Despite Challenges, Impressive Achievements Seen in North and Central Asia’s Education and Health Services
Bangkok (UN Information Services) – While still facing many challenges, countries in North and Central Asia have witnessed impressive achievements in education and health services following the economic transition of the 1990s, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) says in its latest regional survey.
The Economic and Social Survey of Asia and the Pacific 2008 notes that the five economies of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics have seen growth return to pre-1989 levels after a severe downturn through the 1990s.
The recovery has also led to more spending in key areas such as education and health as well as efforts to reduce poverty. “Achievements in education and health are impressive, with high literacy and high life expectancies,” the Survey says. But it warns that a “lack of financial, human and institutional resources to support education and health hamper social development in North and Central Asia.”
The newly-independent states had “grappled with complex social challenges,” including a “deterioration in living conditions and sharply lower funding for social protection, education and health,” the Survey says.
In the 1990s, poverty increased sharply across the five countries. In Azerbaijan (1995) the poverty incidence reached 62 per cent, in Armenia (1998) it was 55 per cent, 43.8 per cent in Kazakhstan (1998), 64.1 per cent in Kyrgyzstan (1999) and 83 per cent in Tajikistan (1999).
But as the economies recovered, poverty levels fell. The proportion of people living below the national poverty line dropped to 29.3 per cent in Azerbaijan (2005), to 34 per cent in Armenia (2005), to 18.2 per cent in Kazakhstan (2006), to 45.9 per cent in Kyrgyzstan (2004), and to 64 per cent in Tajikistan (2003).
Extreme poverty also dropped. In Kyrgyzstan, the percentage of the population living on a dollar a day fell from 20.3 per cent in 1996 to about 2 per cent in 2003. In Tajikistan, dollar-a-day poverty dropped from 13.9 per cent in 1999 to 7.4 per cent in 2003.
A key concern noted by the Survey is the widening of income inequality in North and Central Asia after 1990, although there were signs of improvement from 1996 to 1998. “If North and Central Asia is to make progress towards a full market economy, income inequality remains a major challenge,” the Survey says.
Education had also suffered due to cuts in budget allocations. “Since the transition to a market economy, education has been deprived of resources, and the standard of education has declined,” the Survey says. The Russian Federation was the exception. Spending there rose from three per cent of GDP in 2000 to 3.7 per cent in 2006. Efforts were being made to improve salaries for teachers and academics as their earnings had lagged behind the national average.
All the economies had taken steps to increase spending on health services in recent years after suffering during the post-independence period where “economic conditions placed new demands on health systems – and revealed inefficiencies.”
“Total expenditures on health rose by more than 188 international dollars in the Russian Federation over 2000-2004, by 94.6 dollars in Kazakhstan, by 75.7 dollars in Armenia, by 69.3 dollars in Georgia and by 15.3 dollars in Uzbekistan,” the Survey notes.
Life expectancy, having fallen in all North and Central Asian economies throughout the 1990s, was also recovering.
Macroeconomic reforms, including measures to reduce poverty and improve education and health care were also taking place. “Education and health have benefited from changed government expenditure priorities through new teacher training programmes, hospital renovations and more financing for primary health care,” the Survey says.
Governments were promoting private schools and universities and encouraging parents to participate in financing their children’s education, although the State continues to allocate resources for basic education.
But “challenges remain,” the Survey warns. “Private education accounts for a small share and does not yet play a significant role.” In the Russian Federation, private schools accounted for almost 40 per cent of all higher education establishments in 2005.
From 2001 to 2005 health facilities became semi-autonomous “and more responsible for their own financing.” Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, the Russian Federation and Turkmenistan, all instituted compulsory health insurance plans. The Survey cautions against risking the exclusion of the poor and vulnerable from health services. “The need is there for a funding system that protects everyone’s interests while ensuring quality,” it says.
The Survey also says that the macroeconomic performance remained critical in reducing poverty and implementing policy reforms in education and health. Remittances offered an option at resolving the problems of poverty, education and health. Also, “effective use of the region’s large intellectual potential should be integral to sub-regional economic and social cooperation, especially on education.
The Survey notes that financing and delivering health services in an efficient and equitable way remains a major challenge everywhere. Reforms in health care, the pooling of financial and technological resources “could help the sub-region progress in education and health.”
As the region's most comprehensive annual review of economic and social developments, ESCAP's Economic and Social Survey of Asia and the Pacific provides the only independent source of analysis covering all countries in this vast and diverse region, and considers both the social and economic spheres of development. The 2008 Survey, entitled "Sustaining Growth and Sharing Prosperity," looks at the most critical issues, challenges and risks our region faces in the months ahead.
Headquartered in Bangkok, Thailand, ESCAP is the largest of the UN's five Regional Commissions in terms of membership, population served and area covered. The only inter-governmental forum covering the entire Asia-Pacific region, it aims to promote economic and social progress.