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Is Stiglitz speaking the obvious to deaf ears?

Editorial
Dec 17, 2009 (DVB), The renowned US economist Joseph Stiglitz has spelt out a path to revive Burma, 'the rice bowl of Asia', with doses of the obvious that appear diametrically opposed to the policies of the ruling junta.

In a presentation delivered to government officials and seen by DVB, he outlines the need for education, health and property rights in Burma, with an emphasis on 'protecting the vulnerable'.

Stiglitz will know that Burma has one of the lowest per capita investments in health and education anywhere in the world. Economists meanwhile regularly scathe about the lack of security in Burmese property rights and the financial system that underpins sound economic growth.

"It is my hope these ideas and analysis will open a new space for policy discussion and a further deepening of our development partnership," UN under secretary general Noeleen Heyzer said at the event in Naypyidaw.

Indeed, Stiglitz also called for "transparent rules and regulations [and] level playing fields", both of which are a state of affairs that will be alien to the two ministers in audience, one agriculture, one economic development, and a point sadly deemed too offensive for the junta mouth piece New Light of Myanmar newspaper in its report of the meeting. He also added that "politics and economics cannot be fully separated in any country" before highlighting Burma's vast gas reserves, a so-called "good fortune".

It is this point that he elaborates on later in his presentation. He refers to the "natural resources curse", more commonly seen in Africa, where quick profits are utilised by an elite to dominate a society, by selling off raw materials and neglecting to invest in development. He adds that this is a common state of affairs in countries like Burma, but says that there are exceptions. "If a country doesn't reinvest wealth below ground above ground, growth is not sustainable," he says.

The Burmese junta has shown no inclination to do what Stiglitz suggests; indeed it has deliberately shunned advice from the international community, including fellow American economist Jeffrey Sachs who visited Burma in 2004, to restructure its economy to benefit the poor. Meanwhile, billions of dollars are channeled out of the country, while it ranks ever lower on global poverty indicators.

Stiglitz may well have the right ideas, but he stands before the wrong audience. It is whether he can articulate well enough the message that both parties , the junta and the people , stand to gain from a strong economy that will really distinguish between a fruitless visit and a glimmer of progress.