2014 is already shaping up to be another exciting year for the global movement for universal health coverage (UHC). I was just with World Bank Group President Jim Kim in Myanmar, where we are putting our previously announced global targets for universal health coverage  into action.
The Myanmar government has endorsed the goal of achieving UHC by 2030, as key to ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity in Myanmar. President Kim announced  that the World Bank Group would commit US$200 million from the International Development Association (IDA), our fund for the poorest countries, to help the government accelerate progress toward UHC. Together with contributions of other development partners, this represents over US$1 billion in external assistance to help everyone in Myanmar access essential, quality health care and remove financial barriers to access for the poorest people.
An estimated three-quarters of Myanmar’s citizens -- including the poorest and most marginalized communities -- find themselves with very limited access to essential health services. And too many of these same populations suffer a further burden of being pushed, or kept, in poverty because they have to pay for their health care. During our visit to a township health center near Yangon, the staff and community representatives told us that out-of-pocket payments, a shortage of skilled health workers, and limited access to reliable electricity, diagnostic equipment and lifesaving drugs are among the top challenges they face. Staff at the center often dig into their own pockets to help poor families get the care they need.
But there's some real hope for change. The Myanmar government, with leadership from President U Thein Sen and the dynamic Minister of Health, Pe Thet Khin, has increased its health budget four-fold since 2011. There's a growing diversity of actors in the health sector -- spanning the governmental, civil society and private sectors -- that can be harnessed to strengthen Myanmar's health system and realize the potential of UHC. And the goal of UHC has support across the political spectrum, with a shared desire to implement reforms and close health equity gaps as quickly as possible.
"The government health budget has grown, yet the needs are even larger, and health is not yet the priority for [national] investment it should be. And we can't just provide drugs -- we need to build capacity and systems to deliver," a civil society representative working in health told us. "But if the government leads, we are ready to follow."
To this end, the World Bank Group will be working with development partners in Myanmar over the coming months -- under the leadership of the government -- to develop a unified strategic plan to accelerate progress toward the health Millennium Development Goals by 2015 and the UHC targets for 2030. The draft plan will be presented to a meeting of global health leaders during the World Bank Group Spring Meetings in Washington, D.C., in April 2014, to secure their support for successful and rapid implementation.
The health challenges in Myanmar are immense, but there is an unprecedented opportunity to address them. Doing so will not only help Myanmar's people lead healthier, more productive lives, but will also be critical to sustaining economic growth  and progress on democratic reforms, and realizing a more equitable society in Myanmar.
Follow the World Bank health team on Twitter: @worldbankhealth