Small steps, not enough action

Art January 24, 2017 01:00


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Thailand gives itself a pat on the back for achieving the first of the United Nation's sustainable goals but the overall picture is not nearly as bright, as the statistics in a new book show

BACK IN SEPTEMBER 2015, member countries of the United Nations adopted an ambitious set of goals – 17 of them – to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all as part of a new sustainable development agenda.

Even before the adoption of the agenda, Thailand had already gone a long way towards achieving the first of these sustainable development goals (SDGs) – reducing poverty – for which much, if not all, the credit goes to the rich legacy of the His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 70-year reign. 

A new publication, “A Call to Action: Thailand and the Sustainable Development Goals”, which was recently launched by the Thailand Sustainable Development Foundation, make the point that long before the term “sustainable development’ was even coined, poverty reduction had formally started here. That happened back in 1969, when the King established and funded the Royal Project to help increase the feasibility of highland agriculture.

The book explains how the late monarch, on his first visits to the highland villages in 1963, could see that what ailed the Hmong, Karen, Yao, Akha, Lahu, and Lisu communities was not drugs but poverty, poor health, and a lack of education. Almost 50 years later, in 2011, the Royal Initiative Project Centre, covering an area of 272,000 hectares, some 37,561 families or 172,309 people, w able to sell agricultural products of more than 1,702 different types both at home and abroad, earning their growers a total of Bt629 million. 

It is thanks to the success of the Royal Projects that Thailand earned an impressive score in the table showing its progress on the SDGs of 99.91 per cent. However, the country’s scores for the other nine goals listed in the book are well in the red zone – meaning that significant improvement is needed. For Goal 9, “Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure”, for example, we scored just 35.58 per cent. Goal 12 “Responsible Consumption and Production” earned us 42.73, Goal 16 “Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions” 49.5 per cent, and Goal 13 “Climate Action” just 58.89. Overall Thailand is ranked number 61 with a score of 62.2 per cent, way behind the leader Sweden, which scored 84.5 per cent or Singapore, which ranked 19 with a 74.6 overall score. 

The first SDG index ranks countries regarding their initial status as of 2015 for each of the SDGs. The index constructed by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network is based on a set of indicators for each of the17 SDGs using the most recent published data. Indicators have been included that offer data for at least 80 per cent of all countries with a population greater than one million. 

The book aims to impart a sense of urgency in tackling issues not only in Thailand but also around the world. 

“To even partially achieve the 17 goals requires a great deal of sincerity, application, and implementation,” says Nicholas Grossman, editor of Editions Didier Millet, which published the book and is known here for the tomes “Thailand's Sustainable Development Sourcebook” and “King Bhumibol Aduyadej: A Life’s Work.”

The first book of its kind, “Call to Action” takes an in-depth look at how Thailand is positioned to achieve the ambitious 2030 agenda. All 17 SDGs, it notes, resonate strongly in Thailand, where despite vast progress and economic development over recent decades, significant challenges still remain. 

It is divided into 17 chapters – one for each of the goals – which examine Thailand’s strategies, progress and areas for improvement on issues such as climate change, public health, poverty reduction, sustainable industry, clean energy production and ecosystem management. 

Highlighting both success stories and cautionary tales, it gives a comprehensive picture of Thailand’s progress on achieving the SDG targets. At the same time, there is a sense of urgency in pages, which underline that Thailand must take more concerted action to ensure that it does not risk losing some of the positive gains it has made over the years. 

Dr Priyanut Dharmapiya, TSDF board committee member and adviser for the book, makes the point that success can only come if Thailand inculcates the right attitude in its young people.

“His Majesty’s vision, which has paved the way for the country’s development to date, will eventually help lead us to achieve the SDGs,” she says. 

“However, there were serious structural issues leading up to the financial crises of the last two decades which could, if unaddressed, resurface with equally adverse effects at any time. In Thailand we need to consider giving more thought to choosing the right, or more balanced development path, to suit our capacity, social context and competitive advantages, based on the principle of moderation, or the ‘middle path’. So while it’s important for us to encourage economic growth, such aspirations should not come at the expense of shattering our social fabric, degrading our natural environment, water and agricultural resources, and our cultural integrity. To make balanced development sustainable, we have to cultivate the sustainable mindset, in this case, the sufficiency mindset, in the young generation. Thailand has integrated SEP principles in our educational sector in a systemic way to do just that.” 

Environmental activist Asst Prof Thon Thamrongnawasawat, Deputy Dean of the faculty of fisheries, Kasetsart University, is less convinced, explaining that “sustainable development” is a noble philosophy but he doubts it will be enough to repair what he terms “devastation”. 

“Thailand is among the top five countries in the world that dumps tons of plastic into the oceans every year. Nevertheless, per head, we are ranked number one. When it rains heavily in Bangkok, we complain of flooding. Why do we have to wait so long for the water to drain? Because of the all the plastic bags that have been dumped – eight bags per head everyday on average! Sustainable development doesn’t need written goals. It has to be in the heart, in the consciousness. However, we cannot lose ‘hope’, which to me is the most important element to bring about change. As long as there is still corruption, whatever we do will be spoiled. Sustainable development in Thailand is challenging. It’s also exciting,” he says. 

“I also find Thailand’s score for Goal 17 ‘Partnerships for the Goals’ very low at 29.21. We need to engage much more on social media if we are to reach young people.”

The foundation’s chairman Dr Chirayu Isarangkun Na Ayuthaya is convinced that Thailand can reach the goals.

“You might wonder whether or not the royally initiated sustainable development and the sufficiency economy philosophy, bestowed by the late King Bhumibol, will endure in Thai society. Let me convey to you part of King Rama X's recent speech on New Year's Eve. He said: ‘In this New Year, I wish all the Thai people determination and strength in conducting their duties along the path that was paved for us by His Majesty the late King. So that they will be successful in whatever they do, and contribute to their own prosperity as well as the country's. This is how we will honour His Majesty King Rama IX's graciousness. And, I myself, shall also act, along with all Thais, in my full capacity to carry on His Majesty King Rama IX’s aspiration’.”


- “A Call to Action: Thailand and the Sustainable Development Goals” is priced at Bt1,250. It serves as a valuable resource for those who want to know more about how the kingdom is striving to achieve balanced development and improve management of its terrestrial, marine and human resources. 

- A lightweight, flexi-cover paperback edition is also available for the student market