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More efforts needed to tackle Thailand's stark inequality

Dec 10. 2019
Renaud Meyer, UNDP Resident Representative
Renaud Meyer, UNDP Resident Representative
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By Renaud Meyer, UNDP Resident Representative
Special to The Nation

How sustainable is development when more than two-thirds of the assets of a country is controlled by 1 per cent of its people?

Moreover, inequality in Thailand, like in many countries, is today exacerbated by climate change, economic downturn, and technological transformation.

This situation reported by Credit Suisse in its latest Global Wealth Report reflects the stark wealth disparity prevailing in Thailand, representing one of the root causes of entrenched inequality – a key impediment for any country to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

How do we compare the life of a young boy born in a wealthy family in Bangkok, with his family endowment opening the door to high-paying jobs through quality education in the country’s best school and accessing information and technologies that being fully digitally literate allows, to that of a young girl born in a hilltribe in northern Thailand or a LGBTI person from a rural area struggling to find a decent job after attending the local public school and too often still victim of discrimination, significantly limiting opportunities to fulfil their life aspirations?

It is evident that circumstances almost entirely beyond their control have already set them on unequal – and likely irreversible – courses in life.

Moreover, inequality in Thailand, like in many countries, is today exacerbated by climate change, economic downturn, and technological transformation. Increasing incidents of floods and droughts destroy crops and depress the income of farmers who take to the street to seek government assistance. In addition, the lacklustre economic growth together with looming disruptions in various industries have led to factories shutting down and workers losing their jobs. Such a situation results in growing frustration, as more people feel that economic and political structures are rigged against them.

These challenges to sustainable and inclusive development support the core analysis of the new UNDP’s Global Human Development Report entitled “Beyond income, beyond averages, beyond today: inequalities in human development in the 21st century” launched on December 9. 

In addition to strong analyses of issues, it presents decision-makers with the choice to overturn deep-rooted systemic drivers of inequality. In doing so, there is the opportunity to simultaneously eliminate extreme deprivation while equipping everyone to live with dignity, manage the fallout of our planet heating up and benefit from modern breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and robotics. 

According to the 2019 Human Development Report, Thailand achieves a Human Development Index (HDI) of 0.765, an improvement compared to previous years. Featuring at 77th place in world rankings (out of 189 economies), Thailand is the developing country that has progressed the most in the world in its HDI over the period 2013-2018, up by 12 ranks. This shows the country’s remarkable progress in laying the foundation for human development, as indicated in the continued improvement in life expectancy at birth, years of schooling, and income per capita.

However, when discounted for inequality, Thailand’s HDI declines by 16.9 per cent to 0.635. If not addressed, it will only get harder to correct the widening trajectory of inequality as the climate crisis and technological disruptions are already hitting the poorest population the hardest and earliest. This calls for urgent action.

The United Nations Development Programme acknowledges the efforts of the Thai government and other development actors in adopting policies and taking initiatives to address inequalities. An elected parliament and expected local elections indicate commitment to enhance people’s participation and support local authorities in the delivery of better targeted public services. The private sector’s active engagement is reflected in their strong mobilisation for the sustainable development goals with the recent launch of the Thailand Responsible Business Network. Thailand is also the first Asian country to formally adopt a National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights. These are just a few but critical tools endorsed by Thailand to foster sustainable human development.

That said, more steps need to be taken. To effectively reduce inequality within the country, the right policy mix should be complemented with greater decentralisation of public administration for those policies to translate into action at local level. Enabling the citizens, particularly those that are marginalised by geography, income or disability, to thrive rather than just survive in an era of climate crisis and technological transformation should be at the forefront of inequality reduction strategies. In addition, the private sectors’ initiatives to support sustainable development should go beyond tackling environmental problems and encompass social dimensions and inclusion.

On gender inequality, policies should seek to change social norms and eliminate discrimination, including against LGBT, through education, awareness and changing incentives.

Most of all, to tackle the sense of disenchantment and dispossession underpinning the discontent of many, leaders must redouble their efforts to remove the alienating, insurmountable and unfair obstacles their citizens face in achieving the life they want for themselves. If not, the growing resentment and frustration may weaken social cohesion and people’s trust in government, institutions, and each other.

Inequality in Thailand is not inevitable. The UNDP is committed to continue its support to the government and other development actors to make the difficult choices needed to provide all citizens – now and in the future – with a fair and dignified lot in life, powered by technology, shielded from prejudice and protected from an increasingly unforgiving climate.

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