On Oct 1, 2015, the Thai government piloted the country's first Child Support Grant, providing support for poor infants and families. The beneficiaries, usually the mothers of infants, receive 400 baht per month for one year after the birth of a child. About 130,000 mothers have applied for the programme thus far. The government has since approved an upgrade of the grant, which will commence on Oct 1 this year.
According to this plan, the grant will be increased from 400 baht to 600 baht per month and the duration of the supporting period will be extended from one year to three years. The implementation of the policy so far has been quite satisfactory, despite some usual management problems found in most new policy implementations.
This policy has great potential in defining the fate of the country. A cost-benefit analysis from the Nobel Laureate Economist James J Heckman shows that interventions during early childhood years would yield greater benefits to society compared to interventions later in life. Many countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Mongolia have recognised the importance of early childhood development and have implemented child support grant programmes.
In the case of Thailand before the emergence of the grant, we had missed our opportunity to invest in human capital during the most crucial stage of development since there was a welfare gap for poor newborns whose families have limited access to both socioeconomic opportunities. Existing welfare schemes such as the universal health-care coverage scheme, free education system, etc, have contributed to the entire welfare system that covers the whole life-cycle of Thai citizens. However, except for universal healthcare coverage, there was no specific support for poor infants whose parents work in the informal sector.
Filling this welfare gap, the grant improves the well-being of children and families. Theories suggest that when this type of grant is provided to a family through mothers, the income of the family increases as well as the mothers' economic status in the household. Having more power to make their own decisions, the mothers will most likely spend the grant for the infants' benefit. Most mothers will spend the money to purchase necessities for their children such as food or healthcare. Some decrease their work time and spend more time with their children.
This leads to better health status, better cognitive development and better nutrition for the children. Ultimately, the Child Support Grant plays a big part in improving human capital and, by provision specifically to poor children, promoting inclusive growth.
Nevertheless, the grant will not reach its ultimate goals without effective management and adequate infrastructure which includes the targeting and payment systems. From the targeting process to the payment procedure, there are two factors that can be both risks and opportunities for the programme.
First, the targeting and registration of poor pregnant women cannot be done by any single organisation. Over the past year, several organisations have been contributing to this process. The primary targeting is done by the Ministry of Public Health's volunteers and the village headmen while the registration is conducted by the sub-district administrative organisations. The Office of Social Development and Human Security in each province is responsible for the data input and payment. Whether or not the programme will be successful is up to the coordination among these stakeholders. Failures in coordination can lead to a delay in payments or poor infants being excluded from the programme.
On the other hand, effective and successful coordination can lead to integrated interventions as the poor households have been identified. Using this data to target the poor can bring about interventions from many parties. It has been reported that there have been some interventions provided already as a local government has come to reconstruct the home of a poor woman. Or when the identification of this programme has helped the mothers receive the service from DTAC which provides free SMS messages with information about maternal care. Greater benefits will be provided if these interventions are implemented at the national level and the stakeholders coordinate to provide support.
Second, Thailand's Child Support Grant was chosen to be one of the pilot programmes for the national e-payment system. Before the launch of the e-payment system, pregnant women could choose to receive money via a bank account or by cash. In some areas, the pregnant women may send a representative to the Office of Social Development and Human Security to collect the grant.
Launching the e-payment system may place the burden of some costs on poor households, especially the households that have minimal financial access. The TDRI team has found that, in some remote districts, households have to travel more than one hour to the nearest ATM. If some households have difficulties in opening a bank account or in travelling to a bank or an ATM, they may be excluded from the grant.
However, implementing the e-payment system for this programme, if the cost upon the household is managed properly, would increase financial access. The strict criteria of the data required to be eligible for the e-payment system can incentivise stakeholders to improve the database and make it more accurate. In addition, it is more likely that the money will reach the beneficiaries in time and in full.
The success of Thailand's Child Support Grant is hard to evaluate within a few years since the impacts on children such as better cognitive and physical development take time to develop. On the other hand, there may be a myriad of problems found within each process because the programme has just been implemented. These problems should not be used to judge whether the programme should continue. Instead, they should be considered as opportunities to improve the programme and supporting the grant to reach its ultimate goals which are to promote inclusive growth and to invest in human capital.
Jiraporn Plangpraphan is a Senior Researcher and Proudfong Chamornchan is a Researcher at Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI).