Whenever Myanmar made news over the past few months, pundits focused on the country’s astonishing political transition.
Clad in longyis (Burmese sarong) and ethnic dress, Myanmar’s MPs convened the first elected parliament since 1962.
But will these spectacular political developments translate into an economic miracle that is needed to lift Myanmar out of poverty?
Even in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest and most dynamic city, the economic growth of the last five years has been strikingly uneven.
Despite the mushrooming of shopping malls, condos and chic bistros, most of the city’s population remains desperately poor.
There are untold stories of deprivation in Yangon’s slums.
Michael Slingsby, an urban poverty expert, found an epidemic of tuberculosis while surveying some of these settlements.
He was even more struck by the vast numbers of Yangon residents who had to take out loans, not just for major expenses (such as health emergencies), but simply to buy rice or potatoes.
And yet, located between economic powerhouses like China and India, Myanmar could be poised for an economic take-off.
Dr. Thant Myint-U, a well-known local historian and author, wrote recently in Foreign Policy:
“Burma’s position as a land bridge to India and the Indian Ocean is […] vital. The ‘One Belt One Road’ transport scheme is Xi Jinping’s signature initiative, and Burma is a lynchpin.
China would like a new railway line connecting its interior to a deep-sea port on the Bay of Bengal, highways extended to India, and the Irrawaddy River transformed into a waterway for Chinese freight headed west.”
At the same time, special economic zones modeled on Shenzhen have been front and center in the outgoing Myanmar government’s strategy for growth. China is an indispensable investor in such schemes.
Arguably, China is Myanmar’s most important partner in the quest to become Asia’s next tiger economy.
But China’s role in Myanmar has also been controversial. China stands accused of exploiting vital natural resources (such as Myanmar’s jade) with impunity.
In Yangon, Regional MP Nyo Nyo Thin sees Chinese companies as complicit in the rampant corruption and lack of transparency in real estate deals.
In her view, investors like China have focused on land (the price of which has soared to unprecedented heights) but not on creating job opportunities.
Hong Kong, however, could play a different role in Myanmar’s development.
Hong Kong is already one of Myanmar’s largest investors, the third-largest in 2015.
Myanmar government figures put Hong Kong investments in the country at US$7 billion in the first half of 2015 alone.
But Hong Kong has other assets and capabilities which it can share. A 2015 index by the World Economic Forum ranked Hong Kong’s civil service among the most effective in the world. It also ranks Hong Kong first in terms of infrastructure.
Clearly, Hong Kong – one of the original four tiger economies – can provide an inspiring model for making a city like Yangon into a prosperous metropolis.
That is the idea behind a new initiative called Governance Partners Yangon.
GPY is about bringing together Hong Kong civil servants and government officials in Yangon.
Hong Kong officials can act as mentors, bringing to the table lifetimes of experience in dealing with rapid urbanization.
Hong Kong officials could share dos and don’ts about anything from dealing with investors and managing industrial zones to the nuts and bolts of improving service delivery.
Most of all, they could help Myanmar’s civil servants with making projects happen.
In a complex environment, where the road from ideas to reality is paved with challenges, this would be no small feat – in fact, it would be a game-changer.
By building a more effective civil service, Hong Kong can take out a major roadblock on Myanmar’s path to development.
But for Hong Kong there is yet another prize: new partnerships and the exchange of knowledge can provide a new model for the city’s engagement with Southeast Asia and beyond. Economic opportunities are sure to follow.
This article was originally published in EJ Insight on 28 April, 2016.