Burma: How poor? How repressive?

Written by Julian Champkin on . Posted in Social Sciences

David Cameron has just returned from Burma, or Myanmar, the first-ever visit by a British Prime Minister. Burma is one of the most repressed states in the world. It is also one of the poorest. Do these two facts have anything to do with each other? The degree of repression may be easing. What of the degree of poverty?

Firstly, how poor is Burma? There are various ways of measuring a country’s poverty. The ‘proportion of its people living on less than a dollar a day’ is an often-quoted one. See here for maps of people doing just that. Search on the internet for ‘Burma’ and ‘dollar a day’ and you find many travellers' reports quoting the phrase ‘most Burmese live on less than a dollar a day’, but I have been unable to find any source for this statistic. In any case the ‘dollar a day’ measurement of poverty is only a partial and incomplete one; for example, a self-sufficient farmer who grows all his own food may barter his surplus for anything else he needs and may live very well on no money a day at all. Many other things beside money contribute to poverty. A much more useful way of measuring poverty is the ‘multi-dimensional poverty index’.

It takes into account such things as access to clean water, to healthcare and to education, quality of housing, and so on. For more on this see the February issue of Significance. Using this measure of poverty, the country ranks 14th from the bottom out of 109 nations whose data is available. So, yes: Burma is poor.

The next question is: why is Burma so poor? Certainly it is not short of natural resources – and they are being exploited. It supplies nearly 80% of the world’s teak, for example – and is the only country supplying teak from natural forests as opposed to plantations – other countries have banned the practice. Historically Burma stands on the main trade route between China and India, which for most of the past two thousand years has made it the most prosperous nation in its region – a position it kept when it was ruled by the British. It also was once the world’s greatest exporter of rice. All that has changed.

Its slide into poverty began, roughly speaking, at independence from British rule in 1948. It has been a repressive military dictatorship since 1962. It still receives considerable inward investment – a record high of $20 billion in 2010-2011, which is more than Vietnam received – and Vietnam is regarded as a hot investment tip. But since 1988 Burma's GDP has grown at an annual average rate of 2.9 percent, the lowest in the region.

Sanctions against the military regime have been in force for more than a decade; some blame the sanctions for Burma’s poverty and, specifically, for impacting particularly on the poorest of her people. But Min Zin, writing on the website of Foreign Policy magazine, points out that by the government's own official statistics, it allocated 23.6 percent ($2 billion) of the 2011 budget to military spending, and spent just 1.3 percent on health ($110 million) and 4.13 percent ($349 million) on education. Some experts estimate that actual military spending amounts to as much as 60 percent of the overall budget. This, he says, must surely contribute more than any sanctions to keeping it poor.

Next we can ask how repressive, compared to the rest of the world, is the Burmese regime? Degrees of human freedom are hard things to quantify, but many people have tried.

There is, for example, the ‘Index of Economic Freedom’, published here, by an outfit called the Heritage Foundation. Again we have to look at their hidden - or rather, their open – agenda; they are a pressure group for unfettered market forces. So their index of economic freedom is a very different thing from an index of democracy. Hong Kong, they say, is the most ‘economically free’ country in the world. Few would regard it as the most democratic. Let us try to find something closer to what we are seeking.

The corruption watchdog organisation Transparency International in its 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index released on September 26th, 2007 ranked Burma the most corrupt country in the world, tied with Somalia. That may or may not be relevant.

The Intelligence Unit of the Economist magazine compiles a Democracy Index. It measures the state of democracy in 167 countries. It is based on 60 indicators grouped in five different categories: electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, functioning of government, political participation and political culture. It characterises 52 countries – 31% of the total – as having ‘authoritarian’ regimes, as opposed to ‘hybrid’, ‘flawed democracy’ or ‘full democracy.’ The Index was first produced in 2006; its most recent update came last year. It gives each country a score out of ten. North Korea scored the lowest with 1.08. Burma also did particularly badly, with an score of 1.77, which places it at 161st most repressive out of 167 countries.

So, at last we can try to answer our original question: are repression and poverty linked?

The fifteen most repressive countries of the world – those hugging the bottom of the democracy index list, are Sudan, Eritrea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Laos, Guinea-Bissau, Syria, Iran, Central African Republic, Saudi Arabia, Equatorial Guinea, Burma, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Chad and North Korea. Of those, Sudan, Eritrea, Central African Republic, Burma, and Chad would be classified by anyone as poor; Saudi Arabia is stonkingly rich; and the others lie somewhere in between.

We can put numbers to the ‘somewhere in between.’ We could use the multinational poverty indicator we mentioned above, but it does not cover every country in the world – it misses out the UK and the US, for example. For fairness we should include all nations; so we shall settle instead for a far less meaningful measure, but one which is easily and universally available, the Gross Domestic Product of a nation as a measure of its relative wealth or poverty. A convenient source is the CIA world fact book, which you can find, among other places, here.

The table below lists the fifteen most repressive countries in the world (most repressive at the bottom; rankings from the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy index) against their poverty ranking (measured as per capita GDP) out of 190 countries of the world. Thus, as we can see, the Democratic Republic of Congo, despite its name, is not democratic, and is the very poorest country in the world.

Country World Ranking on Democracy Index out of 167 World Ranking by GDP (proxy for poverty) out of 190
Sudan 153 142
Eritrea 154 187
Dem. Rep. Of Congo 155 190
Laos 156 144
Guinea-Bissau 157= 176
Syria 157= 119
Iran 159 76
Central African Republic 160 184
Saudi Arabia 161= 42
Equatorial Guinea 161= 51
Burma 161= 169
Uzbekistan 164 136
Turkmenistan 165 101
Chad 166 158
North Korea 167 160

So this quick and dirty analysis does show a clear correlation between repressive regimes and poverty. Except for Iran, Turkmenistan and Syria – and, rather surprisingly, Equatorial Guinea - the most repressed countries are also among the very poorest. (Most people in Equatorial Guinea are also very poor; its dictator, though, is amazingly rich.) Whether the repression causes the poverty; or poor countries are more likely to fall into repression is another matter; most likely both mechanisms work together and feed off each other. Many other confounding factors also come into it of course – such as Saudi Arabia’s oil for starters. But clearly the link is there.

Which is, in a way, hopeful. If Burma and other poor countries can somehow emerge into less repressive regimes their people might be not only more free, but less poor as well.

A proper statistical analysis (which this is not) would reveal far more. If any reader wishes to undertake one, we would be happy to publish it.

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