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After a 20-year absence, the World Bank is back in Myanmar.

The World Bank Group’s board of directors last week endorsed a new Interim Strategy for Myanmar and a US$80 million grant targeted at improving rural communities.

A further $5 million will go towards supporting conflict-hit communities, while the bank also said it plans to provide a further $165 million in low-interest loans once Myanmar clears its debts.

The new strategy will guide the World Bank’s work in Myanmar for the next 18 months, focusing on accelerating poverty reduction by helping reformed institutions to deliver better services to people during this critical transition period.

“I am heartened by the reforms that have been taking place in Myanmar, and encourage the government to continue to push forward with their efforts,” said Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank Group.

“We hope to move ahead as part of a united global community to deliver solutions to address people’s most urgent development needs, especially in areas such as health, education, and infrastructure, and we’ll also work to build up the private sector so jobs can be created.”

Under the Interim Strategy, the World Bank Group will help the government improve economic governance and create conditions for growth and jobs by providing policy advice and technical assistance in three main areas: public finance management, regulatory reform and private-sector development.

Analytical work, including a financial accountability assessment, a public expenditure review, and an investment climate assessment are under way to underpin these efforts.

While institutional change is a long term effort, the Interim Strategy aims to build confidence in reforms by bringing visible benefits to local communities, and strengthening the role of civil society to engage with the government.

“Our strategy has a strong focus on inclusive development and reforms that create real opportunities for all the people of Myanmar,” said Pamela Cox, the bank’s vice president for East Asia and the Pacific.

“Transitions take time, but we are committed to working with all our partners to ensure that poor people start to feel the benefits of reforms quickly, especially through better services from the government.”

The Interim Strategy was prepared jointly with International Finance Corporation, the member of the World Bank Group focused on private-sector development in developing countries.

“Developing Myanmar’s private sector will be important to generate concrete benefits for the citizens of Myanmar such as jobs and economic opportunities,” said IFC vice president for Asia Pacific, Karin Finkelston.

“IFC is seeking to improve access to finance in the country so that businesses can expand and hire people. We are also working together with the World Bank in assessing Myanmar’s investment climate and infrastructure needs, with an initial focus on helping to connect people and businesses through better telecoms services and providing reliable power that will help firms to thrive.”

World Bank’s country manager for Myanmar, Mr Kanthan Shankar, told a press conference on November 2 that an analysis was being conducted to work out how best the anticipated $165 million in low-interest loans could be spent.

“We are going to do analysis and find out what is the most priority for the government and the people. At this point, we are looking at infrastructure, but we have not decided anything,” Mr Shankar said.

He said human capacity and the bank’s unfamiliarity with Myanmar were the most significant challenges, and added that it planned to slowly scale up its programs.

“For us our global advantage is to bring experiences and solutions from the outside. But it is not true that every solution will work in [Myanmar] so we need to ensure that we try [project], we pilot [them] and build on success,” he said.

In an earlier interview with The Myanmar Times, Mr Shankar said the $80 million in assistance would be earmarked for infrastructure, such as roads, hospitals and schools, and livelihood development projects in 15 rural townships – one in each state, region and union territory – while the extra $5 million will go to communities in ceasefire areas.

Communities will be able to decide which projects they want funded, Mr Shankar said, adding that non-government organisations will also be involved in the process.

“The grant money doesn’t go to the government, but to the community. We will keep track of the funds to avoid corruption and ensure transparency,” he said. “Progress would be monitored through a financial report every four months, and the government would audit projects every year. The funds will be transferred in instalments to special accounts at the community level in small amounts, depending on the project size.

“The implementing agency would show us the bills, and future payments will be transferred after the invoices are checked.”

While the government has granted a waiver to allow international financial institutions to operate in Myanmar, the government will have to repay its outstanding debt, which stands at $893 million, according to the bank’s information centre.
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