Optimism Expressed at Economic Forum, Despite Govt Policy Blackout

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 21 July 2016

RANGOON — Economists and businessmen gathered at a forum in Rangoon expressed disappointment at sluggish growth under the new government since April—in light of high expectations—but remain convinced of Burma’s economic potential.

However, the lack of clarity from the National League for Democracy government on matters of economic policy prevented a more detailed discussion of Burma’s current economic trajectory, with many participants making somewhat abstract calls for “inclusive” and “broad-based” growth.

The economic forum, jointly staged by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Renaissance Institute in Burma’s commercial capital on Thursday, drew several hundred Burmese and foreign economists and businessmen interested in Burma’s ongoing economic transformation from a state of isolation and impoverishment.

Discussions ranged largely between the agricultural, financial, trade and investment sectors.

David Roland-Holst, adjunct professor of agriculture and resource economics at the University of California, Berkeley, spoke of the “seemingly unlimited possibilities” for Burma but said “choices will have to be made.”

He stressed the three “most potent catalysts” for inclusive growth in Burma as: greater labor productivity, equitable domestic capital allocation, and infrastructure development.

“Inclusive growth” was described as growth that extended income opportunities to the poor, ethnic and religious minority groups, women and isolated rural populations.

For agricultural development—understood to be a centerpiece of the NLD’s economic vision for Burma, which has yet to be spelled out in any detail—David Roland-Holst emphasized diversification of crops and produce, secure property rights for smallholder farmers, greater market access, and the streamlining of rules and regulations for farmers that are currently difficult for most to interpret.

Steven Radelet, a professor of global human development at Georgetown University and a former USAID chief economist, noted that “almost all” developing countries that have gone on to achieve “sustained and inclusive growth” started with “a strong focus on agriculture.”

A focus on agriculture is particularly pertinent in Burma where the majority of the population still practices farming as their primary livelihood, despite rapid urbanization in recent years and the growth of cities such as Rangoon and Mandalay.

Burmese economist Khin Maung Nyo, who largely concurred with the views of his international peers, said, “I accept that economic reform under the new government has been slow,” because the government has been “focused more on national reconciliation” and other “political” matters, but the government needs to “accelerate economic growth.”

Participants at the forum stressed their eagerness to learn about the government’s economic policies, which remain generally obscured after more than 100 days in office. Industry sources have predicted an unveiling for certain sectors at the end of this month.

Win Aung, chairman of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers and Commerce and Industry, criticized the delay but said he remained “very optimistic.” He also emphasized the need for Burma’s economy to hit the “right track”—one that is “inclusive and sustainable”—above the shorter-term imperative of faster growth.