Tue 31 Aug 2010
Filed under: Opinion,Other
The government of Burma has announced it will hold a general election on Nov 7, the first to be held since 1990. This may provide an opportunity for Burma’s military-led government to improve the country’s political governance.United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged the government to honour its publicly stated commitments to hold inclusive, free and fair elections, noting that any transition to democracy should also include the release of all political prisoners without delay.
In addition to a possible move toward a civilian-led government, it is also likely that improvements in political governance will present significant opportunities for economic and social advancement for the country, for an emerging middle class, and especially for the estimated one-third of Burma’s 50 million people currently living in poverty.
Cease-fire agreements keep a tenuous peace in Burma today, between the central government and most of the dozens of ethnic groups along border areas where decades of conflict had left hundreds of thousands of villagers displaced in previous years. New transport routes and the gradual lifting of government restrictions on travel have increased economic and trade connections and opened social integration between the better-off central region and the more remote ethnic communities in the border highlands to an extent never seen before.
Over the past five years, the United Nations has significantly increased its humanitarian aid within the country, working closely with the government and with international non-governmental organisations to provide food, medicine and relief aid to more than 5 million people in need, and over a larger part of the country. But access remains uneven and still severely restricted in areas where the threat of conflict remains.
International donors including the United States and European countries have welcomed this opening of the humanitarian space, doubling the funding of critical relief available to Burma, where sanctions maintained by the very same countries restrict trade, economic activity and direct bilateral assistance to Burma. While there is much work to be done, the increased humanitarian aid has paid off, with clear progress shown in meeting several of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals by 2015.
Cyclone Nargis, which struck Burma’s agriculturally-rich Ayeyarwady Delta region in 2008, taking more than 140,000 lives and destroying hundreds of thousands of hectares of rice paddy, is still exacting a heavy cost on Burma, as affected villagers and farmers struggle to recover their livelihoods.
The tragedy of Nargis also led to an opening for the international community, with Burma’s government allowing the UN and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and others to provide direct aid to the affected Delta areas and to other areas of need in Burma.
Alongside my UN colleagues and Surin Pitsuwan, secretary-general of Asean, I worked closely with Burma’s government to increase and target international aid in the immediate aftermath of Nargis.
Recognising that major economic structural changes were also needed, I urged the government to look abroad for help, and offered the assistance of the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Escap) in suggesting needed technical and policy assistance to the government.
Ultimately, Escap brought Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz to Burma’s capital on Dec 15 last year to offer his advice on how best to bring about development and poverty reduction.
Despite the sanctions of the United States and Europe, Burma’s neighbours, India and China, and other countries are making investments and constructing gas pipelines, deepwater ports, and roads, and engaging in business activities sparking significant economic growth in Burma. The next government, whatever its make-up, will face critical economic and development choices, and in weighing these they have the opportunity to make a real difference in the country’s future:
- Investment or lost windfall? The continuing development of Burma’s large offshore natural gas holdings means that the new government will soon benefit from substantial increased export earnings, revenue that could fund economic and social investment – or become a squandered windfall, as has happened in all too many developing nations.
FOpening up the economy to those on the bottom. Closing the development gap is critical to achieving social and economic security and is most rapidly achieved through the active participation of the poor. Improving the assets and skills of the working poor, and the public services available to them, directly promotes growth and stability for the economy as a whole. Countries grow faster when the bottom half is participating and contributing productively.
- Strategic and structural economic reform. A new government may possess a unique opportunity to determine the path of development and economic growth for the country, especially by promoting and supporting the emergence of a middle class. Making the economy more inclusive, investing in rural and social infrastructure and encouraging competition and small business enterprises are badly needed reforms that a new government can take on, if Burma is to move forward.
- Helping small farmers and traders. Strategic investments in agriculture and the rural economy has multiple benefits, by addressing food security and rural livelihood issues, and sparking significant economic and development benefits in the rural communities, where Burma’s poorest people live. Rural incomes will increase when farmers receive a higher price for their produce and when their costs of production are reduced. A recent government decree reforming the government-controlled rice industry and establishing a rice export board is a positive step that could benefit small farmers, traders and villagers both in the Ayeyarwady Delta and beyond.
The partnership formed between the government of Burma, the UN and Asean was of critical importance in assuring the continuing recovery of the Delta region after the tragedy of Cyclone Nargis.
With a new government in place following elections that have now been announced, the UN and the international community are again willing to assist Burma in making critical choices for the inclusive and sustainable economic growth of the country and the human development of all its people.
Dr Noeleen Heyzer is Under Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of Escap.