The World Bank has unveiled a new U.S. $2 billion aid deal for Myanmar for electricity and health care projects, saying that spending will be monitored carefully to prevent corruption.
World Bank President Jim Yong Kim announced the multiyear package on his first trip to the once-pariah state on Sunday.
The new aid tranche follows the World Bank’s reopening of its offices in Myanmar last year after it cut off new lending to the country in 1987, during the previous military junta regime which was accused of widespread human rights abuses.
Civil society groups last week had raised concerns that the Washington-based World Bank’s support for another program in Myanmar expanding the country’s underdeveloped telecommunications sector could enable government censorship and surveillance.
Kim said the U.S. $2 billion in new loans, grants, and investments were aimed at supporting reform efforts in the once-pariah state, which rights groups rank among the most corrupt countries in the world despite improvements in recent years.
“We’re very confident that this U.S. $2 billion will be spent well, but at the same time we will also be monitoring and verifying very carefully exactly where the money goes,” he told reporters at a press conference in Yangon.
The World Bank “would not hesitate” to shut down the program if it “found evidence of corruption in any of the projects,” Reuters news agency quoted him as saying.
“We are increasing our support for the huge reform effort underway in Myanmar because we want to help the government bring benefits to poor people even more quickly.”
Half of the funds, Kim said, will be used to improve power supplies in Myanmar, where 70 percent of the population lacks access to electricity.
The program also includes $200 million to help Myanmar reach universal health coverage by 2030, the Bank said, noting that only one in four people in the once-isolated country has access to quality health care.
Myanmar cleared the long overdue debt it owed to the World Bank with the help of a Japanese bridge loan last year, paving the way for new loans from the institution.
Telecoms sector reform
Since then the World Bank has pledged support for a number of development projects in Myanmar, including a project aimed at expanding the country’s telecommunications sector, which had been wholly government-run under the previous military junta.
In a letter to the World Bank last week, 61 Myanmar-based and exile civil society groups raised concerns that the project, which is up for appraisal by the institution’s board next week, is ignoring fundamental issues of privacy and security.
The project will make the people of Myanmar vulnerable to violations of privacy and expression, censorship, and surveillance by the government, the U.S. Campaign for Burma said in a statement last week.
“The World Bank’s failure to promote privacy and security reform in Burma while expanding telecom capacity will enable the Burmese government to further engage in surveillance, censorship, and other abuses,” the group’s Campaigns Director Rachel Wagley said, using another name for Myanmar.
“The Burmese government will be further empowered to conduct censorship and surveillance and violate rights to privacy and expression if the government is given increased access to telecom capacity without being held accountable to enact a corresponding international-standard legal and regulatory framework,” she said.
In planning the project, the World Bank has failed to support fundamental risk assessments, safeguards, and legal reforms that should come before telecom expansion, and to hold “meaningful” consultations with civil society groups, the statement said.
Myanmar, which was long cut off from the rest of the world by international sanctions and strict censorship, has one of the world’s most underdeveloped telecom sectors.
The government is eager to expand coverage in the country, where mobile phone costs are astronomical compared to those in neighboring countries.
A World Bank official told RFA the institution’s involvement in the telecom sector is aimed at helping the government reach its goal of expanding access in a cost effective manner.
"The reason we are doing a telecommunications project is to help the government expand access at the lowest possible cost,” the official told RFA.
He said the World Bank had held consultations with civil society organizations in November and plans to do so again after sites for “pilots” under the project are identified.
“This project will provide technical assistance in the development of laws governing privacy, data protection, cyber-crime, and access to and freedom of information.”
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.