U Chit Po is 49 years old and runs a grocery store in Myanmar. He is responsible for his wife and two children. He recently had a major health scare and consequently would like to retire soon. U Chit Po has no medical coverage, as there is no licence for the health insurance market in Myanmar. His income consists of profit from his small business and interest on loans to others, which he lends at 20% interest per day. He has never saved in a formal banking institution, but his knowledge about the value and complexities of saving are highly sophisticated. He feels that banks have so much red tape, especially for provisions which he might need to access at short notice, and the interest offered by banks on savings is so little that it is not worth the hassle.
Southeast Asia, with more than half-a-billion people, is among the fastest growing regions in the world. However, levels of growth and prosperity within the region are very uneven.
After decades of economic isolation, Myanmar has boldly re-entered the global market with a wide range of policy reforms intended to court foreign trade and investment. Reforms range from improvements in infrastructure, to food security and agricultural growth, to monetary and financial sector transformations. Rich in natural resources and a young labour force, the country of over 60 million people once called the “rice bowl’’ of Asia stands to gain much from opening its economy to the world.
Will this be Asia’s century? When it comes to growth and social progress, there have been heady leaps forward, with every prospect of continued dynamism over the next five years. But according to the Southeast Asian Economic Outlook 2013, if there is a blot on the map, it is in tackling poverty and the wide development gaps that bedevil the continent.
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The forces driving Asia’s rapid growth–new technology, globalisation, and market-oriented reform–are also fuelling rising inequality. Some income divergence is inevitable in times of fast economic development, but that shouldn’t make for complacency, especially in the face of rising inequality in people’s opportunities to develop their human capital and income-earning capacity.
The rise of IT and the Internet have been boons to Asia, but not everyone has benefited. There are challenges to overcome, not least in the area of governance.
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