ESCAP-Myanmar Partnership: Regional Support for Inclusive and Sustainable Development

H.E. Major General Htay Oo, Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation Government of Myanmar;
Professor Joseph Stiglitz;
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is an honour to welcome you to this afternoon’s Development Forum. We gather today to discuss ways of enhancing Myanmar’s rural economy by sharing lessons from the region and beyond. We also gather to celebrate a partnership that grows in strength with each meeting.

I am happy that His Excellency Mr. Htay Oo, Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation partnered with ESCAP to launch the first seminar on development partnership this July. The seminar focused on sustainable agriculture and food security – the theme of ESCAP’s last Commission Session, in which Minister Htay Oo participated. You wanted to bring best thinking from the region and beyond to Myanmar because you care for its development; you care for your farmers.

Today we gather for the second seminar in this series. But this is no ordinary seminar. It is a very special occasion because we have with us Professor Joseph Stiglitz.

Professor Stiglitz is one of the most renowned economists and thinkers in the world today, and I am honoured that he has chosen to share his thoughts with us. He received the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2001 in recognition of his many contributions to this field. Today, Professor Stiglitz will be sharing with us his views on some key economic policy considerations which will be critical for promoting growth and reducing poverty.

We also have with us senior government officials, policy makers, development practitioners and scholars at the highest level - sitting in the same room - willing to share ideas and listen.

It is my hope these ideas and analysis will open a new space for policy discussion and a further deepening of our development partnership. Today we will discuss key elements of a comprehensive framework that will support the improvement of rural livelihoods and the reduction of poverty. The experts gathered here bring some of the best thinking and lessons from the region and beyond.

Let me also share some of my own thoughts on this matter with you. Unemployment and income insecurity are threats to stability. Countries need comprehensive strategies, as well as related policies and programmes, that can generate decent livelihoods and income opportunities for all. These will require new investments and financing, public private partnerships and policy reforms.

Experience from the region, and indeed around the world, have shown that poverty reduction is critical to achieving social and economic security and is most rapidly achieved when an increased percentage of national incomes are used to improve the production, assets and skills of the working poor, and the public services available to them. Experience has also shown that this growth is best achieved through the active participation and agency of the poor. Both are critical to promoting growth and stability since they open the economy to the bottom half of the population. A lesson from many fast growing countries in the region is that countries grow faster when the bottom half is participating and contributing productively.

Myanmar, like many countries in the region, has a significant portion of its poor living in rural areas. Many are smallholder farmers who face multiple challenges. To free rural farmers from poverty they need access to adequate and sustainable agricultural credit, to better prices for agricultural produce and to a better financial and banking system. Their farms would perform better with improved supply chain management, pre- and post-harvest technologies, processing, sorting and transportation of agricultural products, and better marketing facilities and access to information on agricultural prices. They would also benefit from increased investment in irrigation and efficient water management, rural infrastructure, rural employment schemes – particularly during dry periods – and improved health, sanitation and education facilities.

We are meeting at the same time climate change talks are taking place in Copenhagen. A recent study from Germany shows that Myanmar is the second most affected country in the world in terms of climate change impacts. Environmental destruction and shifting weather patterns due to climate change pose a huge problem to the people and communities living in both arid and non arid areas. This is already evident in Myanmar’s Central Dry Zone. Climate change has also increased the frequency of extreme weather patterns leading to devastating natural disasters, such as floods, storms and cyclones. Myanmar has experienced first hand a tragic loss of life, livelihoods and assets in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, the worst cyclone in Myanmar’s history, and the eighth worst cyclone ever recorded. The country knows too well that such disasters can increase poverty, as well as affect the ability of poor households to secure food and livelihoods, and to build healthy and productive lives.

Strategic investments in agriculture and the rural economy will have multiple benefits. Not only can these investments be used to address food security and rural livelihood issues, but if done so in a sustainable manner, they can help mitigate and adapt food production systems to climate change. The vision of development that manages natural resources to ensure ecological sustainability and reduces poverty and livelihood insecurity, must become the foundation to build a secure future.

These development objectives can only be achieved through the successful engagement of local experts and practitioners who know what is happening on the ground. This development partnership, requested by the Government of Myanmar, provides a unique platform for eminent international scholars and local researchers to exchange experiences and ideas with government agencies and NGOs. This morning, presentations were made by the Academy of Agriculture, Forestry, Livestock and Fisheries Sciences. Senior officials and experts from Myanmar were able to engage in a conversation with eminent experts and development practitioners from the field. We have had an opportunity to develop a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities of the rural economy and sustainable agricultural development in Myanmar. This is a tremendous opportunity for us all to move forward - to engage a wide range of development stakeholders - and I’m very pleased that it is happening. I am optimistic that the mechanism we have established can be used to follow-up on some of the recommendations emerging from today.

Since establishing the partnership between the Government of the Union of Myanmar and ESCAP in August 2009, the knowledge exchange programme has started to provide many of the country’s newly emerging professionals with opportunities to visit other countries in the region. These include:

(i) Assigning one official from Myanmar’s Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation to ESCAP’s poverty alleviation centre (CAPSA-ESCAP) in Bogor, Indonesia. CAPSA strives to improved pro-poor policies which will contribute to enhancing living conditions of rural poor populations in disadvantaged areas. Another government official will be seconded to the Countries with Special Needs Unit at ESCAP Headquarters in Bangkok.

(ii) ESCAP’s regional centre for agricultural engineering and machinery based in Beijing, APCAEM-ESCAP, has trained four agricultural technicians from Myanmar on high yielding hybrid rice cultivation technologies as part of ESCAP’s broader efforts to help Member Countries cope with food insecurity. A study tour is currently being arranged in 2010 for a team of engineers from an agricultural machinery factory in Myanmar to visit APCAEM-ESCAP’s office and partners. During this visit, team members will discuss technology upgrades to enhance agricultural production including harvest, milling and storage.

(iii) ESCAP has also conducted two workshops in Myanmar to promote an increased national capacity in statistics. The first workshop focused on MDG indicators and human development indices, while the second provided training in the system of national accounts.

This “knowledge exchange programme” is an excellent example of how we can make use of Asia’s experiences as development assets.

ESCAP also became aware of the heightened livelihood vulnerability in the cyclone affected Irrawaddy delta. ESCAP was able to support the Tripartite Core Group by providing technical support to the Post Nargis Joint Assessment efforts, to the Post Nargis Recovery and Preparedness Plan, and to the Periodic Reviews. Together with ASEAN, ESCAP helped to organize a regional high-level expert group meeting entitled, “Post-Nargis Recovery and Livelihood Opportunities in Myanmar”. Lessons learned from recent disaster recovery efforts in the region, building of cyclone shelters in Bangladesh including the tsunami recovery process in Indonesia, and earthquake recovery efforts in Pakistan, were identified and incorporated into the PONREPP. More recently we were able to support the ASEAN-led Post-Nargis and Regional Partnership Conference – which successfully mobilized US $88 million in support of Cyclone Nargis survivors and their recovery activities. I would like to acknowledge the importance of the partnership between the government of Myanmar, ASEAN, the UNCT and the wider humanitarian community. Through their efforts cyclone survivors today have a real opportunity to rebuild their lives and future.

Going forward, ESCAP will work with the government in the following areas:

* Facilitate this development partnership by sharing policies drawn from lessons learned in the region and beyond. This will help provide policy analysis and options to create strong foundations for inclusive and sustainable development.
* Formulate training options that enhance the institutional capacity of Myanmar authorities to better deliver public services, including in the administration and management of development programmes.
* Increase the use of quality statistics produced and disseminated by the national statistical system for assessing socio-economic development trends and monitoring progress towards the MDGs.
* ESCAP will work with the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, in close collaboration with FAO, to explore possible interventions related to sustainable agricultural policy and practice in the country’s dry zone

In closing, I would like to thank and commend the Government of Myanmar for its leadership in convening this important meeting. Allow me to also express my sincere appreciation to those who worked so hard to make this Development Forum a success. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but I am confident that with bold vision and leadership, rich exchange of ideas, and dedication to hard work, our partnership will deliver tangible results for poverty reduction and sustainable development.

We have already come a long way over the past three months since this development partnership was launched. Imagine the progress we can make if we continue working together to achieve shared prosperity and social progress. Myanmar can once again become the rice bowl of Asia.

I thank you.