In the wake of excitement about the 1 April elections comes a surge of expectations about the economy. Politicians will have to handle that issue, because it will take years for economic reforms to be implemented and to have an impact. Foreign investors are now looking and planning, but their big investments will not hit the ground for some years. Living standards and job creation are not going to improve much more than usual over the next two years.
The bureaucratic wheels of donor organisations are also turning, but they will take even longer than foreign investors.
Donors are cautious, they worry; they like to plan in detail before designing something. The design and tendering of any substantial project takes at least a year – yet many donors are now too busy looking for office space and staff. There are good reasons for moving forward systematically – strategies are actually important – but in the present circumstances of Myanmar I recommend you take the rulebook and throw it out the window.
Political reform is still tenuous. Its credibility depends crucially on delivering tangible results before 2015. If things go wrong in the next 2-3 years, and donors have still not delivered on the ground, then a stubby finger of guilt may be pointed in their direction.
Donors need a two-track approach: “business as usual” planning and intervention design, alongside “quick wins”. Obvious quick wins are to upscale what is already being delivered in Myanmar (which are mostly livelihoods approaches of dubious sustainability). Hold a workshop in which all interested large NGOs (given evaluation criteria - which include on-the-ground impact within 12 months), present what they can most usefully deliver upon to 2015.
Other quick wins are plan-as-you-go projects, mostly delivered by the private sector. Tender a 3-year drawdown contract for a consortium of firms to design and implement study tours (decide what tours later); tender another to design and deliver in-country generic short-course training (project cycle, M&E, gender, etc.); put $50 million on the table and ask international universities to tender and explain how they would use that fund to establish a sustainable private university in Rangon over five years; do the same for a vocational training school ($20m); give many scholarships for study overseas; select ten Myanmar English or computer training businesses in Rangon and Mandalay and give vouchers for selected persons to choose and be trained at one ($10m); select an international firm to work with 10 districts to select 20 district and township infrastructure projects and implement them using (modified) local systems ($30m) – these will be case studies to guide the larger projects being developed. The above new project ideas together total no more than a typical World Bank loan project, but we cannot wait for those projects. Hold a workshop where anybody can present a two-page Concept Note for “quick win” ideas. Rate them democratically at the workshop and award cash prizes.
Of course none of the above can move forward without active support from the Government of Myanmar (GoM). The private university, for example, needs land allocated and at least Minister-level regulations passed. The GoM may not be able to deliver quickly on that – if at all, but at least a clear and simple offer was made by donors to get something moving quickly – and the finger of blame would be avoided. Donors should take the initiative to propose many project ideas that they would be willing to fund, and then see what gets support from the GoM. This is an atypical approach, but these are atypical times.
Meanwhile, as I mentioned previously, the GoM must urgently review its regulations concerning FDI and development assistance (e.g. approvals process, visa issuing, etc.) or they will become a bottleneck to disbursements. The best quick ways is to research and visit three ASEAN countries and choose “good regulatory practice” from these (Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand).
Is it possible for donor organisations to think and act “outside the box” – beyond business-as-usual? Their political leaders would first have to embrace the idea, and that would be more likely if the GoM was to make a statement supportive of that approach.
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