Australia is set to become Burma’s largest donor toward education following the unveiling of a new US $80 million aid package.
Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr, who visited Burma for the first time last week, announced the four-year scheme in the wake of tentative democratic reforms by President Thein Sein’s nominally-civilian government.
“Less than half of children who attend primary school in Myanmar complete the full five grades,” said Carr. “That means this generation of children in Myanmar may become the first in the country’s history with a lower level of education than their parents.
“Australia is determined to try and prevent this from happening. Education is the flagship of our aid program in Myanmar.”
The package will be delivered through Canberra’s official aid agency AusAID and aims to provide training for more teachers, boost children’s attendance levels and also target nutrition throughout the primary school system.
There will additionally be a substantial increase in scholarships available for Burmese students to gain access to Australian higher educational facilities—from 20 positions next year to 50 by the year 2015.
“Australia will also reach out to the most remote and underdeveloped regions of the country through Buddhist and community schools,” added Carr. “In some of these schools less than half of teachers are properly trained.”
The scheme aims to provide more than one million children with better access to education through the provision of textbooks, teacher training and food aid to schools in the most remote areas of Burma, as well as improvements to water and sanitation for existing schools.
Take-home meals will also be provided for up to 1.3 million children in an effort to raise nutrition levels, improve the health of young people generally and double enrolment levels.
However, observers have questioned how much of this aid will practically be able to reach the vast and tumultuous ethnic minority areas of Burma. Border regions currently suffer from a dearth of educational assistance from either the Burmese government or outside agencies, with schools struggling from an almost complete lack of resources—both in terms of basic food and water as well as educational materials.
Australia has already eased trade sanctions against military-dominated Burma following Naypyidaw embarking on an ambitious program of reform including the release of hundreds of political prisoners and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi being elected to Parliament.