Chris Nolan, Associate Director, Advisory Services, BSR

The WEF East Asia meeting earlier this month was a major milestone in the Myanmar government’s effort to promote foreign investment as part of the ongoing reform process.  Economic growth is forecasted to rise a modest 6.5 percent in 2013, and the country has gone through a period over the past year when most international investors have “looked, listened, learned, and left.” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has referred to this time as an “exploratory frenzy.”

However, reality may slowly be catching up to the hype surrounding investment potential in the country. Several companies, including Microsoft and Unilever, used the WEF event in Naypyidaw to announce high-profile investments. The mood at the meeting and action being taken by an increasing number of companies indicate Myanmar‘s investment story may be reaching a turning point.

In light of this, as BSR President and CEO Aron Cramer recently highlighted, the challenge of developing Myanmar is hard to overstate. And as civil society leaders at WEF rightly pointed out, amid the dynamism, many serious and systemic social challenges persist, including ethnic and religious discrimination, violence, and land grabs. For most of Myanmar’s estimated 60 million people, life hasn’t changed.

So how to ensure that social development keeps pace with economic development? Many stakeholders are increasingly pointing toward “inclusive development,” or an approach that places human development at the center of broader efforts. In this regard, the Myanmar government has a primary responsibility, but companies must also play a leading role.

Already, we have seen several substantive examples of companies establishing smart partnerships and seeking a more inclusive approach to investments in Myanmar: Cisco established its Networking Academies in partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development, and GE's strategy for the country is centered around its support for national development. Efforts like these offer value to both business and society and provide strong examples for other companies to replicate.

Yet given the scale and complexity of challenges in Myanmar—and the flood of offers the country receives for help—individual company initiatives are not sufficient. Collaborative, multicompany approaches—that address issues ranging from access to power and mobile communications to access to employment—can help the country tackle some of its biggest challenges more quickly and efficiently. While collaborative approaches do not provide a silver bullet and can be more difficult to execute, the benefits they offer can outweigh this: providing deeper impact, helping promote coordination, avoiding duplicative efforts, and maximizing the strengths of multiple companies and industries.

The government’s sector-development plans present companies with a platform to establish these partnerships. Just last week, Myanmar’s tourism authorities announced a US$500 million master plan. Asia Development Bank’s Stephen Groff notes that “tourism will be a pillar of Myanmar’s economy.” Hospitality companies, which operate in countless communities, are particularly well-situated to work collaboratively in support of local economic development. Opportunities include starting industrywide vocational training programs to maximize local employment and building stronger links between the local hospitality and agriculture sectors to promote increased sourcing of local goods by new hotels.  

BSR is working to forge collaborative approaches among companies in Myanmar by helping develop project opportunities and identifying suitable local partners to bring them to fruition. BSR can also help companies navigate the challenges that come with executing these initiatives. We see great potential in particular within the growing information and communications technology (ICT) sector, which can support human capital development, technology and rural development, and growth in the local ICT sector.

Companies that have not yet taken steps to align investment with broader national development should look at examples such as these, and companies that have taken this step should examine whether and how impact can be enhanced through greater collaboration. Single company initiatives absolutely have a role, but some big opportunities are best tackled with a team.

Beyond GDP and FDI figures, the most important barometer of Myanmar’s development is whether there has been a demonstrable improvement in the quality of life for the country’s people. Realizing this outcome will take both strong individual leadership and smart partnerships. In 15 or 20 years, what will that barometer tell us?