Ed­u­cat­ing for Myan­mar’s fu­ture

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The vi­o­lence that has rav­aged Myan­mar’s Rakhine State un­der­scores the chal­lenges the coun­try faces on its bumpy road from mil­i­tary rule to democ­racy. The coun­try is con­fronting a deep cri­sis, and ur­gent ac­tion is des­per­ately needed to pre­vent fur­ther vi­o­lence and as­sist the huge numbers of refugees and in­ter­nally dis­placed peo­ple. To ad­dress the po­lit­i­cal, so­cioe­co­nomic and hu­man­i­tar­ian chal­lenges fu­eled by the cri­sis, the Ad­vi­sory Com­mis­sion on Rakhine State, chaired by Kofi An­nan, rec­om­mends ur­gent and sus­tained ac­tion on a num­ber of fronts to pre­vent vi­o­lence, main­tain peace, and fos­ter rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

While global at­ten­tion has rightly fo­cused on how to end the at­tacks on Mus­lim Ro­hingya, many other, more sys­temic fixes are crit­i­cal to Myan­mar’s long-term sta­bil­ity. Ed­u­ca­tion re­form is one of the most im­por­tant.

In late Au­gust, I was in Naypyi­daw, Myan­mar’s new cap­i­tal, with the In­ter­na­tional Com­mis­sion on Fi­nanc­ing Global Ed­u­ca­tion Op­por­tu­nity. The Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mis­sion, as we are known, was there to present find­ings from our lat­est re­port, ‘The Learn­ing Gen­er­a­tion’, and to share ideas with the coun­try’s lead­er­ship on pay­ing for ed­u­ca­tion and im­prov­ing out­comes. We met with Aung San Suu Kyi, the gov­ern­ment’s de facto leader, and Myo Thein Gyi, the ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter.

Our con­ver­sa­tions were cor­dial and pro­duc­tive. By the end, we agreed on this much: sus­tain­ing Myan­mar’s po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion hinges on im­prov­ing its ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor.

To many of Myan­mar’s lead­ers, their coun­try


an eco­nomic-power-in-wait­ing. Home to some 53 mil­lion peo­ple, it is rich in min­er­als, nat­u­ral gas and fer­tile farm­land, and it oc­cu­pies a strate­gic lo­ca­tion be­tween In­dia and China. Most im­por­tant, Myan­mar is rich in hu­man po­ten­tial, with a di­verse and youth­ful work­force – the me­dian age is just 28 – ready to take their coun­try for­ward. What Myan­mar lacks are the schools needed to train them.

Be­fore mil­i­tary rule was im­posed in 1962, Myan­mar’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem was among the best in Asia. For the next half-cen­tury, schools were ne­glected and un­der­funded. Starved of re­sources and teach­ers, the sys­tem at­ro­phied. Rote learn­ing re­placed crit­i­cal think­ing, un­der­min­ing cre­ativ­ity. To­day, while some chil­dren have re­turned to the class­room, at­ten­dance in many parts of the coun­try re­mains low, and teach­ing stan­dards poor, con­tribut­ing to high dropout rates.

In ad­di­tion to these short­com­ings, Myan­mar faces se­vere hu­man chal­lenges, in­clud­ing en­demic poverty, poor health in­di­ca­tors, and a lack of ba­sic in­fra­struc­ture. Among ASEAN coun­tries, Myan­mar has the low­est life ex­pectancy and the sec­ond-high­est rate of in­fant and child mor­tal­ity.

Im­prov­ing Myan­mar’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, while tack­ling its other prob­lems, will not be easy. But it can be done. Viet­nam and South Korea of­fer in­spir­ing ex­am­ples of coun­tries that trans­formed their ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems within a gen­er­a­tion. As for­mer South Korean ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter and com­mis­sion mem­ber Lee Ju-ho noted dur­ing our visit, teach­ing young peo­ple to think crit­i­cally takes time, but the re­sults can have pow­er­ful knock-on ef­fects for a coun­try’s knowl­edge econ­omy.

Aware of these ben­e­fits, Myan­mar has put ed­u­ca­tion at the heart of its re­form agenda. One pri­or­ity – to im­prove in­clu­siv­ity – is al­ready un­der­way. For ex­am­ple, the gov­ern­ment is cur­rently work­ing to en­cour­age in­struc­tion in more lo­cal lan­guages – more than 100 are spo­ken in Myan­mar – in ru­ral ar­eas. More­over, the gov­ern­ment has in­creased its ed­u­ca­tion bud­get, from just 0.7% of GDP in 2011 to 2.1% of GDP in 2014. While spend­ing re­mains far be­low the re­gional av­er­age of 3.6% of GDP, fund­ing is mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion.

To be sure, much work re­mains to be done. The gov­ern­ment’s re­cently com­pleted Na­tional Ed­u­ca­tion Strate­gic Plan sets out an am­bi­tious five-year time­line to im­prove “the knowl­edge, skills, and com­pe­ten­cies” of all its stu­dents. The Ad­vi­sory Com­mis­sion on Rakhine State rec­om­mends that all com­mu­ni­ties should have equal ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion. The Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mis­sion sup­ports these rec­om­men­da­tions. As Suu Kyi noted dur­ing our con­ver­sa­tion, ed­u­ca­tion will play an in­creas­ingly im­por­tant role in re­duc­ing poverty and pro­mot­ing peace. If mem­bers of the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion are to be­come pro­duc­tive mem­bers of so­ci­ety, she noted, they must be trained in cul­tural and eth­i­cal un­der­stand­ing.

Dur­ing this fraught pe­riod of po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion, in­clu­sive ed­u­ca­tion can help pro­mote a peace­ful con­sol­i­da­tion of democ­racy. As the cri­sis in Rakhine State pow­er­fully il­lus­trates, eth­nic and ide­o­log­i­cal rifts run deep in Myan­mar, and ac­ces­si­ble, qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion may be the only means by which a com­mon sense of shared iden­tity can be cul­ti­vated. And, of course, bet­ter train­ing in ba­sic skills can also ul­ti­mately boost eco­nomic growth and in­crease so­cial wel­fare.

The list of chal­lenges fac­ing Myan­mar’s lead­ers is long, and over­com­ing most of them will be nei­ther quick nor easy. But en­sur­ing that no child loses the op­por­tu­nity to learn must rank near the top of the coun­try’s agenda.

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