Forum on Improving Rice Policies to Benefit Smallholder Farmers and Rice Production by UN ESCAP, Government, Civil Society of Myanmar

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), other international development organizations and agencies and the Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar’s Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development held a conference of key stakeholders this week aimed at improving rice policies to increase the economic status of the country’s smallholder rice farmers and rural poor, and boost overall rice production in Myanmar.

“This forum is focused on the current challenges and opportunities faced by the farmers and families who make up Myanmar’s agricultural sector and we look for ways to develop the rural economy faster and more equitably,” said Dr. Noeleen Heyzer, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of ESCAP at the Third Development Partnership Forum, held in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar’s capital.

“We seek to identify the solutions necessary to remove barriers and bottlenecks in the supply chains of the rice economy to reverse rural stagnation and focus on investing in Myanmar’s farmers and people in building a dynamic modern economy.”

The broad-based conference included discussions on successful rice policies and the strategies and lessons learned from the region, with case studies from Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. Policy makers from the Myanmar government joined in engaged dialogues with locally and internationally-based academics during the conference, seeking solutions to revitalize the country’s rice production, the most critical part of the agricultural sector, affecting 70 percent of Myanmar’s population. Discussions included the macroeconomic challenges facing rice farmers today and more specific technical and policy approaches to directly assist farmers and improve livelihoods in the rural sector, including the situation for landless casual laborers employed through the rice planting and harvesting cycles.

“We are endeavoring to improve the socio-economic development of the farmers through the development and utilization of modern varieties to improve the quality of rice and, in order to compete in the market, to make improvements in production,” stated H.E. Dr. Sai Mauk Kham, Vice President of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, in opening remarks to the Forum.

Several immediate proposals arrived at in the discussions will be forwarded to the Government for consolidation as action plans: Combining know-how and access to technologies by expanding Agriculture Extension Services to provide the most recent information, practices and technologies for rice farmers and rural communities. Extending credit and modern banking services to rice farmers who are underserved by present informal financing arrangements; including both public and private financial institutions. Complementing a production-centered rice policy with a broad-based household welfare approach to improve assets and incomes for farmers and the rural poor.

Three Ministers and deputy ministers from nine Ministries of the Government attended the Forum joining experts from within Myanmar, from the region and from Europe and the United States, as well as representatives of the UN, international organizations, diplomats, and civil society and the private sector in Myanmar; altogether, more than 150 participants.

“We seek to adopt policies for augmenting income for rice farmers and for the convenience of consumers,” said H.E. U Tin Naing Thein, Minister for National Planning and Economic Development. “I believe that the outcomes of this Forum will also be supportive in drafting policies on agricultural production, trade and food security.”

U Win Aung, President of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar Chamber of Commerce noted the importance of initiating public private partnerships (PPPs) in responding to the challenges in the rice economy, and offered private sector support for seeking engagement with ESCAP in creating PPPs

Discussants noted the importance of addressing larger macroeconomic issues affecting the rice economy, especially the exchange rate crisis leading to an appreciation of the Myanmar national currency, causing paddy rice prices to decline and growing joblessness due to the pressures on the export sector.

This Forum advanced work begun at the Second Development Partnership Forum, held in December 2009 in Myanmar, which focused on broader development issues of the agricultural sector and included participation by Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz.

The Forum also comes soon after a May Government-led National Workshop on Poverty Alleviation and Rural Development where President Thein Sein observed that the country’s agricultural production costs were still high, and that the new Government’s drive for building a modern and developed nation largely depended on the country’s pace of economic growth. Noting the interest of the President in the Forum, three Presidential Advisors attended the Forum, indicating at the conclusion that they would be reporting recommendations directly to the President.

Following the conclusion of the Development Forum, United Nations Under-Secretary-General Dr. Heyzer met with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon.