Visiting Indian economists advise against ‘big bang’ approach to Myanmar economic policy


Photo: Min Min/Mizzima

Two visiting high profile Indian economists have called on Myanmar government policy makers to be cautious in how they handle the economy, taking particular care in how they balance the need for State control with the uncertainties of market forces.  

With the transition to democratic government in 2015, Myanmar has embarked on an ambitious plan for socio-economic and human development.  It is in this context, ActionAid Myanmar and Mizzima Media invited eminent economists from India Prof. Jayati Ghosh and Prof. C P Chandrasekhar of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi India to interact with Myanmar policy makers, academic scholars, civil society, government officials and NGOs in order to share perspectives on economic development strategies. 

They held an informal discussion with officials of the Ministry of Planning and Finance and economic coordination members on August 25 in Nay Pyi Taw.

The purpose of the interactive session was to exchange views and ideas on the economic and developmental policies with the idea that the visiting scholars could bring in the perspective and experiences of other developing countries. 

The organisers hoped that such an experience sharing would enable Myanmar economic policies and perspective to become more people-centric and inclusive and also the government and policy makers would be able to identify potential challenges and strategies to overcome.

In his opening address, Mr Shihab Uddin Ahamad, Country Director of Action Aid Myanmar encouraged the officials to interact and discuss informally. “Don’t take it as a formal meeting,” he said. 

In his opening remarks, Deputy Minister of Planning and Finance U MaungMaung Win called for patience with the new government’s economic agenda.

“As we can see the new administration is comparatively slow in coming out with an economic agenda, and the policy on human resources. In fact, we had a long transition period, of five months, and a lot of things were done in that five months,” he said. 

As he noted, the new administration was only able to meet the outgoing ministers a few days before coming into power, so the new administration is still learning to figure out where the country stands and the priorities.

As Deputy Minister U MaungMaung Win said, it has been a while since civilians have been in the administration, a while being sixty years, a “play” for sixty years. “With that, you will see that international observers and media and businesses will see there are things that need to be improved,” he said. 

Both visiting economists took pains to say that they were not visiting to offer “big advice” on how the Myanmar government should handle the economy and that they should tread carefully.

Professor Jayati Ghosh, in her presentation, highlighted some issues that are common to many developing countries, including Myanmar. 

As she said, it was clear from the economic policy documents the Myanmar government has prepared so far that “the heart of development is economic diversification, moving the economy away from low value added to high value added activities.”

She warned against the idea of a “big bang” approach to economic planning as they have failed, noting the need for the government to think through its approach carefully.

She said it was a mistake for a country seeking to develop to avoid planning – negatively associated with “direct planning”. She said there should be an explicit government strategy, plus the need for a trade and industrial policy.

Professor Jayati Ghosh discussed the importance of a social policy. She pointed to the example of development in the Nordic countries, pointing to how pursuing a social policy leads to a healthy productive and skilled workforce and more employment.

Professor C P Chandrasekhar told the meeting that there would always be challenges when a country transitions from an authoritarian position to a more democratic one, as Myanmar is in the process of doing.

He said there was a tendency of international economists to claim there is a parallel in the political shift and the shift to the market. The difficulty, he said, is that this is based on a sharp binary, the market versus the state. 

A careful approach through was needed in terms of how involved the State should be in directing development and that there were questions in leaving it up to the market to lead the way.

Professor C P Chandrasekhar said Myanmar had an amazing opportunity, given its natural resources and human resource base. 

Myanmar’s new government under the leadership of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President HtinKyaw face a raft of challenges in helping their country develop and bring peace to some of the more remote ethnic regions. 

Myanmar’s annual economic growth rate of around 7 percent is a bright star in ASEAN. But it is building from a low base, after over five decades of military rule during which economic and infrastructure development lagged seriously behind the growth seen in other ASEAN countries. Myanmar’s new government is tasked with how to improve the country’s infrastructure, industries, agriculture and improve the quality of human resources. 

According to the World Bank, close to 75 percent of Myanmar’s population hovers close to the poverty line. 

Professors Jayati Ghosh and C P Chandrasekhar are on a four-day visit to Myanmar. 

Prof.Jayati Ghosh is one of the world's leading development economists. She is a professor of economics at Centre for Economic Studies and Planning of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She received a Ph D in Economics from Cambridge University.  She is closely involved with a range of progressive organisations and social movements in India and abroad. Currently, she is the executive secretary of International Development Economics Associates (IDEAs) which is a network of pluralistic heterodox economists across the globe. www.networkideas.org

Her areas of research interest include macro-economic policies, employment and informal sector, gender and human development, decentralisation and international economics.  She has contributed extensively to the understanding of economic policies from a comparative perspective and from a human development perspective thereby addressing limits of markets and the role of the State.  Apart from academic contributions, she is also a popular economic writer and columnist. 

Prof. C P Chandrasekhar is a Professor at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning
School of Social Sciences Jawaharlal Nehru University.  Prof. Chandrasekhar received a Ph D from JNU.  He has worked in the areas of global economic policies with a focus on industrial policies, trade and investment and WTO. He also contributed significantly on the critique of neoliberal policies and globalisation. He is an active member of IDEAs. www.networkideas.org

Apart from extensive academic contributions, he writes regularly in leading economic journals, magazines and newspapers giving an analysis and perspective on global, regional and national issues with a focus on alternative discourse.

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