Burma: Will International Financial Institutions Get It Right this Time?

After decades of dictatorship, mismanagement and isolation, Burma has caught the eye of corporations and investors seeking new markets, opportunities and other links in their supply chains.
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After decades of dictatorship, mismanagement and isolation, Burma has caught the eye of corporations and investors seeking new markets, opportunities and other links in their supply chains. The Burmese people welcome investment to stimulate the economy. However, they are right to be wary of private initiatives--as well as the return of international financial institutions (IFIs) such as the International Finance Corporation (IFC), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, whose engagement will come with terms of their own making. With a more democratic government coming to power, Burma can and should set conditionalities on IFI agreements to ensure civil society voice and protection of environmental, labor and indigenous peoples' rights.

The World Bank and other IFIs have an egregious record in these areas. For example, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists reported last year that, "over the last decade, projects funded by the World Bank have physically or economically displaced an estimated 3.4 million people, forcing them from their homes, taking their land or damaging their livelihoods." The World Bank's ostensible purpose is to alleviate poverty and promote shared prosperity. Yet the bank is currently reviewing lending requirements for its projects, including "safeguard policies" for communities, labor and the environment, that many see as weakening protections for the poor and likely to leave workers vulnerable to unsafe working conditions, child labor and denial of their internationally recognized rights. A lack of protection of labor standards in World Bank projects and policies is inimical to promoting worker rights. That's why it's so important for Burmese labor activists and organizations to focus on the World Bank and use the opportunity of its spring meetings in Washington, D.C., this week to ask the hard questions and set standards for what any new investment and engagement should look like.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), representing 168 million workers in 155 countries, has developed some key recommendations that its members and Burmese unions and civil society organizations endorsed in the lead-up to the ITUC's own meetings with IFIs in March. The first and most important is to base labor standards on core ILO conventions, such as the prohibition on child labor, forced labor and workplace discrimination, and the protection of workers' right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. A second is to include government civil servants in labor rights protections, and a third is the requirement adopted by the Asia Development Bank and other development banks that, whatever be the recognition of those rights in national law, the borrower "shall not discriminate or retaliate against workers who participate or seek to participate in [workers'] organizations and engage in collective bargaining."

Other Asian countries going through political transition in the past couple of decades have faced a similar situation--Cambodia and Indonesia, for example. In Burma's case, unlike Cambodia when it emerged from its long national nightmare, decades of human rights activism by organizations inside and outside the country means a cadre of organizations have already started playing a watchdog function with regard to both investment and international financial institutions.

At a workshop in Rangoon conducted by the Bank Information Center and the Natural Resource Governance Institute in March, 55 participants from 39 different civil society organizations (CSOs), including the Solidarity Center, came together to set the stage for greater engagement with the IFIs and a plan to demand more accountability from them. These organizations are learning more about the IFIs' re-engagement in Burma, what new issues are emerging and, crucially at this juncture, to find ways to expose parliamentarians and media to the work of the IFIs and show them how they can help shape IFI investments and the Burma country strategy.

It has always been an uphill battle for labor, environmental and human rights activists to make their voices heard by the IFIs. In the case of Burma, which is poised at a new starting point for corporate and IFI engagement, civil society activists have an important opportunity to influence how IFIs engage with their country, and they deserve as much support as they can get--and the new government, under the auspices of the National League for Democracy, should be their partner to amplify that voice.

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