The struggle is real
Not everyone can say they have known ADB since they were a kid, but Kyaw Thu of the ADB Myanmar Resident Mission has – and its mission to help the poor unwittingly became his own.
For the sake of simplicity – or better yet, optimism – let us say that infrastructure specialist Kyaw Thu is the personification of future Myanmar.
What stands out immediately upon meeting him is his eloquence, and eloquence after all stems from intellect. Based in the ADB Myanmar Resident Mission, Kyaw is a proud local as well as a forward-looking global citizen. He fervently recounts the turbulent past and present of Myanmar, from a land with several kingdoms (with the last royal capital situated in Mandalay) to a country striving for peace and democracy amidst conflict. He doesn’t shy away from discussing the former military and socialist rule, nor the Rohingya crisis; in fact, shedding a light on what a resident truly thinks of the situation, albeit succinctly. The way he describes it, promise is brewing. There is great potential, and if his life is anything to go by, then there truly is.
Kyaw was born to a family of four in the Mandalay region, when the country was a socialist state. His father was a government employee and worked with ADB, before operations were halted in 1988. (ADB resumed engagement in 2012.) In his young age, Kyaw knew of ADB. But it never occurred to him to mimic his father’s job. It was the prevailing situation in the country and his interests that drove him to study civil engineering at Yangon Technological University, and later on take up a graduate degree on construction, engineering, and management at the Asian Institute of Technology in Thailand and a doctorate degree on construction management and economics at Glasgow Caledonian University in the United Kingdom.
After about six years in Glasgow, which included time working as a university researcher, teaching assistant, and practical tutor, he went back home to Myanmar. It “coincided with political transformation of the country,” he says. The country was reverting to the democratic system, and for the first time in about 50 years they had a civilian government. “I came back to be part of the changing environment,” he adds.
From then on, he joined UN-Habitat for more than two years and focused on urban resilience, disaster risk reduction, and climate change. Afterwards he moved to ADB, and has been with the resident mission for about three years. He oversees the infrastructure portfolio (transport, urban and water, as well as energy as an alternate) and supports the Office of Public-Private Partnership (OPPP) on policy- and project-level transaction advisory services in the country.
Currently, he is the project officer for the Pro-Poor Community Infrastructure and Basic Services project, a $4 million grant from the Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction (JFPR), and a co-team leader for the Housing Market Development for Yangon technical assistance. He is also involved in all Myanmar-based projects of the Southeast Asia Urban Development and Water Division (SEUW), such as the ongoing Mandalay Urban Services Improvement Project and the upcoming Yangon Urban Services Improvement Project. Kyaw shares ADB is the only development institution that has its main office in Nay Pyi Taw, the country’s capital, and it has allowed them to work closely with their government counterparts. Like ADB and the resident mission, for him, this is a supreme advantage to realize positive impact on the ground so that Myanmar can surpass its struggles and once again thrive.
“Investment is everything. We can bring a lot of technical resources, knowledge, and so on, but without investments our intervention will always be limited. ”
ADB Myanmar Resident Mission
Given your country’s history, how did this shape your mindset growing up? Did this influence you to pursue infrastructure development?
Kyaw: Myanmar attained its independence from the British in 1948. At this time, our GDP was twice that of Thailand. We used to be one of the leading economies in the 1950s and early 60s. The Mingaladon International Airport in Yangon was the biggest in Southeast Asia at the time of its opening in the mid-50s. Myanmar used to be a well-off country. It was in 1962 that the military coup d’état happened. The military government took over and in the 1970s the same military government changed the system into socialism. Until 1988, the country was under a one-party system, the socialist party. So from one of the top Southeast Asian countries, Myanmar went downhill. By that time, we had become part of the least developed countries in the world—the LDC status.
I was born in that socialism era. We were under strict government regulations. There was no formal private sector. If you wanted to buy Nestle coffee, for example, you couldn’t. Not legally anyway.
But in the mid-90s when I went to undergraduate school, the country switched to an open market economy under the military dictatorship. The private sector started to boom and you could see infrastructure development happening in the country. Seeing all this infrastructure development, I became drawn to engineering. However, after working briefly with the industry, I noticed that the construction industry was still not mature. There was a lot of investment needs in terms of technology and project management practices. There were no building codes, no proper regulations, no quality control systems, and so that drew me to project and construction management—I went to AIT for my master’s degree. Since I was also a research associate there, I looked at different construction industries and I realized that third-world countries had a huge investment gap. This then led me to do my thesis on public–private partnerships and private finance initiatives during my PhD in Glasgow.
What made you join ADB?
Kyaw: ADB funds projects that bring a lot of positive impact for developing member countries like Myanmar. Around the time I went back to Myanmar, McKinsey Global Institute said the country needed $300 billion in infrastructure investments for the next 20 years. That was a huge investment gap. So for my contribution to be more effective I needed to be part of financing sources. I wanted to implement investment projects, bringing a bigger portfolio to the country and having that impact on the ground.
Investment is everything. We can bring a lot of technical resources, knowledge, and so on, but without investments our intervention will always be limited. Of course, it needs to be the right investments. At the same time, for example, if you look at ADB, [the Japan International Cooperation Agency], and the World Bank, the three biggest international financial institutions working in Myanmar, the investment value is still small compared to the massive needs of the country. We are looking at 2%–3% of the GDP per year in terms of our intervention. Private sector has to invest in the country as well – their role is important. ADB in Myanmar not only has public sector interventions but also a significant PSOD portfolio. Knowing this, it excites me to work with ADB.
My father used to be an economist for the Myanma Economic Bank in the 80s. He worked for ADB projects from the government side. So since I was a primary school student, I have been aware of ADB. They had a lot of trainings for the banking sector, also industry projects and so on. So I know the bank. I know what they do. I know what my country needs. Now, I’m a small pinion inside this big mechanism. I’m happy to be involved in the bank’s operations and contribute to my country.
Is this why you didn’t pursue a career in a private engineering practice?
Kyaw: Yes. In my brief time in the construction sector, since these were private projects, it was always just about building and mission accomplished. It doesn’t bring me that much excitement compared to what I do now. Here, we are changing lives. We are bringing hope. We are helping them for the future, if done right. That really excites me.
And although we are not a commercial bank, we still have to balance the bank’s operation and the development works we are doing. We have to meet our financial targets, while ensuring real impact on the ground. We have to make sure our interventions are efficient, effective, and bring value for money, and that poverty reduction is achieved at the end of the day.
Out of all the infrastructure sectors you work on, which aspect do you like the most?
Kyaw: As an engineer, whether it’s transport, urban and water, or energy, or even PPP, I’m keen. These were part of my education. Of course, because I administer urban and water projects – and my own project is urban and water – most of my time is spent on these two sectors.
As a staff based in country and in a resident mission, the two aspects that I like the most are, first, working closely with the government. I’m able to be part of talks on the highest level, with State Councilor Aung San Suu Kyi when ADB President Takehiko Nakao visited the country. We also talk with the ministry leadership, ADB governors, and so on. At the same we are working very closely with working-level government staff. It is a unique experience to be working closely with the government during this transition period in Myanmar. It is really interesting and exciting!
Second, another thing that excites me is dealing directly with beneficiaries on the ground. The project I lead, though it is small, is a community-driven project. Talking firsthand with them about their needs, challenges and issues, and what their day to day is like, excites me a lot and puts me in perspective about the work we do.
Is this sentiment of excitement, change, and hope for the future shared by the general public in Myanmar? What are their expectations?
Kyaw: The Myanmar people are very excited during this transitional and transformation period; but not just Myanmar people. The international community is very excited as well within this past seven years. It’s not a rosy road. Myanmar is facing a lot of issues, such as peace building, national reconciliation, and the Rohingya issue in northern Rakhine. This is something that could impact the country’s democratic reform. But the Rohingya issue is not the only issue. It may be one of the biggest, but it’s not the only one. There are other conflict areas in Myanmar. Myanmar is identified as one of the fragile and conflict-affected situation or FCAS, like Afghanistan. Working on an FCAS country on the ground brings a lot of challenges, but it’s also exciting. The transitional period is very positive, but because of those challenges, we are concerned over the democratic reforms, that the process may be struggling or slowing down. Development partners are discussing with each other on what kinds of strategies are needed to effectively engage Myanmar under such circumstances. We have to talk with different development and bilateral partners to strategize how our collective intervention can have the most impact. My country director and the Southeast Asia Regional Department director general are leading at the strategic level, and we in the resident mission help in our small way to deal with the challenges day to day.
If you could change one thing to make cities more livable, what would it be?
Kyaw: If I could say two, one would probably be urban public transport. This is a key area in cities like Yangon. Second, from the urban- and water-side, definitely water supply. Yangon is the most advanced and important city in the country since about 15% of the population lives in Yangon. It also makes a significant contribution to the GDP. But if you look at the clean water supply among municipalities, there is only 35% network reach. Many people in Yangon do not have clean water, just like many secondary cities in the country. There is huge work to be done, also in terms of urban planning and management, waste management, and other basic urban infrastructure services.