Poor Access to Banking Hurts Burma’s Economy: Report

Just 4 percent of people in Burma have bank savings accounts, according to a new survey conducted by the United Nations that aims to help the government improve access to financial services.

The UN Capital Development Fund and the UN Development Program on Thursday launched the results of research from their Making Access Possible (MAP) project, which surveyed 5,100 people across the country.

The results show that much of the population, both in rural areas and in cities, has long been cut off from formal services to help them save money, invest in their families and businesses, and borrow in hard times.

The report carrying the MAP study’s results said that only 4 percent of people have savings accounts at a bank.

The lack of so-called financial inclusion may be borne out in the fact that—although“10 percent of respondents said they have savings in gold, livestock or ‘cash under the bed’”— 62 percent said they do not save money at all.

This leaves them vulnerable to unpredictable events like illness, and hurts the country’s economy.“Even with a fully functioning financial system, this affects the ability of the country to mobilize national savings for growth and development,” a statement accompanying the report said.

The lack of saving may also simply be down to the narrow margins with which most people live. Inflation, which is already putting the squeeze on many people, is only expected to increase in the next few years, and anger at this state of affairs was plain in the reaction to Vice President NyanTun’s recent comment that 2,000 kyat per day, just over $2, is “enough to survive.”

Based on the questionnaires, the report estimates that 43 percent of adults in Burma live on less than $2 per day, while 81 percent get less than US$5 per day.

While few are saving money, larger numbers have access to some form of formal financial services, usually for borrowing. According to the study, fewer people in rural areas (47 percent) are excluded from all formal forms of finance than in cities (53 percent), largely thanks to state institutions like the Myanmar Agricultural Development Bank and cooperatives that offer credit to farmers.

But most people still rely on family and friends, or unofficial money lenders, despite the higher costs.

“Respondents indicated that although unregulated providers charged high interest rates for credit, they were the preferred choice because of their proximity, flexible operating hours, immediate relief and negotiable borrowing terms,” it said.

The UN agencies recommended that the expansion of mobile phone services is harnessed to enable people to make electronic payments. They said that the Burmese government should relax regulations on private lenders, and use the findings to set its priorities for expanding access to financial services.

“Although increasing such access is not an end in itself, improving access to financial services achieves higher policy objectives,” the report said, highlighting that the government has already acknowledged the need for greater access to financial services.

“Such objectives are reflected in Article 3 of the Microfinance Law and include: ‘reducing the poverty of grass root communities, social development, improved education and health of such communities as well as assisting them with other means of earning a livelihood including agriculture and livestock breeding, creating jobs, nurturing and cultivating a savings habit, encouraging emergence of Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) and facilitating cottage businesses as well as acquiring and disseminating technical know-how from local and abroad.’”