‘Paradigm Trap’

Re-imagination of an Alternative Development paradigm in Myanmar


Paradigm Trap - Myanmar farmers plants rice ahead of the summer season in Nay Pyi Taw. Photo: Hein Htet/EPA-EFE

As the ‘last frontier’, the messianic  agenda of growth, development and uplifting the people of Myanmar has been taken up vigorously by the so-called development establishment (WB, ADB, donors) since 2011 with reforms set in motion by the quasi civilian government. Seizing the opportunity of the opening up of the country, they were seen as aiding this process of reform through policy advice, resource and technical support.  Easing of sanctions by the western countries has also led to greater expectation of integration of Myanmar into the world systems of production and trade.  The so-called neo-liberal agenda (or market supremacy) consisting of export-led growth, focus on foreign investment, privatization of public sector, liberalization of land, labour and credit policies, strict adherence to inflation and deficit targets and less government were seen as prescriptions that propel Myanmar into higher orbits of growth. This appears to have worked for some time, though there were medium term elements of stress on the economy.

Though the country has seen a trend growth rate of over 6-7 per cent during the past seven years, lack of institutional governance, cronyism, perception of accumulation by the few at the expense of the large majority and rising inequalities were noticeable at the time NLD took power, after elections of 2015. 

Has there been any change in the policy outlook or development paradigm since then? Why has the NLD not been able to identify alternatives to the neo-liberal agenda which has given primacy to the market forces and not been able to bring in welfare for the masses in a significant way? How can the broad values of the overarching role of the community, solidarity, and justice be brought into the development paradigm that would contribute to the peace and stability of the country?  Are these being seen as policy outcomes?

A poignant analysis of the state of affairs of Myanmar with respect to the broader development approach and paradigm has been undertaken by this short 80-page report by Walden Bello, renowned scholar-activist from Philippines. “Paradigm Trap: The Development Establishment’s Embrace of Myanmar and How to Break Loose” released by the Transnational Institute and Pang-Ku during the first week of June at Yangon is a reality-check for the unbridled acceptance by Myanmar, of the now discredited neo-liberal paradigm. It is an incisive diagnosis of the suffering of the people of Myanmar under the past so-called ‘socialist central planning’ policies that resulted in primitive accumulation by the ruling elite and cronies and even under the era of economic reforms (of 2011) in the form of accumulation by dispossession where in large scale dispossession of land,  forests and other natural resources occurred at the expense of the livelihoods of millions of poor in both the ethnic areas as well as in the central parts of the country.

Central to the analysis is to identify inherent flaws in the current policy paradigm that would in the long run lead to spiralling vulnerability and inequality, environmental degradation, and creating regional imbalances.  In focus are the land and agriculture policies, energy policies that were inspired by the technical advice of multilaterals like WB and ADB and donors, and the continuation of crony capitalism without any sign of restitution for their past deeds.  Land, agriculture and energy policies are found to be completely at odds with the larger long-term welfare or sustainability goals in terms of their approach, policy positioning and proposed projects and programmes.  Observing that the continuation of neo-liberal policies by the NLD-led government - post 2015, constitutes complete acceptance of the market-oriented approach, this report identifies that lack of policy space and heterodox economic ideas led to this situation of over-reliance on policy advice that has proven to be inadequate elsewhere.  The three decade experience of neo-liberal policies across Asia and Africa has proven to be disastrous for many countries as admitted belatedly by the same agencies who championed them.  The critical question is, how come the same prescriptions are being advocated now vis a vis Myanmar? Are they selling damaged goods?  What are the political, economic compulsions of the development establishment and that of even the government to follow these?

Paradigm Trap identifies that as a party that came to power through a popular pro-democracy movement, the NLD has its inherent compulsions of balancing interests of various stakeholders and as many analysts also point out, it is the delicate balance of power that propels its policy actions or in-actions.  It is important that the government receives views and suggestions from a wide spectrum of heterodox thinking instead of being boxed into a paradigm that largely ignores principles of equity, justice and inclusion.  In this respect there is a need for revisiting the basics in terms of the development paradigm that NLD wants to promote in the country.  It is also important for the NLD government to identify ways of addressing much maligned crony capitalism that continues to get patronage, which is critically linked to the development model of the past and present.

With respect to the development establishment, there appears to be an element of frustration on the slow pace of reforms and their eagerness to push a pro-market agenda can be seen in several reviews and reports on the economic performance of the country.  Several assessment reports of 2016 and 2017 identify a downward trend of business sentiment, FDI and slip-up in some areas in terms of exports - all are attributed to the policy paralysis of the NLD government and their policy prescription is to do more of the liberalization and reforms.  Their contention appears to be taken from TINA (there is no alternative) to the neo-liberal agenda.

Paradigm Trap brings forth an alternative paradigm for consideration, which it provisionally identifies as the Post-Neo-liberal Paradigm (PNP), wherein the market ought to be ‘re-embed’ in the social matrix, subordinating its dynamic to the higher values of community, solidarity, equality and justice (p.61).   Elaborating further on the idea, it would mean, where the market operates but is guided and constrained by the above overarching values and sectoral policies related to land, agriculture and energy need to be seen within these in order to foster the larger interests of the community.

While Paradigm Trap identifies the role of the market embedded in social relations, the primacy of State needs to be acknowledged.  The social compact between the State and Citizen need to be articulated and understood in a much more nuanced way, not as a ‘customer’ or ‘recipient of services’ but as a citizen with certain entitlements as well as social obligations.  Such an approach to development would enable the government to take the lead in identifying where it needs to step-in and where it has to take a hands-off approach.  It is in this context, apart from revisiting the overarching economic paradigm, there is also a need to revisit the social policy arena wherein an increasing tendency of privatization of public services  and withdrawal of government appears to be the norm across the globe and in Myanmar too.  The role of the government in provision and distribution of basic services needs to be emphasized.  This requires a progressive tax reform agenda which is linked to the redistribution and de-concentration of wealth and resource access.  

In all, an ambitious agenda is set out by Paradigm Trap. The critical question is to what extent these are palatable to the policy makers and how momentum can be built with some of these ideas to take shape into policies through people-centric advocacy.

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