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DVB’s Alex Bookbinder speaks to the World Bank’s newly appointed Country Manager for Burma, Abdoulaye Seck.
In August 2014, Seck became the second person to lead the World Bank’s recently restored Burma chapter, replacing the outgoing Kanthan Shankar.
Hailing from Senegal in West Africa, Seck slipped into a French superlative to describe his new home.
“I love it, this is a formidable [great] country, I am really enjoying it here.”
The World Bank resumed operations Burma in 2012 after 25 years away from the former pariah state. Burma embarked on a series of startling financial and political reforms in 2011, allowing the return of international donors and investors including the United States, the European Union and international financial institutions such as the World Bank.
Seck maintained that caution has been exercised in the Bank’s reengagement process.
“When we arrived in this country it was a country in transition,” he said.
“We thought it would be important to ensure that we will have new institutions that are more responsive to the people.
“We thought we could help in building confidence in the transition. We wanted to give faith to the people that this transition can work for everyone.”
A “Community Driven Development Programme”, a moniker used for local, bottom up financing projects conducted by the World Bank in many areas of the world, became the World Bank’s first project conducted upon its return to Burma.
The project was intended to empower local villagers to design their own infrastructure projects, and it is one with which Seck is particularly pleased.
Seck said that the project “Identif[ied] people’s needs, and offered support to build infrastructure, be it schools, healthcare centres, bridges, roads. It was extremely important to encourage good governance at a local level, to encourage accountability.”“Everyone deserves and should have quality education and quality health.”
The initial lack of familiarity between the Bank, the people of Burma and their government necessitated the 2012 publishing of an Interim Strategy Note, which outlined the people’s specific needs. That was superseded in November last year, by a Systematic Country Diagnostic.
Seck explained that the process was one to ensure that World Bank funds were maximised to reduce poverty and promote equality in cooperation with Naypyidaw.
The study relied heavily on public consultations, which were carried out in the early part of 2014. Of the lessons learned from the consultations, Seck says that “The pathway out of poverty should target different groups of poor differently. We thought about two pathways. One, clearly is about how to promote private sector development, how to build the institutions for inclusive growth and job creation.”
The second pathway targets Burma’s most disadvantaged, according to the country manager.
“What is extremely important is to ensure that those people have access to basic services. Everyone deserves and should have quality education and quality health.”
That leads him to the Bank’s focus on health and education. Seck said that a US$ 100 million health care fund announced last year would be spent to ensure basic services for mothers and children.
“By the time this project is fully implemented there will be more than four million mothers and children benefitting from the support going to health care centres in all 330 townships of Myanmar,” he predicted.
He is equally buoyant about a further US$100 million programme to boost the Ministry of Education’s School Grants and School Stipends Programme.
Eleven thousand children currently receive government-sponsored stipends to attend school under the programme. The World Bank hopes to raise that to 100,000.
Seck said that the programme is indicative of a shift in the Burmese government’s budgetary priorities.
“What this programme is doing is to accompany the government in their decision to move, very significantly, more resources to schools in an equitable way, in a transparent way and in a way which will bring efficiency and also encourage accountability.
“By the time this programme will close, eight million students will be in better schools and 100,000 poor students will have spent longer in schools without leaving.”
DVB asked why the World Bank was willing to loan such large amounts of money to a government with a poor track record on health and education spending.
“Clearly yes,” Seck agreed. “They didn’t do very well.”
“But the most important thing is not the baseline. It is the direction.”