According to two recent reports by the United Nations’ children's agency UNICEF, it would take a mere 0.9 percent of revenues from two new natural gas projects to immunise all children in Myanmar in 2014 – some 1.5 million under two years of age.
It would cost an estimated $11.4 million for 6.76 million doses of vaccines covering a wide range of preventable diseases and this could be funded entirely by government revenue from the Shwe project in western Myanmar and Zawtika in the south, said UNICEF.
Released in November, the reports take an interesting look at how income from natural resource projects could benefit children in the resource-rich but impoverished Southeast Asian country, which has emerged from half a century of brutal military rule.
Analysts and observers have long criticised Myanmar's management of its immense reserves of gas, oil, gemstones and timber as “opaque” – the kind of environment in which kleptocracies thrive as leaders and cronies cream off wealth to line their own bank accounts, leaving the rest of the country in poverty.
Despite its natural riches, Myanmar is Southeast Asia's poorest country. About one-third of its 60 million people live on less than $1.25 a day.
In addition to immunisation, one report entitled From Natural Resources to Human Capital said that:
- Less than nine days of natural gas revenues could provide one teacher per primary school grade per year across the country. According to UNICEF sources, about 60 percent of more than 36,000 primary schools in Myanmar are understaffed, with an average of three teachers covering five different grades.
- An extra dollar in tax collected for each kilogramme of jade produced could have built almost 14,600 classrooms over the past nine years. My Reuters colleagues have also written a piece about billions of dollars in revenues lost due to “unofficial” sales of jade.
- Over a 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 per month (about $15) for all Myanmar children under five (close to 6 million). There’s currently no cash transfer for families in Myanmar and this scheme – used mainly in Latin America and Africa with conditions for school attendance and regular health checks attached – would help “reduce poverty and ensure increased access to basic services for children and their parents,” UNICEF said.
- A 0.6 percent increase in the tax collected on hardwood extraction would pay the annual salary of 6,000 social workers working for $60 a month. The current tax rate, based on an estimated value of $946 million of hardwood extraction, is less than 0.6 percent, the report said.
PUTTING NATURAL RESOURCES TO GOOD USE
“Myanmar is blessed with an abundance of natural resources which can be turned into meaningful, sustainable, impactful social investments right now, starting with children,” one of the reports said.
As income from natural resources grows, there’s “an opportunity” for the Myanmar government to channel it into social development and this could be done “for a relatively small amount” of government money, it added.
Ongoing reforms may have made Myanmar a darling of the West – a far cry from a couple of years ago when it was a pariah state – but the country’s spending on education, health and social welfare is still measly.
For the fiscal year 2012-2013, as a percentage of GDP, the government spent 0.76 percent on health, 1.46 percent on education and 0.01 percent on social welfare, according to UNICEF. Almost all vaccines are currently purchased with donor funds.
Social spending has seen increases in recent budgets but it’s important to remember the base was extremely low. Aid workers said in 2007 that the government spent only $0.70 per person on health.
“Despite improvements, the country’s under-5 and infant mortality rates are the highest among ASEAN (the Association of SouthEast Asian Nations) member countries, and many of these deaths are preventable,” it added.
Around 56,000 children under five die in Myanmar each year, a huge majority of them younger than one month, said the aid agency.
The current immunisation rate in Myanmar is fairly high – around 80 percent, although UNICEF says data isn’t always reliable – but there’s no reason why every single child couldn’t be vaccinated, considering the amount of money Myanmar is earning and could earn from natural resource projects.
“Children are the most precious resources of the country. They must be the first beneficiary of the ongoing reforms,” said Bertrand Bainvel, UNICEF’s representative in Myanmar, in a report.