Social development

Over the last two decades, lower Mekong countries have all experienced economic development and social transformation, though there is wide variance among them. At one end of the spectrum sits Thailand, a middle-income country with an impressive track record on poverty reduction and economic growth, and at the other end are Myanmar and Laos, which received low scores for most indicators on the latest United Nations’ Human Development Index.1

Primary school students in Oudomxay province, Laos. Photo by World Bank, Flickr, taken 16 November 2012. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Primary school students in Oudomxay province, Laos. Photo by World Bank, Flickr, taken 16 November 2012. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Generic.

The multi-dimensional nature of measuring social development shows that improvements across indicators are not equally experienced, even by people within the same country. A look at the available data on poverty ratios from 2006 suggests that poverty has reduced at a slower rate for the region’s majority rural populations than for their urban counterparts.

Source: UNDP. Human Development Reports, 2015. Chart by ODI, March 2016. Licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0.

The 2005-2013 Quintile Ratio2 for all countries—with the exception of Myanmar—was at similar levels to both developed and developing countries in the Asia region. In fact, there are examples of nearby countries where the gap between rich and poor was much more pronounced (e.g. Malaysia and Philippines).3

No data is yet available for Myanmar from the World Bank or UN sources for poverty levels, however it was ranked lowest of the five Lower Mekong countries in the 2015 Human Development Index, while having a Gross National Income (GNI) per capita similar to countries with a much higher ranking.


Life expectancy at birth continued to increase up to 2014, reaching an average of 70.1 across the Lower Mekong countries. The divide across the region is about 10 years, according to the latest UN report: Vietnam’s life expectancy in 2014 was 75.8 years, Thailand’s was 74.4 years, Cambodia 68.4 years, Laos 66.2 years and Myanmar 65.9 years.4 These gains in longevity can be attributed to a number of factors: improved standards of living, better nutrition, water and sanitation, greater access to quality health services meaning fewer children are dying before their fifth birthday, and increased control of communicable and other diseases.

Source: World Bank. World Development Indicators: Life expectancy at birth. Chart by ODI, February 2016. Licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0.

Despite these broad regional improvements in life expectancy at birth, Laos continued to struggle to overcome high infant and maternal mortality. Laos’, Myanmar’s and Cambodia’s maternal mortality rates are the highest in the region at 197, 178 and 161 deaths per 100,000 live births respectively—almost eight times that of their neighbor Thailand (20 deaths per 100,000 live births). It should be noted, however, that these rates have declined significantly in all three countries since 2006, and were below the global average in 2015.5 In addition, 7.1 percent of Lao children die before the age of five, one of the highest infant mortality rates in Southeast Asia.6

These high mortality rates can be attributed to the prevalence of acute respiratory infections and diarrhea in children, and conditions like anemia and under-nutrition among pregnant women. Furthermore, the unequal distribution and accessibility of reproductive  and maternal health services and facilities, such as pre-natal, delivery and post-natal care,7 is often due to ethnic and geographical differences, which disproportionately affects communities living in remote, mountainous regions.8

Source: United Nations. Human Development Reports, 2015. Chart by ODI, March 2016. Licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0.


Universal primary education

The United Nations' Millenium Development Goal 2: "Ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling." (United Nations, Millennium Development Goals)

The Asian Development Bank reported late in 2015 that all Lower Mekong countries were on track to meet the 2015 Millennium Development Goal target of universal primary education.9 The Lower Mekong’s average net primary school enrolment rate of more than 111 percent for 2008-201410 suggests that in some of these countries, students are enrolling in primary school beyond primary age. This average ranges from 93 percent in Thailand to 125 percent in Cambodia.11 These high enrolment rates also mask deficiencies in student to teacher ratios for some countries, and high dropout rates (Cambodia had the highest primary school dropout rate of 35.8 percent).12 Enrolment at secondary school level was lower than primary school for all countries from 2008-2014, at an average of 58.2 percent, and the average for tertiary education enrolment was 24.5 percent, though in Thailand it was 51 percent.13 The average expected years of schooling across the Lower Mekong was 11.1 years in 2014.

The graphics below illustrate the average primary school class sizes in each country, using the latest data from the UNDP’s measure of student to teacher ratios, 2008-2014.

The diagram below compares the percentage of the adult population (25 years or older) with some secondary education, with the gross enrolment in secondary education between 2008-2014.


The Lower Mekong countries show a similar pattern of economic growth tempered by declining social equality. Thailand’s gross national income (GNI) per capita was more than 200 percent higher than the average for the other four countries,14 and had the lowest proportion living in multi-dimensional poverty in 2014, with just 1.0 percent of the population; Cambodia had the highest proportion with 46.8 percent of the population.15 The chart below shows the levels of severe multidimensional poverty, and the percentage of working poor. The UN classifies multidimensional poverty as someone deprived in at least one-third or more of their non-monetary indicators reflecting health, education and standard of living.16

Source: UNDP. Human Development Reports, 2015: Statistical annex. Note that data for these indicators in this report are from various years, and do not indicate current 2015 levels. Chart by ODI, March 2016. Licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0.

Gender equality shows a lot of disparity throughout the Mekong region, particularly in areas of education, employment and representation. According to United Nations’ estimates, both Thailand and Myanmar have the lowest levels of female representation in national parliaments, at 6.1 percent and 6.2 percent respectively. The other three Lower Mekong countries had female national parliament representation at 20.3 percent (Cambodia), 24.3 percent (Vietnam) and 25 percent (Laos). In all countries where data was available (Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam) women were more likely to be in vulnerable employment (unpaid family workers and own-account workers) than men. Thailand had by far the largest difference in labor force participation rates between males and females in 2013, and the Lower Mekong average was 73.4 percent for females and 82.2 percent for males.17

Social protection

Social protection is defined by the United Nations Research Institute For Social Development (UNRISD) as “preventing, managing and overcoming situations that adversely affect people’s wellbeing.”18 Essentially, it is an umbrella term to describe the policies, systems and services a nation employees to mitigate economic and social risks to its population. According to the Social Protection Index Report 2013, Vietnam had the highest spending ratio on social protection in 2010, at 4.7 percent of GDP, slightly higher than Thailand’s which was below 4 percent. Cambodia and Laos spent around 1 percent of their GDP on social protection.19 The extent of Vietnam’s expenditure reflects the dominance of the state-owned social insurance system, which provides a wide range of protection to workers. In addition, 34.5 percent of people of pension age receive a pension, topped only by Thailand at 81.7 percent.20 Cambodia and Laos have limited social protection systems in place.

Last updated: 31 March 2016


  • 1. United Nations Development Programme. “Human development reports, 2015.” Accessed 5 November 2015.
  • 2. ”Ratio of the average income of the richest 20% of the population to the average income of the poorest 20% of the population.” Source: UNDP. “Table 3: Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index.” Accessed 25 March 2016.
  • 3. UNDP. Human Development Reports. “Table 3: Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index.” Accessed 25 March 2016.
  • 4. United Nations Development Programme. “Human development reports.” 2015. Search Category: Health/Life expectancy at birth. Search Countries: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam.
  • 5. World Bank. “Maternal mortality ratio (modeled estimate, per 100,000 live births).” Accessed 10 March 2016.
  • 6. United Nations Development Programme. “Human development reports.” 2015. Search Category: Gender/ Maternal mortality ratio (deaths per 100,000 live births); Health/Under five mortality (per 1000 under five children). Search Countries: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam.
  • 7. UNICEF. “Country briefing guide: Lao PDR”, page 6. Accessed 9 April 2015.
  • 8. UNICEF. “Situation of the children.” Accessed 9 April 2015.
  • 9. Asian Development Bank. 2015. “Key indicators for Asia and the Pacific 2015.” Page 129. Accessed 9 February 2016.
  • 10. UNICEF. “The State of the World’s Children 2015.” Data not available for Myanmar. Accessed 9 April 2015.
  • 11. The gross enrolment ratio is the total enrolment in primary education, regardless of age, expressed as a percentage of the official primary school-age population. A number below 100 percent implies not all eligible students were enrolled, while a number higher than 100 percent implies that students beyond primary age were enrolled. Source: United Nations Development Program. “Human development reports: Statistical Annex (Notes to Educational indicators).” Accessed 9 April 2015.
  • 12. United Nations Development Programme. “Human development reports.” 2014. Search Category: Education/ Pupil-teacher ratio; Primary school dropout rates (% of primary school cohort). Search Countries: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam. Accessed 9 April 2015.
  • 13. United Nations Development Programme, Human development reports.” 2014. Search Category: Education/Gross enrolment ratio: secondary (% of children of secondary school age. No data available for Vietnam. Search Countries: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand. Accessed 9 April 2015.
  • 14. United Nations. 2015. Human Development Reports. Country profiles: Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Thailand, Viet Nam. Accessed 9 February 2016.
  • 15. United Nations Development Programme. “Human development reports.” Search Countries: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Accessed 5 November 2015.
  • 16. United Nations Development Programme. “Human Development Reports: Frequently Asked Questions – Multidimensional Poverty Index.” Accessed 25 March 2016.
  • 17. The World Bank. “Gender: Vulnerable employment, male (% of male employment); Vulnerable employment, female (% of male employment); Labor force participation rate, male (% of male population ages 15+) (modeled ILO estimate); Labor force participation rate, female (% of female population ages 15+) (modeled ILO estimate);” Accessed 14 December 2015.
  • 18. UNRISD. “2010. Combating Poverty and Inequality: Structural Change, Social Policy and Politics.” Accessed 25 March 2016.$file/PovRep%20(small).pdf
  • 19. Asian Development Bank. 2013. “Social Protection Index: Assessing results for Asia and the Pacific.” page 22.
  • 20. United Nations Development Programme. Human development reports.” 2014. Search Category: Human Security/ Old age pension. Search Countries: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam. Accessed 9 April 2015.
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