Myanmar: UNICEF Tells Govt to Increase Education, Health Spending

RANGOON — UNICEF is calling on the government to drastically increase government spending on education and health care in order to boost socio-economic development and improve the child rights situation in Burma.

Two UNICEF studies released on Wednesday analyze current government spending and conclude that revenues from the country’s rich natural resources should be redirected towards a sharp increase in health, education and social welfare spending.

Current government spending on the social sectors “is strikingly low by international standards,” one of the reports notes, adding that Burma spends less on these sectors than almost any other country in Southeast Asia.

In Burma, education and health care expenditure represent about 2.3 percent of GDP. In Cambodia and Thailand, social expenditure represents about 5 percent and 8 percent of GDP, respectively.

Even though social sector spending increased significantly in the fiscal year 2012-2013—when Burma’s government budget stood at about US$7.13 billion—health care makes up just 5.7 percent, education 11 percent and social welfare 0.3 percent of government spending.

UNICEF, which released the reports during current parliamentary discussions on the 2013-2014 budget, said lawmakers and government should use revenues from natural resources, such as oil, gas, mining and timber, to drastically increase social sector spending, although the agency stopped short of recommending exactly how much it thinks should be spent.

Giving examples of the positive social impact resource revenues could have, UNICEF calculated that “0.87 percent of revenues from new natural gas projects would provide for the purchase of allthe vaccines needed annually,” while “9 days of natural gas revenues is all that is needed to ensure 1 teacher per primary school grade per year across the country.”

“Myanmar is blessed with an abundance of natural resources which can be turned into meaningful, sustainable, impactful social investments right now, starting with children,” Bertrand Bainvel, UNICEF country representative, said in a press release. “Reform presents real opportunities for a successful transition from a heavily natural resource-reliant economy to an economy that leverages the skills and expertise of its human capital.”

Under the previous military regime, defense spending dominated the budget for decades, while health and education comprised only a small fraction of government expenditure. Such government decisions left the country deeply impoverished and with underfunded and crumbling health and education systems.

Since assuming office in 2011, President Thein Sein’s reformist government has pushed through a raft of political and socio-economic reforms. Yet, Burma’s powerful military, which continues to hold great political power, is still allocated the largest share of government expenditure. In 2012-2013, about 29 percent of the budget went to the defense forces, according to a budget overview in the UNICEF report.

Lower House opposition member Thein Nyunt, of the New National Democracy Party, said in a reaction that UNICEF was right to call for a jump in social spending in next year’s government budget.

“Some lawmakers agree with these UN reports’ message to the government,” he said. “Investing in children’s education and health care would be an investment in our future human resources. The budget should spend more on child education and health care right now.”

“The budget is increasing year by year, but under the military government the health and education budget was less than 1 percent,” he said, adding that the effects of decades of neglect of the social sector were easy to see.

“What I’ve seen for example in [Rangoon’s] North Okkopala and Pale townships, is that there are a lot of malnourished poor children on streets, many of them are 8 years or younger,” he said. “That’s why orphanages should get more government support.”

Lawmakers from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party could not be reached for comment on UNICEF’s appeal.

Aung Myo Min, the director of Equality Myanmar, a human rights education NGO, said increasing government social expenditure is crucial for the country’s development and improving the child rights’ situation.

“This is the time to invest in education,” he said, adding that investing in education would help reduce child labor.