Working towards a better future

As Thailand emerges from a year of pandemic-forced school closings, Unicef's new country chief is embracing the organisation's role in helping the country's children

Unicef Thailand's newest representative Kyungsun Kim's work has taken her all over the world. Photo courtesy of Unicef Thailand

For two decades, Kyungsun Kim has worked to bring humanitarian and developmental aid to children of all creeds and races. Her numerous posts have included serving in Panama and Sudan as a programme specialist and between 2012 and 2016, she was a senior adviser for Unicef in New York managing external relations and partnerships.

Earlier this year, Kim was appointed Unicef's new representative to Thailand where she is looking forward to organising a series of campaigns and awareness-raising activities aligned with the organisation's global advocacy.

"I think Unicef's tagline 'for every child' illustrates my long-term goal very well. It's about contributing to more equality for children to achieve their full potential regardless of where they are born, their gender, nationality, or family's socio-economic status," said Kim.

Having successfully conducted the fundraising project Blue Carpet Show for Unicef for the third consecutive year this January, she will be spearheading the Ending Statelessness campaign in partnership with the European Union, with the focus on ending statelessness as well as the largest and most up-to-date study on the situation of stateless children in Thailand in the second quarter of 2021.

There also will be a campaign on youth mental health that hopes to build on the success of the campaign that Unicef was part of last year known as The Sound Of Happiness. This campaign, which starts in the third quarter of the year, will engage the public in promoting youth mental health.

"Across the world, as well as Thailand, there will always be different levels of talent, achievement, resources, and happiness among its diverse population. Hence, inequality is something that can only be reduced if society cares for those who are less fortunate and makes a conscious effort to bring about equity by creating opportunities for the most disadvantaged. This equity is achieved when children are healthy, educated, and protected, starting as early as their first 1,000 days of life when the brain starts to develop so that they can take every opportunity to learn and succeed in life. They can then grow and contribute to the development of their country, in which they can help themselves and help others.

"My short-term goal naturally has to do with the mitigation of the socio-economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. We are experiencing an unprecedented crisis in which Thailand has fortunately made formidable achievements in containing the outbreak. Going further, I hope the country will contribute to vaccine equity and make sure there is enough protection from the virus for everyone, not only in Thailand but also in the world. Our focus at Unicef has been to raise the alarm in areas where the Covid-19 pandemic has set the country back from progressing towards its long-term Sustainable Development Goals for children. Based on the evidence so far, we believe keeping schools open is critical to preventing lasting damage from the pandemic."

Kim said the pandemic has caused an unprecedented effect on children across the world, with approximately over 1 billion youngsters at the peril of falling behind due to prolonged school closures.

She said that in Panama, where she recently served, schools have been shut for about a year. Meanwhile, implementing remote learning has not benefited children in general because more than one-third of schoolchildren, especially from poor communities, do not have access to computers or the internet or even a quiet place to study at home.

Due to this, the number of out-of-school children is set to increase by 24 million.

"Our experience indicates that once children are out of school, it is extremely difficult to get them back in. Prolonged school closure also affects children's ability to learn, especially young children. Without schools, children are at increased risk of violence, abuse, neglect, and exploitation. This almost certainly impacts their lives well into adulthood."

Kim said Unicef has been advocating for the reopening of schools as more evidence suggests that schools are not the driver of the pandemic. With the easing of Covid-19 in many countries, she said working with governments to support school reopenings and safe school operations to ensure that students are able to catch up on their learning has become a priority.

"Comparatively speaking, the impact has not been as severe in Thailand as the school closure has not been prolonged. Unicef has supported the government to facilitate school reopenings early on in the pandemic, including developing guidelines for schools for safe reopening and providing supplies such as hand-held thermometers and soaps. We also continue to work with the government, other UN agencies, academia, and other partners to address the existing digital divide and support remote learning. We are also collaborating with the Equitable Education Fund to strengthen pro-equity policy frameworks and investments in education, which will help precisely in times like these when the education inequality gap is widening."

She said every five years, Unicef creates a framework of cooperation with the government and other partners with a shared vision and goals. They abide by the commitments already made publicly by Thailand such as the Sustainable Development Goals, Convention on the Rights of the Child, and National Economic Social Development Plan.

As they embark on the process of designing their next five-year country programme, Unicef will continue to collaborate with the wider UN organisation, civil society, academia, corporations, media, celebrities, influencers, and young people themselves.

"We base our consultations and situation analyses on objective data such as the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey or MICS, which is a comprehensive national survey on the situation of children and women. Generating evidence and data helps us raise awareness in the areas that the government needs to pay attention to without interfering. In the end of March, Unicef will release new MICS data on the situation of children living in the southern border provinces where we have noticed that many indicators are worse than the national average. For example, children living here are the most malnourished compared with other parts of the country.

"Immunisation coverage is also very low. At the same time, too many children do not have adequate reading, writing, and numerical skills, and secondary school attendance rates are much lower than the national average. These issues are very alarming and must be urgently addressed. I will be travelling to the southern border provinces to release these findings as well as to visit Unicef-supported projects and meet with senior officials to discuss our support and collaboration in improving the situation. We can spend a lot of effort and money in providing digital education in these remote areas but the learning gap won't be closed if we don't first invest in the basic services that fulfil the fundamental rights of these children."

While sharing her work experience, Kim said that while she was posted in Sudan between 2008 and 2012, she had established a programme called Youth LEAD (Leadership, Empowerment, Action, and Development).

She said it was a tough environment to set up such a project because both the Unicef country office and the government lacked the foundation and experience. The political environment was also rather delicate so she wondered if any of the activities would ever see the light of day.

After having done the initial part of securing funding, hiring a technical expert, and getting the partners on board, she had to leave Sudan for another post at New York headquarters.

A few years had elapsed and Kim ran into an education officer who had introduced the theatre strategy for active listening and conflict resolution to the programme. He told her that it had today become a popular entertainment and learning activity for numerous young Sudanese.

"That experience humbled me," noted Kim. "What I took from it was that I am only a part of something bigger and that I should never yield to pessimism. Hope, I would say, is what I learned to protect within myself because a lot of what Unicef does is for the long term and we support policies for sustained impact. Hence, it is hard to see immediate gains or results.

"One has to do her best to contribute to an end result that might not be visible at times and trust that all good forces will come together and make things work. Being humble helps me to remind myself that the success of a large-scale programme does not depend on me alone. That reduces pressure and helps me keep hope. Things in development do take time and might seem unlikely to happen but one should still do her best and support others towards the same goal and remember to check back."

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