Much is being made of the reopening of Myanmar to the global economy. Barely a week goes by without another multinational announcing a commitment to invest in the country. At the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting last month, Coca-Cola (KO) Chief Executive Officer Muhtar Kent compared the opening of the company’s first Myanmar bottling facility to the fall of the Berlin Wall. That’s a grand vision. But really, what does all this economic development mean for a country with a population of 60 million mostly rural people, 76 percent of whom lack access to electricity and more than 90 percent of whom lack access to a mobile phone?
From a development perspective, Myanmar may be a blank canvas, but the brushes are digital. Myanmar has the potential to go beyond all the traditional emerging-market development models. There was once a time when partnerships between business and the public sector were seen as cutting-edge. But now we need to look at alternative, newer models as well. For example, what are the appropriate roles of partnerships between two or more businesses? As its economy reopens to large multinationals, now could be the perfect time to find out, and the country could become a blueprint for a new kind of international development.
Development efforts in Myanmar and other emerging-market economies have typically focused on leapfrogging, a term that conjures up an image of accelerated progress. Taken literally, though, leapfrog is just another playground game characterized by repetitive activity that leads to incremental change. To realize its promise as a development hub for global companies, however, Myanmar must strive for transformational change.
Myanmar and those investing in the country need to think big. Why focus on building an ATM network in Myanmar—an idea raised at one WEF summit discussion—rather than advancing directly to creating the ability to dispense mobile money? What long-term value can be gained by investing in old technology?
A much better idea for Myanmar is the development of a mobile network. In June the government awarded two major contracts for developing such a network. As the project takes shape, the successful bidders should give serious thought to rural off-grid electrification, which creates both business and development challenges and opportunities. Successful rural electrification can help transform agriculture by providing mobile-enabled services such as microfinance, crop insurance, or weather information. Additionally, electrification and mobile connectivity can significantly improve the prospects for developing a next-generation health system.
Addressing the health-care challenge need not be confined solely to health-care companies. Since Coca-Cola and PepsiCo (PEP) have ambitions in Myanmar, what role might they play in transforming health distribution systems for essential medicines by bringing their supply-chain expertise to bear? And in education, how might the growing financial-services community turn the economic potential of Myanmar’s talent into an “asset class” for investment today?
To be clear, this is not about ignoring the critical role of government; it’s about changing it from acting as a “service deliverer” to a “choreographer” across a diverse set of partners and stakeholders.
Myanmar is a rich country filled with poor people who have high hopes. Meeting their expectations will require a new approach to economic development: namely a strategy for footballers—not leapfroggers—that can successfully marry the best of the old with the best of the new.