citizens, but it will also create a better business environment and that in turn will create jobs. This will help the country prosper and reduce poverty.

The country also needs to invest in its people. Healthy children learn better at school, healthy adults are more productive, and families protected against catastrophic medical bills can avoid falling into poverty.

Most importantly, investing in people's health can bring strong economic returns not just for families, but for countries. A recently published study in the Lancet health journal found that nearly 25 percent of economic growth in some countries was attributable to better health outcomes. One dollar invested in health could return anywhere from $9 to $20. There is no argument anymore: Investing in health can help significantly grow economies.

For Myanmar, this is particularly good news because of the country's ambitious target of achieving universal health coverage by 2030. We strongly endorse this target, as do many development partners. Donors have committed to a combined $800 million for the next three to four years. For our part, the World Bank Group plans to invest $200 million to support the government's effort to achieve universal health coverage.

Another key area of investment is related to the first two -- agriculture. If Myanmar is going to achieve its goals to reduce poverty and to boost prosperity, it will have to focus on improving agricultural outcomes. Agriculture accounts for 43 percent of GDP, generates about 54 percent of employment, and provides livelihoods to more than 70 percent of the population. Despite natural advantages of abundant land and water, productivity is low, and that is a problem the government, with help from its partners, can fix.

It is a time of great hope and expectation for the country. Myanmar can regain its place as one of Asia's most dynamic countries. The country's leaders can provide its people with unprecedented economic opportunities.

Myanmar clearly has major challenges ahead, notably needing to dramatically increase access to electricity and health and significantly improve agriculture production. But Myanmar has the potential for a future brighter than few dared dream just a handful of years ago. Now it's up to the country's leaders to take bold action, and for its partners to support them every step of the way.

(Photo Credit: Markus Kostner / World Bank)