Thank you to Rob Bratby for his kind introduction and to Olswang Asia LLP for hosting this today’s event.
I am delighted to be back in Singapore. This is my second trip here as the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s Minister of State for Asia. As part of my portfolio I am also the Minister responsible for Burma. In that capacity, I am particularly pleased to be able to attend this morning and to see so many British companies showing a real interest in promoting responsible investment in Burma.
I have been fortunate enough to visit Burma twice. Earlier this year I was the first British Minister to travel to the Kachin State since Burma’s independence. I have also met senior Burmese Ministers, the Commander in Chief and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and held discussions with British and other business leaders who are investing in the economy.
The clear message I took from my visits was that Burma has huge potential. Its economy is the fastest growing in Southeast Asia with GDP rising 7% in 2013/14. Increasing gas production, a construction boom, and investment in the transport and telecommunications sectors continue to drive growth with some forecasts suggesting that income per capita may treble by 2030.
But my message, and the message of today’s other speakers, is that to be sustainable economic growth in Burma is dependent on responsible investment by companies. This means investments which strengthen Burma’s fragile regulatory system; which help, rather than hinder, local communities; and which create long term employment. Responsible investment will help alleviate poverty; improve livelihoods and help transform the Burmese economy. I hope today’s event will start a conversation about how we responsible investment can contribute to making Burma a prosperous and stable partner for the future.
First, I want to cover some of the context. The last three years in Burma have seen remarkable change, as the country starts out on its hard, but essential, journey towards democracy. Working closely with the international community, the UK has supported Burma’s progress, including the lifting of the majority of EU sanctions. We are engaging with the government to encourage further democratic and economic reform, and to sustain a credible peace process that delivers peace and security to its border regions.
However, serious challenges remain politically, economically and on human rights where we continue to raise concerns about humanitarian access and the deeply concerning political and humanitarian situation in Rakhine.
The next 18 months will be particularly critical: the 2015 parliamentary elections will be a watershed for Burma’s road to democracy. We want inclusive and credible elections in a context of freedom of expression and respect for human rights.
While Burma has vast potential. At present it remains one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. A third of the population does not have sufficient funds to meet basic food and living needs. On an individual scale, one in four people live in poverty, and three out of four people have no access to electricity.
As one of the main donor countries in Burma, we have been matching our words with deeds. We are working with Government, Parliament, business, civil society and international organisations to help build an economy which generates strong, sustainable, balanced and low carbon growth that builds prosperity and reduces poverty in Burma.
We have established the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business which is working with business, civil society and government in Burma to provide practical information and advice on improving business standards.
We continue to share, with Burma’s public and private sectors, the UK’s experience of developing our own UK Action Plan to implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. And during the UK’s G8 Presidency in 2013, we supported calls from President Thein Sein’s Government to ensure there was a commitment to responsible business in Burma.
We are not alone in this. Many UK companies operating in Burma are also committed to the same vision of responsible investment, which fuels sustainable growth and transforms lives. and have been taking practical steps to towards this goal.
UK businesses are working with UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) to support reforms and to increase skills development. For example, the UK Financial Services Taskforce in Burma continues to provide tailored training to support reform in the banking and financial sectors. Similarly, UK company JCB has established a fee-free training centre and are looking to roll out a full vocational training programme.
Transparency and Accountability
We are also working to improve the business environment as a whole by strengthening the Burmese government’s capacity for economic governance, transparency and accountability.
For example, we are working with the Burmese Ministry of Electric Power to put in place strong systems that will allow them to prioritise better and to negotiate on electric power deals with the private sector. We are also strengthening the Government’s capacity to detect and fight against money laundering.
One key aspect of improving the business environment is the need to integrate Burma into the rules based international economic system. That is why in our discussions with the Burmese authorities we have emphasised the need and benefits of acceding to international standards. And why we are supporting Burma’s application to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.
We are also working with local and regional networks on workshops to showcase the benefits of tackling corruption and the adoption of international standards on transparency. One of the organisations we are supporting to do this in this is the ASEAN Corporate Social Responsiblity Network, which has its headquarters here in Singapore. I am pleased that Thomas Thomas from that organisation will be speaking this morning.
The UK is also working to help create an investment climate in Burma that supports innovation and poverty reduction. A critical part of this is tackling the key issues that stop private sector companies investing. And that’s why, the UK, along with the World Bank, has funded an Investment Climate Assessment. This will give us a better sense of the constraints to doing more business in Burma as seen by the private sector.
However, we are also involved in a number of distinct projects aimed at stimulating new investments. For example, we are funding a new project by InfraCo Asia which aims to stimulate greater private investment in infrastructure by working with government to join up investors with providers of finance to take on projects that deliver development benefits to poor communities. In Burma its initial focus will be on agribusiness, agricultural infrastructure and off-grid power.
Other programmes have slightly different aims. The British Council’s Skills for Social Entrepreneurs (SfSE) programme also encourages awareness of social enterprise, supports the establishment and growth of individual social enterprises, and advises policy makers and leaders in business and civil society who want to create the right environment for social enterprise to flourish.
To conclude, Burma is in the middle of an unprecedented period of change: economically, politically and socially. At the same time, as some of you know first-hand, considerable challenges remain for the economy, for poverty reduction and for human rights. Tackling these challenges is vital to creating the more prosperous; more stable; and more open Burma that we all want to see. Business, like government, has a vital role to play in this process.
The speakers who follow will address the importance of responsible investment; the challenges involved; and the opportunities it offers to companies. I hope that you find today’s event useful. Thank you for attending and I wish you all the very best of luck in your endeavours.