Unleashing the full potential of Maldivian children: Bridging the gap in human capital

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Children playing on the beach in Maafushi Island, Maldives Children playing on the beach in Maafushi Island, Maldives. Photo: Shutterstock/ Sappasit

Imagine Ali and Maryam, two Maldivian children with dreams as bright as the turquoise waters surrounding their island nation. Ali, born in the bustling capital of Male, is likely to have a brighter future than Maryam, a girl from the Central Region. Sadly, the difference in their potential for a fulfilling life comes down to their birthplace and gender. This inequality is a stark reminder that for many Maldivians, the promise of a prosperous future remains out of reach.

Ali is poised to reach 64.3 percent of his full potential by age 18, according to Maldives’ recently released Human Capital Index (HCI) score. In contrast, Maryam is expected to achieve only 55.6 percent. As they grow into adulthood, the gap widens. At current levels of health, education and employment, Ali’s future productivity is predicted to be 51.9 percent, while Maryam’s is predicted to be a mere 27.5 percent. In other words, Maryam is expected to be significantly more disadvantaged in life than Ali.

These figures are not just numbers—they represent a significant challenge to gender and spatial equality.

For Maryam, this translates into a life constrained by scarce opportunities for herself and her future family. For Ali, the journey is likely to be less fraught with obstacles, but an important question remains: how much more prosperous could the Maldives become if each child, regardless of gender or geography, were afforded equal opportunities to flourish?

The Maldives has achieved impressive progress in health and education in the past decades, boasting a national HCI score of 59.6 percent, surpassing its regional counterparts and income-level comparators. This means that a child born in Maldives today is expected to achieve approximately 60 percent of her or his full potential by age 18. This success is largely attributed to the nation’s robust health indicators.

However, the national HCI average score masks significant regional disparities. With 60 percent of Maldivian children living in regions with HCI scores below that of the national average, it is clear that access to quality health and education services is unevenly distributed in the country.

The transition from childhood to the labor market reveals another concerning trend: a drop from 59.6 to 36.6 percent in expected productivity for Maldivians entering the workforce. This 23-percentage point loss of potential future productivity is indicative of significant labor market challenges, especially for Maldivian women.

The Human Capital Review, which was launched in early 2024 and helped Maldives to calculate its first ever HCI score, identifies poor-quality education and low female employment rates as some of the main barriers to human capital acceleration in the country.

A Maldivian child can expect to complete 12.4 years of schooling, but when factoring quality of education, the effective learning is only 8.1 years, implying a loss of 4.3 years due to educational deficiencies. This loss is more pronounced than in other upper-middle-income countries and small island states. In other words, Ali can expect to receive nearly 13 years of schooling, while Maryam’s educational journey is expected to be shorter, at 11 years. When factoring quality of education, the gap widens further. Ali’s effective learning is estimated at 9.1 years, whereas Maryam’s is only 7.2 years.

This education quality challenge is linked to less favorable outcomes in the job market, a sector where gender plays a critical role in the Maldives. Participation of working-age women in the labor force is only 46 percent, in an astonishing contrast to the 77 percent of their male counterparts. A similar gender gap is also reflected in employment rates, underscoring the need for targeted interventions to bridge these divides.

The future of Maldives depends on the potential of its people. To foster a more inclusive and resilient economy, in an already constrained fiscal environment, the Maldives must optimize its human capital investments. By adopting a multi-faceted approach in ensuring equal access to quality education, addressing labor market challenges for women, reforming the national health insurance scheme, and strengthening social protection systems, the country can unleash a wave of productivity, innovation and growth, and  ensure that every child—whether Ali, Maryam, or any other bright young mind­—regardless of birthplace or gender, has the opportunity to thrive and contribute to the nation’s prosperity.

René Leon Solano

Program Leader for Human Development

Nicole Klingen

Regional Director, Human Development, South Asia

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