How do you help a burgeoning democracy like Myanmar with its transition to a market-based economy after 50 years of isolation, poor infrastructure and limited capacity for reform? You do it by engaging closely with the government, the private sector and development partners, and by providing the full range of data, financing and knowledge available across all sectors of the economy.
As I conclude my first visit to Myanmar, a fragile and conflict-affected country where the World Bank Group started our development engagement just three years ago, I've witnessed first-hand how the WBG can best support such an economy in transition. As Myanmar looks forward to its first free and fair election in over two generations – an event coming up in November – the challenge will be to ensure continued reform momentum during a period of dramatic political change.
Seldom have we faced such dramatic circumstances in a country where our engagement is in such an early stage and where the development potential is so great. A country of 50 million people that went from once being the rice basket of Asia to today having the lowest life expectancy and the second-highest rate of infant and child mortality among ASEAN countries as well as vast untapped farmland, Myanmar provides a once-in-a-lifetime development opportunity. This situation offers a chance for the WBG’s Trade and Competitiveness Global Practice to contribute to the transformation of an economy and society by supporting regulatory reforms, improving trade policy and trade facilitation, helping generate investment and improving the ability of the country to compete in one of the world’s most dynamic regions.
I was privileged during my visit to meet with the Minister and Deputy Minister of Commerce and their senior staff, and to open the Third Session of the Trade Sector Working Group, which the WBG co-chairs with the European Union and the Ministry of Commerce. Surrounded by India, China, Bangladesh, Thailand and Lao PDR – countries that together have about 40 percent of the world’s population – Myanmar has markets at its doorstep that are ready to be tapped. The removal of investment and trade sanctions by the West has also opened significant new opportunities farther afield.
East Asia and Pacific
More than half of the world’s population lives in Asia and its robust growth is supporting the world economy. After weathering well the 2008 crisis Asia is now in the spotlight with currencies depreciating and capital markets in retreat. One widely voiced concern is rapid expansion of credit in the past decade fueled by abundant liquidity. Globally, and in Asia, regulatory response to the 2008 crisis has been to strengthen financial regulation and de-risk financial intermediation. Yet the reality of credit markets in most Asian economies is quite different from that in high income economies. While domestic credit by financial sector represented on average over 100% of GDP for high income OECD countries, emerging Asia’s average in 2014 stood at 60%. The differences across countries are substantial in this diverse region, but in two thirds of Asian economies domestic credit is less than 60% of GDP. The reality for most economies in Asia is that of limited and often inefficient financial markets which do not serve fully their growth needs. Low level of financial inclusion is a major contributing factor and a major challenge.
The United Nations has declared 2014 as the International Year of Small Island Developing States (SIDS), in recognition of the contributions this group of countries has made to the world, and to raise awareness of the development challenges they confront – including those related to climate change and the need to create high-quality jobs for their citizens.
The Third International Conference on SIDS in September in Apia, Samoa will be the highlight event. The World Bank Group is helping shape the debate on both climate and jobs with a delegation led by Rachel Kyte, the Group Vice President and Special Envoy for Climate Change, and with senior-level participation in the conference’s Private Sector Forum.
Is the global jobs agenda relevant to small islands states?
Tackling the challenges related to the jobs agenda in large and middle-income countries could be seen as the most significant issue for the Bank Group’s new Trade and Competitiveness Global Practice, of which I’m a member. Yet the Minister of Finance of Seychelles recently challenged my thinking on this.
At the June 13 joint World Bank Group-United Nations' High-Level Dialogue on Advancing Sustainable Development in SIDS (which precedes the September conference on SIDS), the presentation by Pierre Laporte, the Minister of Finance, Trade and Investment of Seychelles – who is also the chair of the Small States Forum – led to a lively discussion on various job-creation and growth models that the SIDS countries may want to pursue.
The sentiment among SIDS leaders was that one-size-fits-all solutions will not do when it comes to jobs and growth. Yes, they do want to continue to address the tough fiscal challenges they face, but they want to tackle them while creating job opportunities for their citizens.
Decades of reforms have not helped SIDS grow at a rate similar to the rest of the world: On average, their pace of job creation is about half the global rate. The lack of opportunities felt by many generations resulted in a heavy “brain drain” that exceeds the level seen in other developing countries.
It is becoming very clear that business as usual in SIDS will not do. Creative solutions need to be found now.
Sri Lanka conjures up different images in the minds of different people: lush green tropical canopies, steaming cups of aromatic tea, and hardworking fishermen in their dinghy boats.
For me, the country also packs enormous promise for growth and development. There is not the slightest doubt that Sri Lanka will have to come clean and deal with the aftermath of its prolonged civil war. However, at a fundamental level, there is a sense of hunger in its people to rebuild their lives and their country. The new-found peace that engulfs the population is cherished by most, and is part of dinner conversations especially with foreigners like me.
Sri Lanka already holds a strong position in certain agricultural and industrial exports, like tea or uncut diamonds. Combine this with its strategic location – situated at the crossroads of major shipping routes connecting South Asia, East Asia and the Middle East – and you have a potent combination, a promise waiting to be fulfilled.
I recently spoke at an event organized by the country’s top business newspaper, the Daily Financial Times, in partnership with the well-regarded Colombo University MBA Alumni Association. The focus of the forum was the country’s emerging six-hub strategy – Maritime, Commercial, Knowledge, Aviation, Energy and Tourism: the cornerstone of its further economic development.
The euphoria leading up to the event was palpable. The ceremonial drums and lighting of the auspicious lamp to evoke good omen created the perfect ambience. I was nervous, not because of stage fright, but because I was about to present a contrarian viewpoint to private-sector and public-sector experts, while sharing the stage with the Minister of Economic Development and the Governor of the Sri Lanka’s Central Bank. Even though my arguments were well-thought-through and fact-based, it was going to be a delicate dance, as I was about to communicate some tough arguments against the implementation of the full-blown six-hub strategy.
Natural disasters – such as tsunamis, earthquakes, cyclones and floods – are costly to society, in terms of both human destruction and financial losses. Governments ultimately bear the full cost of the havoc wreaked by natural disasters, which can create an enormous strain on limited government budgets, especially in developing countries. This is even before we begin to contemplate the development impact and how the poorest of the poor are disproportionately affected.
Just last week, the world saw the widespread damage that the St. Jude storm inflicted across Europe, and we witnessed its effect on hundreds of thousands of people. Most advanced economies, however, have sufficient capacity to be able to absorb the financial losses inlicted by natural disasters. Higher-income countries enjoy (relatively) efficient public revenue systems and developed domestic insurance markets.
By contrast, developing countries do not have the same degree of access to financial and insurance markets. They face limited revenue streams, limited fiscal flexibility, and limited access to quick liquidity in the wake of an event. This is particularly so for Small Island Developing States (SIDS), such as the Pacific island nations.
Governments and private sector actions can drive down remittance prices for migrants (Credit: DFID-UK, Flickr Creative Commons)
An estimated 215 million people – 3 percent of the world’s population – have emigrated far from home in order to earn enough to support their families. They include workers from Bangladesh who go to Saudi Arabia to work in the construction trade, Afghans who go to Iran to work in the oilfields, and workers from Burkina Faso who go to Cote d’Ivoire to work on the cocoa or coffee harvests.
Toiling far from their loved ones is not their only burden. When migrants send their money home, they are often charged exorbitant fees, which can account for a large portion of the small sums being sent - sometimes upwards of 20 percent – and can inflict a punishing burden on poor migrants.
Read this in Thai
Thailand is a clear leader in corporate governance among Asian and emerging economies. But the recently launched 2013 Corporate Governance Report on Standards and Codes (ROSC) finds key challenges remain.
In the face of the 1997 crisis, Thailand has undertaken significant reforms that have enhanced corporate governance. Both regulators and the private sector in Thailand embraced good corporate governance, and have remained committed ever since. The World Bank also played a role - for example in helping establish the Thailand Institute of Directors in 2002 and conducting a previous Corporate Governance ROSC in 2005, which in turn was used by the Thai Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to support the next wave of reform. Overall, progress in the last 15 years has been impressive.
Available in Bahasa
The new airport in Banda Aceh was as magnificent as the Taj Mahal—bright, with endless marble floors and beautiful domes. You can almost imagine a reflecting pool, maybe a garden…OK, I might be getting a little carried away. But if you had ever travelled through the old airport—something like a Greyhound bus station in a rust-belt city with a runway attached—you’d understand my excitement.
That was more than four years ago. Since then, the entire city has transformed. Just take the roads. I used to bike all over the city, so I know from first-hand experience that many of the roads were in bad shape, with huge potholes and puddles as big as lakes. But now? You might think you were driving in Germany. Every road is perfectly paved, even the narrow, single-lane ones. When it rains, the water just drains away.
A daunting development challenge will confront us for the next decade: More than 1 million jobs per month – every month, for a decade or more – will need to be created to raise the living standards of the 2.6 billion who live on less than $2 per day, and the billions who will soon try to enter the paid workforce amid one of the greatest demographic surges in human history. Job creation in the public sector is expected to be flat, at best, so most of the needed jobs will have to be created by the private sector. But how?
Focusing on the macroeconomic agenda is necessary but insufficient. Most countries have rolled out macro-level reforms, but policymakers increasingly argue that the macro policy agenda must be complemented by targeted growth programs focusing on specific industries and value chains. Policymakers urgently seek practical solutions to meet the job-creation challenge.