Burma Govt Health, Education Budgets Likely to Remain Low in 2014

By Yen Saning 10 January 2014

RANGOON — Despite calls to increase spending on health and education, Burma’s government is facing a budget deficit and does not plan to substantially boost its allocation of funds for either sector in the next fiscal year.

The Financial Commission led by President Thein Sein has proposed to allocate 5.92 percent of the national budget for education in the 2014 fiscal year, up from 5.43 percent in the 2013 fiscal year, state media announced Wednesday. It has proposed to allocate 3.38 percent of the national budget to health, up from 3.15 percent last year.

State media did not reveal how big the total national budget would be, nor did it share the percentage that would be allocated to defense spending, which stood at just over 12 percent of the total 19 trillion kyats (US$19 billion) budget in 2013, slightly lower than in 2012.

Under nearly half a century of military rule, a major share of funds went to defense while the health and education sectors were largely neglected. Since assuming office in 2011, Thein Sein’s government has pushed through a raft of political and socio-economic reforms, but the powerful military continues to hold great political power and is still allocated the largest share of expenditure.

The proposed budget must be approved by Parliament. Last year lawmakers approved the government’s proposed $2.4 billion military budget with an overwhelming majority.

Steven Thar Bate, a lawmaker from the Chin National Party, said he earlier proposed a reduction in military spending and an increase in funds for education and health, but was unsuccessful.

“We want to increase these [education and health] to perhaps 7, 8, 9 or 10 percent,” he told The Irrawaddy, adding that with the current budget allocation for health care, hospitals struggled with low supplies of necessary equipment and medicines. “CT scans and X-rays are needed in the states. There are no skillful practitioners, either.”

He said that at vocational colleges in his Chin State, students also faced a shortage of academic materials. “It seems there is no budget for equipment for students to practice and participate in workshops,” the lawmaker said.

Wanna Htun, a government program officer from the international NGO ActionAID, called on the government to reconsider its priorities. “If they do national planning well, they will know how much of the budget is needed in each sector. Then they will be able to handle budget proposals well,” he said.

He added that the government could allocate more funds to social services from a supplemental budget that is valid until the end of this fiscal year. International aid money is also often reserved for education and health care.

He cautioned that it was important to consider not only the percentage of funds allocated to certain sectors, but the amount of funds allocated, and to ensure that those funds were used in the most cost effective way.

Burma had revenue of more than 16 trillion kyats ($16 billion) in the 2013 fiscal year but spent 19 trillion kyats, leaving a deficit of about 3 trillion kyats. After meeting with the Financial Commission on Monday, Thein Sein is calling for a crackdown on tax evasion and recommending a system to provide incentives to taxpayers in the next fiscal year, state media reported.

In addition, the president has called for the effective use of foreign aid and loans to reduce the country’s debt burden. “Only then can more emphasis be placed on development tasks,” the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper wrote.

Despite the budget shortfall, the newspaper added that Thein Sein has announced an effort to promote free education for middle school students, following an initiative to do the same for primary school students last year.

Students are not required to pay tuition at basic education schools, but families have traditionally spent money on books as well as tables and chairs for classrooms, school building repairs and registration fees. The government is seeking to cover these additional fees to provide a free education for primary and middle school students.