First Steps: The Road to Prosperity in Myanmar

The international community is coming together to help Myanmar improve the lives of its 60 million citizens - one-third of whom are mired in poverty. The challenges are daunting. And with Myanmar's strategic location at the crossroads of trade between India, [People's Republic of] China and Southeast Asian nations, the stakes are high.

While its neighbours have prospered over the past half a century, Myanmar's isolation has left the country and its people languishing. In the 1950s, Myanmar was an economic star; nowadays it is the second-poorest country in the region, with an estimated per capita gross domestic product of US$715.

Today, however, an unexpected and unprecedented period of reform has taken root. While the possibilities seem promising, it is crucial that the path to reconciliation be forged in a way that benefits all the country's people.

Several national and international conferences on economic development were convened in recent weeks to establish a starting point. These gatherings identified priority areas for ensuring that the country's poorest communities and varied ethnic groups share in Myanmar's coming prosperity.

With much of the infrastructure outdated or inadequate, increasing access and "building back better" are critical near-term priorities. Today, barely a quarter of its population has access to electricity, and more than three in five people lack access to adequate sanitation. Energy supply, water and sanitation services, irrigation systems, roads and railways, and telecommunications are basic requirements that every country needs to prosper, and Myanmar is no different. For an impoverished family living in relative isolation, these building blocks create a pathway out of poverty.

During the 20 years since the formation of the Asian Development Bank's Greater Mekong Subregion programme - an initiative to promote economic co-operation among the six countries sharing the Mekong River - maps of Myanmar's neighbours have exploded with new lines showing the rapid development of roads and markets linking members. By contrast, the situation in Myanmar is largely unchanged. There is a need to complete construction of transport corridors linking Myanmar with markets in neighbouring countries.

Of course, comprehensive social, economic and administrative structures need to be in place to ensure that growth doesn't come at the expense of the environment or Myanmar's rich cultural heritage.

As Myanmar's pace of change accelerates, more foreign investors and tourists arrive, and development assistance is offered, it is absolutely crucial that this transition is country-owned. Upfront reforms that are needed include measures to solidify the rule of law, strengthen macroeconomic management, promote sustainable tourism, improve the investment climate and generate fiscal resources to expand infrastructure and social spending.

The road ahead still looks daunting, but the opportunity for Myanmar's people is simply too great to turn back. The ADB is making preparations for  re-engagement with Myanmar and joining other development partners in helping to lay the foundations for a brighter future in the country.