Economic Development & Outlook Discussions

Executive Summary – Q4 2019 (Tuesday, December 10th, 2019)

In 2019 we changed our Economic Discussions from a Monthly to a Quarterly format, we also recognize the need to bring together a wider section of stakeholders and as such we also moved away from our Chatham House rules format for these Quarterly Discussions to highlight our distinguished Guests and domain experts we bring forward.

The subject of this Quarterly Discussion: “Women and Economic Policy Leadership for 2020 and Beyond“.

We are extremely grateful to Thi Dar Nwe, Senior Policy Specialist, Myanmar Development Institute and Cheery Zahau, Country Program Director, Burma/Myanmar, Project 2049 Institute for their valuable insights and perspectives in addition to all the various viewpoints offered by a range of stakeholder participants.

A brief overview of the subject matters discussed by the women leaders and stakeholders.

Myanmar’s current economic model and ideology

In June 2016, Myanmar was removed from the list of states that were weak in combating money laundering and terrorist financing by the Financial Action Task Force (FAFT), an inter-governmental organization founded in 1997 as a G-7 initiative.

What is meant by the meaning off “Crony-Capitalism” and does this term represents the current economic model that is currently prevalent in Myanmar and if so, does it serve any larger societal interests? Additional pragmatic questions raised, included, ‘Is this the economic model that is working for a few? And if so, who are the main beneficiaries? If not, how does one transition to an economic framework of other emerging market economies?’

Conversations thereafter went on to reference economic data which cited Myanmar’s average annual GDP growth rates in the region of 6.5% from 1994 onwards. The prevalent question that was then framed as, ‘if such data were to be factually true, then how can Myanmar be one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia (Trading Economics Myanmar, 2019) despite such consistent growth rates and rich natural resources?’.

Additional citations included: “Although the GDP remains relatively high, at least 24.8% of the total population in Myanmar live under poverty line” according to Myanmar Living Conditions Survey 2017, United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and World Bank (UNDP Myanmar, 2019).

Conversations thereafter were drawn to highlight the absence of any established economic philosophy or ideology primarily due to the large vacuum of knowledge, debate and civil dialogue that exists within Myanmar.

Divergence of Public expectations

The lack of verifiable data and surveys make for a difficult case to extrapolate from, however random sampling amongst the stakeholders present at this meeting suggested a wide gap between economic Policy makers and the larger general public. Acknowledging the various government initiatives on investment forums and dialogue for different states and regions, there was a candid conversation on the absence of any central government leadership in thoughts, vision or formulation for any meaningful Policy that would provide large sections of society with basic infrastructure, i.e. defined as roads, electricity, clean drinking water along with water management for industrial and agricultural purposes.

There was a consensus amongst all participants that the default status quo i.e. the lack of any Infrastructure Policy at the national level would mean that the various State and Regions would need more formal independence of Policy planning to augment their obligations for their local stakeholders. It was pointed out that centralized controlled policy over decades has resulted in various inefficiencies at the border with all the challenges associated that an informal economy imposes especially those governing cross-border trade. Conversely, the argument continued to advocate for recognition of sub-national governments to enable Policy formulation to maximize the local geographical opportunities for e.g. for the benefit of formalized border trade with Thailand, China and India.

Myanmar’s economic competitiveness

The Global Competitiveness Index (GCI) Report in 2018, ranked Myanmar 131 out of 140 countries. It was also reported that Myanmar ranks number 165 in the Ease of Doing business index (World Economic Forum, 2019).

Stakeholders initiated discussion on the premise that today, Myanmar’s industry have no global economic competitiveness. For Myanmar to emerge from the shadows of multiple decades long economic-management it needs a vision. This entails an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of Myanmar’s natural and human resources. Simultaneously Policy makers need to prioritize industries or sectors to be competitive with the allocation of scarce resources. Myanmar, it was argued cannot specialize in every industry. It needs pragmatic decision making to help strengthen carefully chosen selected industries. Transparency in Policy making would be essential to induce fair competition within the business environment.

Women distribution within the rural workforce

According to 2014 National Census, Myanmar’s population was 51% female that translated to a population size of over 26 million women and girls. Noting that 70% of Myanmar’s population resides in rural areas or semi-cities, that translates into 18 million women that rely primarily on the agricultural sector and related informal sectors of the economy, as their primary source of income.

Countering the hurdle rates for Women in Policy making

Consistent with the dependence of its unique set of social customs, norms and traditions, Myanmar society places an undue amount of patronage to the men and is more forgiving to them for mistakes committed by them especially during critical decision making processes. Conversely, barriers for women for similar opportunities are significantly higher with substantially low levels of tolerance for any missteps, especially directed towards the young next generation women leaders.

Potential ways to mitigate such challenges, would be to create a process of reform that incorporate programs that can help increase capacity, support and trust at all levels of Policy making. Mentorship opportunities for younger elected officials would be a key building block to address the capacity, support and trust deficiencies.

It was also pointed out that women representation in Parliament currently stands at a modest 14%. An alternative thought raised, was to elevate the platform for aspiring women leaders by giving them global stage experiences by incorporating a larger representation off Ambassadorship positions for qualified women regardless of age.

Similarly, it was pointed out that although as a society in Myanmar there is an emphasis on larger women participation as Teachers & Lawyers but there is an absence of any senior Judicial leadership posts for women. Consequently, it was argued that in Myanmar, Policy making processes are still very adhoc and self-serving and hence the need to shift to make the Policy making, more pragmatic and away from paternal dynastic structures.

Policies for Climate Change and impacts on Women

Candid conversations took place on the behavior of the extractive industries that are using Myanmar’s natural resources without any checks and balances and disregard for the recognition that land/ water/ soil/ forest is the backbone for a healthy and sustainable agricultural industry.

The consequences of such disregard to preserving valuable forests, an example cited, the floods and landslides in 2015 and 2017 within Chin State, one of the poorest states in Myanmar, which devastated the agricultural economy and delivered untold hardships and poverty on its people.

Suggestions for poverty reduction programs to include investments for community forest protection in the northern areas such as Chin State should be prioritized as essential in helping battle Climate Change.

The conversations concluded with the recognition that Women are the most impacted with the advent of Climate Change and protective Policies are needed especially to help the agricultural sector of the economy.

Conclusions and Recommendation

Editor’s Note: As this Discussion suggests Women and Economic Policy Leadership conversations are not just to advance issues related to women participation in economic policy formulation but also to demonstrate that their equality in participation ensures not only the diversity of thought but more importantly bring to table their intellect, experiences in solving complex problems that have been largely ignored by the other half of the gender population or the latter’s inability to comprehend and solve the problems in the first place.

In closing, we conclude if we as a society, make investments in women, the societal returns are multiple-fold, it changes the power and equality dynamic in homes, in organizations, in businesses and ultimately within the hall of power in government, it drives for social transformation and improves the quality of lives for the entire society.

The Discussions thereafter adjourned with the Editor’s mention that future Quarterly Discussions for 2020 and beyond would be subject to the decision made by the next incoming Board of Directors.