UNICEF has pointed out that Burma’s reformist government, led by President and ex-general Thein Sein, has failed to adequately increase education and health spending and to protect child rights, as government funds continue to be dominated by defence spending.
Two comprehensive 2013 reports by UNICEF noted that while Burma’s budget had increased by 81% in the last two years, health and education spending remained “strikingly low” by international standards and had failed to meaningfully pick up in spite of the overall budget increase. In 2012-2013, about 29% of Burma’s budget went to the defense forces, according to a budget overview in one of the UNICEF reports.
Specifically, UNICEF said that while health and education had seen an increase in funds on paper, Burma’s exchange rate unification coupled with long overdue salary increases for the social sector meant that “improvements in terms of additional human and physical resources available to the social sectors for realizing children’s rights were very limited, if at all present.”
As a percentage of total government spending, health received a mere 5.7%, for education it was 11% and for social welfare it was an anemic 0.29% As a percentage of GDP, this amounts to 0.76% for health, 1.46% for education and less than 0.01% for social welfare.
UNICEF said that funding problems could be quickly solved if Burma’s reformist government put cash earned from natural resource revenue into social infrastructure. One report noted that less than nine days of natural gas revenue could ensure one teacher per each primary school grade. Currently, because of funding shortages, teachers often have classes with as many as five different grades in them.
“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 media release dated November 6.
Mr Bainvel added that natural resource revenue also represented “a new opportunity to re-commit to children, and to the spirit of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).” As a state party to the CRC, Burma had obligations to ensure the rights of children in accordance with international law.
UNICEF stated that a 0.57% increase in the actual tax collected on hardwood extraction would secure the annual salary of 6,000 social workers, that 0.87% of revenues from new natural gas projects would provide for the purchase of all the vaccines needed annually in Burma, one extra dollar in tax collected for each kilogram of jade could have built 14,596 classrooms over the last nine years, and that just over one quarter of Myanmar’s 2010 sales from the auction of precious and semi- precious stones could have provided for a universal child benefit of 15,000 Kyat a month for all Myanmar children under five.
Mr Bainvel said that Burma’s spending on social infrastructure would be indicative of its reformist credentials. “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, he said. “The time for investing in children is now,” he concluded.