|Thailand has demonstrated notable development progress over the past two decades and is on course to achieve most of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015.|
By Abhijit Shanker
7 March 2012 - Thailand has made great strides in overall socioeconomic development over the last few decades. At the same time, substantial inequality and pockets of severe poverty persist, with children the most seriously affected. Some two million children live below the poverty line, concentrated mainly in rural areas of the north and north-eastern provinces. Among the most disadvantaged groups are ethnic minorities, migrants and stateless children.
Based on UNICEF’s global strategic refocus on equity, UNICEF Thailand in 2010 considered how to raise awareness of these growing concerns with an eye to improving the rights of all children. In December 2010, UNICEF started to support a Thai government-sponsored national mobilization exercise to establish a “National Vision for Children in 2027.” Children from various backgrounds and situations, such as ethnic minority children, children with disabilities, youth in conflict with the law, and children from poor families had equal opportunities to participate in formulating a common vision for the future generation. The final vision statement emphasized that all children have the same rights and must be treated equally, and that respect for the rights of all children are key to the country’s future development.
Thailand has demonstrated notable development progress over the past two decades and is on course to achieve most of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. Overall, poverty has declined from 38 per cent in 1990 to 8.5 per cent in 2009, while the rate of economic growth as measured by GDP has risen by an average of 2.9 per cent annually over the same period. The rate of mortality among children under five years of age has fallen from 32 per cent in 1990 to 14 per cent in 2009.
At the same time, social and economic disparities lead to less access to social services for poor and marginalized groups, both in urban and rural areas. For instance, 54.8 per cent of children in the poorest families receive some form of early childhood education as compared with 77.6 per cent in the richest families. The net primary school enrolment is at 90 per cent, indicating that at least 10 per cent of children aged 6–11 years were not in school or studying at the age-appropriate level. Over 70 per cent of children now attend secondary school, but only one in two children complete Grade 12. As a result, hundreds of thousands of children in Thailand do not have the opportunity to develop to their full potential.
In 2010, the National Economic and Social Development Board announced Thailand’s Vision 2027 to set the course for Thailand’s long-term development. However, that vision did not fully address critical issues related to children. To raise awareness on the role today’s children will have in Thailand’s future socio-economic development, UNICEF Thailand provided support to the government and National Council for Child and Youth Development (NCYD), the country’s leading child and youth organization, to carry out a national campaign aimed at determining how Thailand’s young people envision the future for children in the year 2027. The project’s steering committee used their opinions to formulate the National Vision for Children, which will be presented to the Prime Minister in March 2012 and guide the development of future policy development for children.
Strategy & Implementation
The National Vision for Children exercise was a forward-looking social mobilization effort designed to capture what the people of Thailand hope the future will be for children. It solicited the views of 60,000 people across the country through a consultative process to learn what aspirations they have for the next generation of children. The process employed the life cycle approach to determine the key characteristics children and youth in four age groups will need to possess to meet future challenges, as well as the actions required to make that vision a reality. Goals included ensuring access to quality social services, providing a nurturing social and physical environment, and establishing a stable level of commitment from families, communities, the government and other important stakeholders. These issues were considered in the context of the numerous socio-economic and demographic changes Thailand will face in the coming decades. The vision will be used to advocate for greater commitment and more substantial investment in development plans for children and young people at all levels.
In order for the process to reflect national ownership, the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security and NCYD took the lead as the main organizers of the process, with UNICEF providing funding and background technical support. The National Child and Youth Committee, which is chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister and functions as the main mechanism for policy development on children, appointed a special steering committee to oversee the visioning process and provide regular reporting to the Committee.
The process was implemented by youth groups and regional NGOs, who organized 50 forums in 76 provinces beginning in late 2010. People of all ages and from all sectors of society were able to participate directly in the process by attending a provincial forum or by completing and submitting a written questionnaire. Their input was fed into five regional forums as well as a forum in Bangkok, at which teams of young people and adults worked together to review the input and distill common visions.
In addition, consultations were organized by leading organizations from the business, religious, media, academic, civil society and political sectors. Their aspirations for children were also included in the vision.
Progress & Results
Among the common themes that emerged from the regional forums were improved quality and access to education for all children, media literacy, maintaining Thai culture, life skills and sex education. The need to provide children in difficult situations with special support so that they can enjoy the same rights as other children was also a common theme, as was ensuring access to quality health and education services in both urban and rural areas.
Each region’s vision reflected unique characteristics and challenges. The Northeast focused heavily on jobs and income generation to offset poverty. The South, which has been severely affected by ongoing insurgency, wanted children to be able to go to school in safety, and called for an end to discrimination, particularly with respect to gender and the equality of women and girls. Participants in all regions noted the importance of early childhood care and development, called for all children to complete a compulsory education through Grade 9, and emphasized the importance of learning a second and third language and developing computer literacy as skills that all children should have in 2027.
The enthusiasm and collaboration among child and adult participants was striking. A commonly expressed opinion was that the process employed to develop the vision was as important as the outcome, if not more so. Involving people from all sectors of society in thinking about and discussing children’s issues helped to build commitment and establish influential networks for children at the provincial level. The Governors of Ayutthaya and Samutprakarn are keen to build on the vision process and to integrate it into provincial plans, while business leaders acknowledged the private sector’s responsibility to do much more for children. These views demonstrate that the realization of the vision will not depend on government alone and that all citizens can help make the vision a reality.
The biggest challenge throughout the process was to maintain momentum. When a new government came to power in August 2011, just as the vision process was coming to an end at the provincial level, advocacy with the government to advance the process needed to be renewed. Then, the floods that swept across Thailand from September to November 2011 led to the postponement of the planned national launch of the vision. Since it had been decided at the outset of the process that national partners had to own and lead the vision process, UNICEF had to exercise diplomacy in its efforts to advance advocacy efforts to avoid being misperceived as taking ownership away from the national partners.
Another challenge was to ensure the region-specific inputs and those from marginalized groups were represented in the final vision. While issues that are unique to specific groups of children and young people, such as disability or statelessness, may be clearly expressed at provincial forums, they are unfortunately sometimes lost when combined with massive amounts of information at the national level. Therefore, the implementing partners need to understand and ensure that while the vision reflects what was said by the majority of participants, the “small voices” of the more disadvantaged and vulnerable groups should be preserved.
There have been many processes where children contributed to analyzing their current situations and identifying gaps in child rights. The vision for Children exercise found an added benefit in looking forward to the future and positively envisioning what is hoped the next generation will be. The discussions took into account both the current situation of children and the direction towards which Thailand and the world will be moving in 15 to 20 years. This forward-looking approach injected new energy into the process and encouraged government agencies to think more about long-term investment for children, rather than typical year-to-year planning.
This project can also be designed so that children and youth can participate through social media, such as Facebook or Twitter. However, these channels could also limit the participation of disadvantaged children who lack internet access.
After presenting of the Vision Statement to the Prime Minister in March 2012, the National Child and Youth Committee and UNICEF must work to keep the vision alive by ensuring its findings are used as a reference in the development of national policy and plans for children. This effort can also be pursued through various mechanisms to monitor progress against the vision, and through continued political advocacy to ensure that the responsible agencies have both the strategies and budget needed to address the issues proposed in the vision. At the local level, provincial agencies and NGOs will be urged to incorporate the outcome of the national and provincial vision process in local planning related to children issues.