A frightening prospect for children born in Thailand today is that by the time they reach adulthood, Thailand will be an aged society with a dependency ratio of 1.7 workers for every old person. In 2010 that figure was 5 workers for every old person.
There is little doubt that the economic burden will be heavy on the relatively small demographic of today’s children, who will have to produce enough wealth to both maintain Thailand’s current middle-income status, or indeed take it into a high-income bracket, while managing the rising costs of pension and healthcare to care for today’s adult population.
The only way to succeed against a challenge of such magnitude is to make sure that today’s babies and young children become an economic “powerhouse”, delivering economic growth at similar levels to the past 20 years for the country.
This is possible. Evidence shows that quality early interventions give children the best start in life and build readiness for later learning and academic success. Research by the Nobel laureate Professor James Heckman reaffirms that investing in high-quality early child development (ECD) programmes provides impressive economic and social returns for children and society, and contributes to reducing inequality.
In the last 20 years, Thailand has made impressive gains in ECD. Approximately 85 per cent of children aged 3-5 years now attend ECD centres or pre-primary education. Thailand has also rightly recognised that effective services for young children will only happen through cohesive and multi-sectoral policy investments.
The National ECD Committee, bringing together relevant ministries and agencies, has driven the push to expand access to quality ECD services for children aged 0 to 6 years.
The National Legislative Assembly recently endorsed the ECD Act, an important step in further strengthening national coordination for ECD to ensure the holistic development of all young children in Thailand.
Notwithstanding this prioritisation and the associated benefits, challenges remain. Exclusive breastfeeding rates remain far below national targets; too few parents are engaging their children in activities which support learning and development; and rates of violent discipline among children under 5 years remain relatively high. Nutrition and stunting rates for children under 5 years are also a key concern.
Of further concern is the fact that almost 1 in 5 children aged 0 to 4 years old live apart from their parents, with potential negative impact on their care and development. A lack of affordable childcare services means that many working parents find no choice but to leave their young children with grandparents and extended family members.
This challenge is especially pertinent for children aged between 3 months old (when the mother has to go back to work following maternity leave) and 3 years old, given a lack of affordable childcare services for children under 3.
To address this gap, the government’s role is firstly to ensure that there is a standardised curriculum in place which addresses the holistic development needs of children under the age of 3. This curriculum should be used to regulate and ensure the quality of all childcare services that can be provided through a combination of public-private partnerships and through non-governmental agencies.
ECD professionals working in childcare should have access to appropriate training and be properly certified to deliver the curriculum with consistent quality. With the high rates of return on investments in quality care for this age group, the government should also consider subsidising the services which are deemed to meet the quality standards, in particular those which are providing these services to disadvantaged children.
The private sector and large employers, if properly incentivised and supported by the government, will form part of the childcare solution. Other modalities can include the expansion of home-based childcare.
Thailand is well positioned to take the next steps in the development of ECD services, and to capitalise on the already impressive progress made for young children. Affordable, accessible childcare for children under 3 years would allow many parents to make choices about when to go back to work, and how best to support the development of their children.
Juan Santander is Unicef deputy 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.