Invest in Thai youth for the future
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Invest in Thai youth for the future

Increasing investment for children and young people will further advance Thailand's sustainable development. (Photo by Pattanapong Hirunard)
Increasing investment for children and young people will further advance Thailand's sustainable development. (Photo by Pattanapong Hirunard)

Thailand has made remarkable progress in social and economic development over the past few decades. But it still faces several challenges in ensuring that development gains are equally shared by all.

In less than 30 years, the percentage of people living under the poverty line has fallen drastically from 67% in 1986 to 10.5% in 2014 and the number of infant deaths has been reduced to the same level with the world's most developed countries.

However, poverty and social exclusion still deprive many of Thailand's next generation of critical nutrition, healthcare, education and protection necessary for their optimal development. This is particularly true for children in poor families, children living in remote areas, children with disabilities, children of migrants and ethnic minorities.

This, if not structurally addressed, could not only challenge Thailand's commitment to "leave no one behind", enshrined in its support to the global Sustainable Development Goals, but it could also deprive the country of tens of thousands of future empowered adult workforce, pivotal in helping take the kingdom to a high income, thriving economy.

As the general election nears, the social and economic priorities for the people have been brought more into focus as a challenge for the new government. This is an opportune moment for those in the running for the upcoming elections to look closely into how increasing investment for children and young people will further advance Thailand's sustainable development.

Particularly, Unicef believes that focusing on the following five priority actions for children will yield far-reaching results and benefits throughout the whole society, and should be considered as foundational actions for children -- and for the country -- by any government resulting from the forthcoming election results.

First, adopt universal Child Support Grant. Introduced in 2015, the Child Support Grant provides over half a million poor and near-poor families of children under 3 with a monthly allowance of 600 baht. The grant proved a game changer for many poor families, and an acclaimed policy decision at regional and global level. A recent impact evaluation has shown improvements in feeding and caring practices as well as access to essential services and empowerment of mothers of children, receiving the grant.

Yet due to targeting challenges, the grant did not reach 30% of eligible children. Unicef is calling for an extension of the grant to cover every child during the critical first 6 years of life. The budget for this universal approach is not only feasible and affordable, but also expected to decline over time due to declining child population; by 2030, it will be just 0.09% of GDP. Unicef, however, does recognise that in case the Thai Government has concerns on the resources available, the adoption of a moderately progressive, evidence-based targetted version of the policy, which leads to the universal child support grant in the mid-term, is also a viable policy step that can help build the future prosperity of Thailand.

Second, establish an equitable and quality child care system for children under 3. Almost one-in-five children aged 0 to 4 years old live apart from their parents, with potential negative impact on their care and development. There are several factors behind this worrying statistic including the lack of affordable childcare services for working families, who have no other option than to leave young children with grandparents and extended family members. With only three months maternity leave in place, many working mothers face a difficult choice when returning to work. In the absence of affordable and accessible child care services for children under the age of 3, the challenge, in particular for poorer families, is how their children can be cared for in an environment that promotes their optimal development.

The current lack of standardised and affordable services for nursery-age children deprives too many children from benefiting from the care and development support that their parents should offer them, possibly with significant negative impact on their growth. It also deprives the Thai economy from tens of thousands of mothers or fathers who feel they have no other choice but to drop out of the economic market to support child rearing.

While this is a challenge, it is also an opportunity for Thailand to build upon the successful foundations in providing ECD services. It's necessary that the Thai government develop a standardised child care services for children aged 3 months to 3 years, accessible and affordable to all parents, in partnership with private sector and other potential service providers.

Third, fast track and systematise appropriate skill development for students. An astounding 65% of children entering primary school today will end up working in jobs that haven't been created yet. The best way to truly equip Thailand's children for the challenges of tomorrow is to endow them with transferable and adaptable skill sets.

Improvements in education and skills will be important to drive the achievement of Thailand's 20-year National Strategy and to boost economic potential and inclusiveness. Yet, while foundational skills such as numeracy and literacy remain important foundations for all future learning, students also need to develop so-called "21st century skills" which will allow them to thrive in this dynamic century of ever-rapid change and uncertainty. This requires a renewed focus on a whole range of skills including adaptability, critical thinking, creativity, problem solving and collaboration, to name some of the most prominent.

An urgent and sustained reform of the curriculum is therefore required, as the curriculum framework sets the vision for education and guides the learning objectives and learning outcomes expected of all students in the country. Teachers must become once again the pivotal agent of change in all children's lives, in equipping their students with the type of skills that they will use for their future lifelong learning and adaptation to the future job market. For this, teachers must be helped to understand the new competency-based approach, must be empowered, valued, and must have access to good resources and guidance to help transform their classrooms into settings where students are applying their learning and engaging in more collaborative activities such as project-based learning, research and analysis and problem-solving tasks.

Fourth, establish systematic child protection expertise and capacity at local level. Violence against children remains a major concern. According to One-Stop Crisis Centre, nearly 9,000 children were treated in hospital in 2017 due to violence, mainly sexual violence. Many more incidents likely go unreported due to too weak identification and referral systems against situations where children may be at risk, or indeed already victims, of violence at community level.

During the past decades, a number of child protection initiatives have been established. Yet, these services are mainly available at provincial level, while incidents mostly occur at community levels, in sub-district or village levels, which lack resources and appropriate mechanism to detect and respond to child protection cases.

If it is to offer its children the type of protection they deserve, Thailand must consider an overhaul of its current child protection system, and reflect on avenues that would enable it to establish effective child protection expertise all the way to a village level. This could for instance be translated in the presence of trained social workers at tambon or at least sub-district level, who can coordinate the protection of children.

Lastly, empower young people to become the leaders of Thailand's future economic growth. Approximately 12 million people aged 10-24 in Thailand today will soon assume leadership roles in families, workplaces and communities.

However, one-in-four adolescents aged 15-17 are not in school, while 15% of young people aged 15-24 are not in education, training or employment. These young people need to be equipped with vocational skills, which are in high demand in the private sector.

For young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, to have a better chance of future employment, they need proactive investment frameworks which offer them an equitable access to student loans and quality vocational education.

Looking ahead, Thailand will have to confront a number of emerging complex challenges, such as an aging population and persistent disparities. There is no better way for it to be ready than to deploy an arsenal of investments towards its children and youth, so that they may overcome the challenges of tomorrow.

Thomas Davin is a Unicef Representative for Thailand.

Thomas Davin

Unicef representative for Thailand

Thomas Davin, Unicef representative for Thailand.

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