Social welfare in spotlight as budget debate set to resume

A comprehensive social protections policy that spans the lifecycle from pregnant women to the elderly is set to kick off this year – if advocates can secure a budget for the plan.

Parliament is scheduled to begin wrangling out an allocation for the strategy on March 6, but MPs predict the chronically underfunded social welfare sector will see only the slightest of boosts in the upcoming financial year, which begins on April 1.

During debate in parliament last week, the government proposed spending K628 billion (US$606 million) for the seniors’ pension portion of the strategy, according to Pyidaungsu Hluttaw representative U Zaw Myint Pe from Mandalay Region.

But the proposed expenditure is barely half of the finances needed to meet the targets for the universal pension, which is one of the priority areas of the policy.

The endorsed pension strategy provides for a K25,000 monthly benefit to citizens over 65. To apply the benefit to the eligible demographic in 2015 would cost an estimated K1.15 trillion (US$1.17 billion), or just over 1.5 percent of the GDP.

The universal pension was endorsed with the rest of the UNICEF-backed national social protections strategy in December when Myanmar signed on to the multi-billion-dollar, 10-year poverty reduction scheme.

With 80 pc of the country’s population gravitating around the poverty line, the plan shoots for universal applicability, with cash transfers, school feeding programs, public works strategies, worker training programs, a disabilities allowance and universal seniors’ pension.

But already the welfare program is mired in financial difficulties.

Dr San San Aye, deputy director of the Department of Social Welfare, told The Myanmar Times in January that unless the welfare budget jumps by an enormous margin the pension demographic will have to be so severely restricted it might only apply to a handful of citizens that fall into an age bracket of 100 years and older.

MP Daw Khin Than Myint from Ayeyarwady Region said the current plan is to limit the pension to citizens 90 years and above.
“If you asked me if the social pension is enough for them, I must say they need more,” she said earlier this week.

It is also unclear if the second prong of the social protection strategy anticipated to start in the coming financial year – monthly cash payments of K15,000 to women during the final six months of their pregnancy – will receive any financial backing.

Daw Khin Than Myint said money has been requested for the project, but she declined to elaborate how much, adding only that it will depend on the budget allocated for the Welfare Ministry.

In previous years, social welfare spending has represented a negligible portion of the national budget, dwarfed by huge military and infrastructure spending. Last year, social welfare comprised just 0.08pc of the budget. By contrast, the military was allotted K2.613 trillion, and has asked for a further increase this year.

UNICEF, which has been pushing for full implementation of the social protections strategy, said individuals vulnerable to poverty in Myanmar receive very little support.

“To build its future, Myanmar needs to invest right now on its people, starting with every child,” said Bertrand Bainvel, UNICEF representative to Myanmar.

But parliamentarians said they would closely examine whether the full range of proposed social protections are needed, at least in the short term, before agreeing to fund them.

“We don’t have any objections to benefits providing for older people and pregnant women,” MP U Phone Myint Aung from Yangon Region said.

“Budget funds should be spent on those cases. But the hluttaw objects to spending the budget on investments that are unnecessary or not urgent.”

Source: Myanmar Times

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