Myanmar’s people are its greatest resource. Its current young population and growing number of productive workers hold the promise of a demographic dividend and inclusive growth. With a steady pace of economic growth, Myanmar has the potential to get rich before it gets old.
For Myanmar to deliver on this potential it can prioritize investing in its people, by strengthening the country's health, education, and social protection systems. Education and health directly improve chances of employment. Individuals who complete more years of schooling earn a higher income. Improving health, education and social protections – closing the gap – is not a mere by-product of economic development, but is essential to shared prosperity.
Myanmar in the early 1960s, poised to be the economic engine of the region, prided itself for having the highest literacy rate in Asia. After decades of underspending and neglect of social services and programs, human development outcomes deteriorated, ranking among the lowest in the region. Rural and poorer households bore a greater burden of ill health, low educational attainment and vulnerability.
In 2009, a major share of the total education and health spending came from households, 63% and 82% respectively. This direct out-of-pocket spending, which was one of the highest in the world, prevented people from seeking care and attending school, because they could not afford it. In the case of health, families were made even poorer, as they had to sell their belongings to pay for the care they needed. And there was no system to protect them.
Even today, social assistance programs only reach 0.1% of the population, compared to 39% among East Asian and the Pacific countries. This is in part due to extremely low level of social assistance spending, which is only 0.02% of GDP, compared to an average of 1.1% of GDP among low-income countries.