Thailand has made remarkable progress in social and economic development over the past few decades.
In less than 30 years, the percentage of people living under the poverty line has fallen drastically from 67 per cent in
1986 to 10.5 per cent in 2014 and the number of infant deaths has been reduced to the same level as the world’s most developed countries.
However, poverty and social exclusion still deprive many of Thailand’s young generation of critical nutrition, healthcare, education and protection necessary for their optimal development. This is particularly true for children in poor families, children living in remote areas, children with disabilities, children of ethnic minorities and migrant children.
This, if not structurally addressed, could deprive the country of tens of thousands of future empowered adult workforce, and undermine Thailand’s commitment to “leave no one behind”, enshrined in its support for the global Sustainable Development Goals.
As the general election nears, the social and economic priorities for the people have been brought more into focus as a challenge for the new government. As such, this is an opportune moment for those in the running for Sunday’s election to look closely into how increasing investment for children and young people will further advance Thailand’s sustainable development.
Focusing on the following five priority actions for children will yield far-reaching results and benefits throughout the whole society and should be considered as foundational actions for children – and for the country – by the post-election government.
First, adopt a universal Child Support Grant. Introduced in 2015, the Child Support Grant provides over half a million poor and near-poor families of children under 3 with a monthly allowance of Bt600. A recent impact evaluation has shown improvements in feeding and caring practices as well as access to essential services and empowerment of mothers of children, receiving the grant.
Yet, the grant did not reach 30 per cent of eligible children. Therefore Unicef is calling for an extension of the grant to cover all children, during the critical first 6 years of life. The budget for this universal approach is not only feasible and affordable, but also expected to decline over time due to declining child population; by 2030, it will be just 0.09 per cent of GDP.
Second, establish an equitable and quality childcare system for children under 3. With only three months maternity leave in place, many working mothers face a difficult choice when returning to work. In the absence of affordable child care services for children under the age of 3, the challenge, in particular for poorer families, is how their children can be cared for in an environment that promotes their optimal development.
Too many children are currently deprived from the care and development support that their parents should offer them. It also deprives the Thai economy of tens of thousands of mothers or fathers who feel they have no other choice but to drop out of the economic market to support child rearing.
Unicef therefore calls for the development of standardised childcare services for children aged 3 months to 3 years, accessible and affordable to all parents, in partnership with private sector and other potential service providers.
Third, strengthen skill development for students. An astounding 65 per cent of children entering primary school today will end up working in jobs that haven’t been created yet. While skills such as numeracy and literacy remain important foundations for all future learning, students also need to develop so-called “21st century skills” which will allow them to thrive in this dynamic century of ever-rapid change and uncertainty. This requires a renewed focus on a whole range of skills including adaptability, critical thinking, creativity, problem solving and collaboration.
An urgent reform of school curriculum is therefore required. Teachers must also be supported to understand the new competency-based approach, be empowered, valued, and must have access to good resources and guidance to help their students engage in more collaborative and skill-building activities such as project-based learning, research and analysis and problem-solving tasks.
Fourth, establish systematic child protection expertise and capacity at local level. According to One-Stop Crisis Centre, nearly 9,000 children were treated in hospital in 2017 due to violence, mainly sexual violence. Many more incidents of violence and abuse likely go unreported due to weak identification and referral systems.
Existing child protection services are mainly available at provincial level, while incidents mostly occur at community levels, in sub-district or village levels, which lack resources and appropriate mechanism to detect and respond to child protection cases. Thailand must consider an overhaul of its current child protection system and explore ways to establish effective child protection expertise all the way to village levels. This could for instance be translated in the presence of trained social workers at tambon or at least sub-district level, who can lead and coordinate the protection of children.
Lastly, empower young people to become Thailand’s future economic growth leaders. Approximately 12 million people aged 10-24 in Thailand today will soon assume leadership roles in families, workplaces and communities.
However, 1 in 4 adolescents aged 15 to 17 are not in school, while 15 per cent of young people aged 15-24 are not in education, training or employment. These young people need access to a package of services that help empower them, and equip them with vocational skills and training, which are in high demand in the private sector.
For young people to have a better chance of future employment, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, they need equitable access to services such as student loans and quality vocational education.
Looking ahead, Thailand will have to confront a number of complex challenges, such as an ageing population and persistent disparities. There is no better way for it to be ready than to invest in its children and youth, so that they may adapt to and overcome the challenges of tomorrow.
Thomas Davin is Unicef Representative for Thailand.
This article is part of a series of opinion pieces by Unicef Thailand, in which the organisation proposes policy priorities for children and young people, for the equitable and sustainable development of Thailand.