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On a hot summer evening, Ash Center Economist David Dapice sits cross-legged surrounded by a dozen poor farmers. They are in a soy bean field off of a dirt road in the north of Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital city. Except for the light from four small candles, it is pitch black, typical for many rural areas when only 25 percent of the country’s residents have access to electricity.
This site visit was one of many that Dapice and the academic team led by Vietnam Program Director Thomas Vallely have made over the last two years as part of the Center’s Myanmar Program.
“Since there is no real reliable data on Myanmar, we are trying to bring together a collaborative research team that includes Ash faculty and people from the government, civil society, and rural communities to try to truly understand the problems we are seeing on the ground,” said Vallely.
The Myanmar Program team has visited with countless farmers, often right in their fields, to discuss diminishing crop prices, challenges to the harvest, and the arduous conditions of such work. Such direct engagement is a result of the Program’s partnership with Proximity Designs, a Myanmar-based nonprofit and social enterprise, whose local knowledge and widespread respect among Burmese—spanning from those in traditionally disadvantaged ethnic minority states to more elite military and government officials—has been integral to establishing relationships with diverse populations across the country.
“We have to know the reality of the situation to speak knowledgably about policy options,” said Dapice. “You can’t give the best policy advice if you are just flying over the country.”
Myanmar: A Path to Democratization?
Myanmar’s steps towards a more open society are receiving international attention: in July of this year, the Obama administration eased economic sanctions on the country and appointed Derek Mitchell as the country’s first US ambassador in 20 years. In addition, the country has become attractive as a potential area for investment. According to the International Monetary Fund, Myanmar is expected to welcome an unprecedented 40 percent increase in direct foreign investment this year alone.
Yet, critics call for cautious optimism as Myanmar seemingly makes efforts to become a more open country. Democratization can be reversed, and according to the Myanmar Program, years of poor management and insufficient infrastructure have left the country inadequately prepared to fully comprehend the massive amount of challenges it faces, let alone plan for economic growth and development. The country also struggles with years of tension along its resource-rich borders. Nearly a third of the population is composed of ethnic groups living along these borders, and they have been in conflict with the military for years. In January 2012, the Burmese army announced a cease fire to the six-year conflicts with the militias of the Karen state. The conflict had forced an estimated half a million people from their homes.
Health, Migration, and Corruption
According to the World Bank’s 2011 World Development Indicators report, Myanmar has a 6.24 percent under-5 mortality rate. While the rate is dropping (it was estimated at 7.95 percent in 2002) it is still well above its neighboring countries of Cambodia (4.25 percent in 2011) and Bangladesh (4.78 percent in 2010). Experts point to malnutrition and inadequate health care spending as factors contributing to this high rate. The World Bank estimates that the country’s public per capita health spending was $3 per capita in 2010 by comparison to $17 in Bangladesh. An estimated 22.6 percent of children under the age of 5 in Myanmar are considered malnourished based on weight.
When conditions are intolerable, people leave and Myanmar is no exception. There are an estimated four to six million workers who have left, accounting for 15 to 20 percent of the labor force. “A nation that has trouble keeping its own people is not succeeding,” writes Dapice in the May 2012 report “Myanmar: Negotiating Nation Building.” Attracting both skilled and unskilled Burmese back to the country is crucial to driving up GDP growth, argues Dwight Perkins, Harold Hitchings Burbank Research Professor of Political Economy at Harvard University. In his April 2012 report “Industrial Policy Reform in Myanmar,” Perkins suggests looking to South Korea’s successful model. In the 1960s and 1970s South Korea created several notable research institutes and attracted a host of scientists, engineers, and economists back to their native country.
Beyond the social challenges of its population, President U Thein Sein comes to power amidst a legacy of cronyism and corruption. Experts of the Myanmar Program contend that the country is plagued by excessive regulation that hinders business growth and the provision of social services. With the exception of rice milling, the majority of all industry is still controlled by the military or the government; critics argue that many of these state-run enterprises are inefficient and often unprofitable. A lack of checks and balances within the government as well as toothless legal institutions have enabled rather than curbed corruption. Myanmar currently ranks 180 (tying with Afghanistan, North Korea, and Somalia) out of 182 for perceived corruption on the Transparency International Perception Index. Moreover, at 25 out of 600, Myanmar’s World Governance Score in 2011 was among the worst in the world for its voice and accountability, political stability and absence of violence, government effectiveness, regulatory quality, and control of corruption. read more
Rice bins sold at a Burmese market
“Since there is no real reliable data on Myanmar, we are trying to bring together a collaborative research team that includes Ash faculty and people from the government, civil society, and rural communities to try to truly understand the problems we are seeing on the ground,” said Thomas Vallely, Vietnam program director.
David Dapice, Vietnam Program