Prayut's cash splurge flawed short-termism
Last week, the Prayut Chan-o-cha cabinet approved another massive handout, totalling 100 billion baht, to help the poor. The assistance package also covers an increase in pensions for retired civil servants and low-interest loans to people who want to buy new houses.
Of course the poor welcome such measures, even if they only work in the short term. One of the measures is a new subsidy package for 14.5 million people under the government's welfare card scheme. Starting from next month and running until September 2019, beneficiaries will get a one-time handout of 500 baht.
There will be monthly utility subsidies, 230-baht and 100-baht maximums, for electricity and water bills respectively. The new package also covers the elderly, including a one-time 1,000-baht handout to cover travel expenses to hospitals and another 400 baht sum towards rent payments. Launched in 2017, the welfare card scheme aims to ease the plight of low-income earners who are each allocated with between 200 and 300 baht a month to pay for basic needs.
The scheme, which Gen Prayut refers to as a "New Year's gift" for the poor, has drawn criticism from those who see it as a tactic by the military regime to maximise political gains amid speculation that the general is likely to make a comeback after the general election next year.
I don't see the merit of quick cash given out of "mercy", without tackling poverty and inequality at the root cause. My question is: Why is the government spending in such a carefree way, instead of investing in social welfare schemes that are more sustainable in the long run? Here I mean real social welfare for all, based on the concept of rights, not charity.
But we know that this government always favours quick handouts that guarantee quick popularity. On top of that, the implementation of the scheme means the state still has control over the budget in a typical centralised, bureaucratic system.
A prime example is the controversy over the Universal Healthcare Coverage (UHC) scheme, the only well-organised social welfare scheme in Thailand, which provides healthcare access to over 48 million people regardless of their financial status.
Behind this success, there's ongoing conflict between medical personnel who support or oppose the scheme. The former advocate the coverage as it is, with the UHC fund being allocated to an independent organisation overseen by board members from stakeholders including doctors, patients and civil society groups who can ensure checks and balances under the system. The latter, who want to scrap it, include bureaucrats, especially those at the Health Ministry who want to keep a centralised budget allocation.
However, when all healthcare funds were managed by the ministry, access to healthcare was far more limited. The more bureaucratic doctors tended to spend money to improve their facilities, while the poor had to struggle to gain access to health services that were somewhat charitably offered. The UHC made a difference. Yet some bureaucrats in the healthcare system are seeking a reverse arrangement as they want to keep power.
A centralised state is synonymous with inefficiency, and bureaucrats will always want to maintain their grip. At the same time, they never think of a way curb the inequality gap. This problem worsens when corruption is involved.
Take a look at education. There are hundreds of similar programmes run separately by various state organisations. For example, the Education Ministry spends billions to hand out scholarships to poor students. The Culture Ministry funds cultural learning programme for the young. The Social Development and Human Security Ministry pays for other programmes for less-privileged students. In many cases, these schemes merely end up being public relations events.
If the ministries put all these funds into a single programme, they might actually achieve something. Perhaps Thailand could provide free education for all up to university level?
Centralisation, plus lack of good governance, is a curse on the country. Not only does it make long-term social welfare schemes impossible, but it is also corruption-prone. The 88-million baht embezzlement of the Education Ministry's fund for needy children is a case in point. And don't forget scandalous school lunch funding and aid programme for the poor and homeless which are under investigation.
The country needs a genuine social welfare system with public participation and checks and balances. Short-term schemes that enable our leaders to grab political gains are a no-no.
Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.