How sustainable is Thai human development?
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How sustainable is Thai human development?

How sustainable is human development when the wealth of the richest 1% of the population is 2,500 times more than that of the bottom 20%?

Despite Thailand's remarkable progress in overall human development, the benefits from such progress have not been equally distributed. Thailand's Human Development Index (HDI) published in 2022 stood at 0.800, with an HDI global ranking improving by 13 spots from the 2019 report ranking.

The country has been included in the "very high human development" category for three years since 2019. Nevertheless, like the rest of the Asia-Pacific region, there are still widespread disparities and persistent structural exclusion related to poverty and inequality, gender biases, people participation, and a large informal sector in the economy.

In Thailand, one of the root causes of entrenched inequality is the stark wealth disparity. Credit Suisse in its latest 2022 Global Wealth Report, revealed that the richest 1% of the Thai population has an average individual wealth of 33 million baht, 2,500 times more than that of the poorest 20%. In addition, research by Thammasat University reveals that the richest 5% of the population owns 80% of the land, while 75% of the population does not own titled land. The Covid-19 pandemic and the rising cost of living amid global geopolitical conflicts have made these disparities worse.

On top of this, Thailand, along with the rest of the world, is facing a looming triple planetary crisis -- climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss. Thailand is identified in the 2021 Germanwatch's Global Climate Risk Index as one of the 10 most flood-affected countries globally and is ranked ninth on the list of the top 10 countries most affected by climate. The poorest and most marginalised groups in society will experience disproportionately greater loss and damage.

Although Thailand's Index of Perceived Human Insecurity is at 0.47, lower than most countries in Southeast Asia, there are areas of concern, particularly after the pandemic. The number of mental health patients in the country almost doubled from 1.3 million people in 2015 to 2.3 million people in 2021. The suicide rate rose from 6.03 per 100,000 people in 2017 to 7.38 per 100,000 people in 2021.

With unmet aspirations, heightened human insecurity, and a potentially more turbulent future, securing the SDG achievement by 2030 requires urgent action and new directions to accelerate balanced human development.

A people-centred approach must be at the heart of expanding people's choices, enhancing human security, and accelerating the transition towards carbon-neutral and climate-resilient development.

Expanding people's choices -- from ending discriminatory laws and practices to providing better education and jobs -- will help tackle persistent structural exclusion and uphold human dignity. Enhancing human security -- via overhauling social protection, strengthening health systems, and investing in risk-informed development -- will address the root causes of human insecurity while building greater resilience. Accelerating the transition towards carbon-neutral and climate-resilient development -- including investing in adaptation and disaster risk reduction, repurposing subsidies that harm the environment, and strengthening public finance management -- will mitigate climate change impacts and fulfil responsibilities to future generations.

Tackling structural exclusion is not only the "right thing to do", it could also produce large economic benefits. For instance, the Mckinsey Global Institute shows that improving gender equality in Thailand would translate to economic benefits worth 12% of GDP in 2025. In addition, there are new areas of economic opportunity in the low-carbon green economy. This is highlighted, for example, in Thailand's SDG Investor Map, where 10 out of 15 SDG-aligned, viable investment areas focus on environment-related issues such as renewable energy, sustainable packaging, waste management, and eco-friendly, community-based tourism.

To chart a new course, the government at national and subnational levels needs to be future-fit to tackle inequalities and promote green growth. This means more delivery-oriented government systems that foresee potential challenges and opportunities, adapt to changing conditions or shifting priorities, and respond quickly by redirecting resources. Making change happen demands collaborative leadership to bridge gaps and build consensus.

The priorities of the Thai government on fostering green growth, strengthening climate action, fighting inequalities and localising the SDGs at sub-national level are clearly well aligned with the directions highlighted in the Regional Human Development Report. Progress will be further accelerated as commitments translate into action.

Renaud Meyer is the UNDP's Resident Representative in Thailand.

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