Myanmar: Potential To Prosper

Myanmar's prolonged isolation and economic stagnation left a mark on almost every sector the country needs to prosper -- from energy and transport to agriculture, education and health. So where to begin?

Assessments currently being carried out on the ground by the Asian Development Bank show there is much to be done -- but they also paint a promising picture.

Although only a quarter of Myanmar's population currently have access to a regular supply of electricity -- and even Yangon is plagued by frequent outages that are blamed for hindering business growth and development -- the country has abundant energy resources, many of which go beyond oil and gas to renewable alternatives, such as hydro, biomass, wind and solar.

The country's agricultural sector has waned under the weight of underinvestment, with atrophying irrigation systems in dire need of upgrades and improvements. But with five major rivers flowing through the country, the potential for irrigation is enormous. Endowed with substantial arable land and enviable climate and topography, Myanmar could transform into a virtual breadbasket if its land is properly managed.

Myanmar needs better connectivity between rural areas, markets, and urban centers for more of its people to benefit from the country's future growth. Roads can open up not only opportunities, but access to life-changing services like healthcare and education. At the moment, Myanmar's transport sector is dramatically under-developed for a country of its size, population, and potential.

While road density for ASEAN nations is about 11 kilometers per 1,000 people, in Myanmar it is just 2 kilometers per 1,000. In nearby Indonesia and Thailand, there are about 250-370 vehicles for every 1,000 people; Myanmar averages just 18.

Yet Myanmar is a natural land bridge between South and Southeast Asia, sitting at the crossroads of trade between India, the People's Republic of China, and ASEAN nations. Transport connections, both within the country's borders and beyond, are severely limited, but modest investments there can have major impact elsewhere.

For the longer term, Myanmar needs to tap into the potential that being strategically located between Asia's biggest economies affords. This requires better interconnectivity with neighboring countries, including better roads and border crossings, as well as well-aligned regulations and procedures for moving goods and people between nations.

These are precisely the types of initiatives that were discussed last week at the 4th Greater Mekong Subregion Economic Corridors Forum in Mandalay. Ministers and senior government officials from the six nations sharing the Mekong River are exploring ways to enhance trade, cooperation and commerce for the mutual benefit of the region's people.

Myanmar's potential is enormous. Home to valuable forest reserves, and considerable water and marine resources, it also has oil and gas reserves and a booming mining sector. If properly utilized, Myanmar's natural resources could dramatically enhance the quality of life its people.

For this to happen, though, investment in connectivity is not enough -- which by itself could even be counterproductive. Myanmar needs to dramatically boost investment in its most valuable natural resource, its people, to ensure the country develops its rich natural capital without sacrificing it. Myanmar not only needs a clear vision of how the country wants to develop, but also a strong foundation in place to support this vision -- one that is both broad and inclusive.

Myanmar's road to development needs to be built on robust and committed institutions and officials, with clear and transparent lines of responsibility, and greater capacity to assess projects and priorities in line with the public's best interests. These initiatives require human capacity and commitment.

They also require time, and there are few easy shortcuts.

As Myanmar embarks upon this exciting new chapter of its development, it is imperative that it begin measurably ratcheting up investment in the development of all its people's skills. If the country's skill base grows in concert with its economy, its people will be better able to fully reap the benefits of the country's newfound openness.

At the end of the day, connectivity and capacity are only two pieces in Myanmar's much larger development puzzle, but they are indispensable pieces. With these building blocks in place, Myanmar will be much better positioned to realize its development goals, and its people's aspirations.

Stephen P. Groff is Vice President for East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific at the ADB in Manila and and is co-chair of the Economic Corridors Forum of the Greater Mekong Subregion. This article was first published in the Bangkok Post.