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Myanmar: First Steps

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The international community is coming together to help Myanmar improve the lives of its 60 million citizens -- one-third of whom are mired in poverty. The challenges are daunting. And with Myanmar's strategic location at the crossroads of trade between India, the People's Republic of China and Southeast Asian nations, the stakes are high.

While its neighbors have prospered over the past half-century, Myanmar's isolation has left the country and its people languishing. In the 1950s, Myanmar was an economic star; nowadays it is the second poorest country in the region, with an estimated per capita GDP of $715.

Today, however, an unexpected and unprecedented period of reform has taken root, offering a unique opportunity for Myanmar to leverage its position as a bridge between Asia's most dynamic and fastest growing economies. While the possibilities seem promising, it is crucial that Myanmar's path to reconciliation be forged in a way that benefits all of the country's people, particularly its poorest.

Several national and international conferences on economic development were convened in recent weeks to establish a starting point. These gatherings identified priority areas for ensuring that the country's poorest communities and varied ethnic groups share in Myanmar's coming prosperity.

With much of the country's infrastructure outdated or inadequate, increasing access and "building back better" are critical near-term priorities. Today, barely one-quarter of its population has access to electricity, and more than three in five people lack access to adequate sanitation. Energy supply, water and sanitation services, irrigation systems, roads and railways, and telecommunications are basic requirements that every country needs to prosper and Myanmar is no different in that respect. For an impoverished family living in relative isolation, these building blocks create a pathway out of poverty and measurably enhance quality of life.

During the 20 years since the formation of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Program -- an initiative to promote economic cooperation among the six countries sharing the Mekong River -- maps of Myanmar's neighbors have exploded with new lines showing the rapid development of roads and markets linking its members. By contrast, the situation in Myanmar today is largely unchanged. There is a clear need to complete construction of transport corridors linking Myanmar with markets in neighboring countries to the North, East and West, as well as other, long-planned Asian highway and railway connections. Improved connectivity will particularly benefit Myanmar's poorest and most isolated areas, including its seven states dominated by ethnic minorities who until recently have also shouldered the burden of conflict.

Of course, any transition process must be properly managed to bring meaningful and lasting change. Comprehensive social, economic and administrative structures need to be in place to ensure the poor aren't left behind, and that growth doesn't come at the expense of the environment or Myanmar's rich cultural heritage. The Government's stated desire to focus on the poor, especially the ethnic minorities, and to strengthen its own administrative capacities, should provide a firm foundation for progress.

As Myanmar's pace of change accelerates, more foreign investors and tourists arrive, and development assistance is offered, it is absolutely crucial that this transition is country-owned, well planned and coordinated, and reflects the will and best interests of Myanmar's people. Up-front reforms that are needed include reliable and enforceable measures to solidify the rule of law, strengthen macroeconomic management, promote sustainable tourism, improve the investment climate, unify multiple exchange rates, liberalize agriculture and trade, and generate fiscal resources to expand infrastructure and social spending, including greater funding for education and health -- essential long-term investments in the country and its people.

The road ahead still looks daunting, but the opportunity for Myanmar's people is simply too great to turn back. The Asian Development Bank is making preparations for reengagement with Myanmar and joining other development partners in helping to lay the foundations for a brighter, more prosperous future in the "Land of Golden Pagodas."

Stephen P. Groff is Vice-President of the Asian Development Bank. This article was originally published in the South China Morning Post and in The Nation.