Investing in Children for the Future of Thailand
the Address in Thai by H.E. Mr. Anand Panyarachun
Why is ensuring the full development of all children and youth in Thailand important to helping us meet the challenges posed by greater economic integration in ASEAN post 2015?
There are two key areas to address as we seek to formulate an answer to this seemingly self-evident – but actually quite complex – question.
First, we must all recognize that children in Thailand have rights that are guaranteed to them under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, or the CRC, the most widely ratified human rights instrument in history. Under the CRC, the Thai government is legally bound to ensure the rights of all children in Thailand to survival, development, protection and participation regardless of their ethnicity, citizenship or religion. Some of the basic rights enshrined in the CRC are the right to be registered at birth, the right to health care and adequate nutrition, the right to an education of good quality, and the right to be protected from all forms of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation.
Having served as the UNICEF Thailand Goodwill Ambassador since 1996, I am quite familiar with child rights and the record of Thailand in making them a reality. While Thailand has many reasons to be proud of its achievements for children, I have to say that we still have a long way to go.
Thailand is fortunate to have experienced decades of high economic growth, which has helped lift millions of children and their families out of poverty and served to bring millions of others fully into the middle class. We now have a universal health care system that is the envy of our neighbors, and most children in this country now complete at least a primary education and go on to enroll in secondary school.
Yet despite all the economic progress we have made, the benefits have not been equally shared. Far too many children still miss out and are being left behind. This is glaringly obvious when you look beyond the national level data and drill down to the numbers for specific regions and provinces, and among some sub-groups of the population.
For example, in the Northeast of Thailand, home to nearly a quarter of the country’s children, 18 per cent of the population still lives beneath the poverty line. The impact of poverty in the Northeast is clearly evident in malnutrition rates that are nearly one third higher than those in the Central region. It is also shown by the more than 200,000 children of primary-school age in the Northeast region who are not in school. And it results in large numbers of children in the Northeast being raised by grandparents or other relatives after their parents migrate to other regions in search of jobs and other opportunities.
The data shows that children living in many other parts of the country also suffer from the same or similar problems due to poverty and neglect. Clearly, we are still failing to promote and protect the rights of far too many children.
Some of you are no doubt asking yourselves right now why we need to be so concerned about pockets of poor children who are lagging behind in terms of development when, on average, things are generally pretty good for children in Thailand. After all, most children are not living in poverty, most have access to health care, most are well nourished, and most are going to school and completing at least a primary level education.
This brings me to the second key area we need to discuss when considering the importance of capacity development for children and youth in the run up to the ASEAN Economic Community. This is the fact that Thailand is now not only an “aging society” – which is defined as 7 per cent or more of the population being 65 years of age or older – but that we are aging at an unprecedented rate. Thailand is making the transition from an aging society to an “aged society” – which is 14 per cent or more of the population aged 65 or above – in just 21 years. In France the transition from an aging to an aged society took more than 100 years. Thailand will even eclipse the transition rate of Japan, which for years has held the record for becoming an aged society most rapidly.
In addition, our fertility rate is now at 1.5 births per woman, which is well below the 2.1 replacement rate needed to maintain a stable population. The combined effects of a rapidly aging population and the continued low fertility rate will result in a smaller number of young people having to support a growing number of the elderly.
By 2010, the ratio in Thailand had fallen to 5 to 1 – five people of working age supporting one elderly person. By 2030, this ratio will be halved again, to 2.5 workers for every one elderly person. It is therefore essential that our working population becomes more productive.
Given this scenario, it is quite obviously time for everyone in Thailand to begin treating the capacity development of every child as a national imperative. Every girl and boy being born or growing up in Thailand today is a precious resource, and we cannot afford to waste the potential of a single one of them.
As I noted earlier, the Thai government is legally bound by the Convention on the Rights of the Child to protect the rights of children and to provide them with every opportunity to develop to their full potential. I believe that we, the people of Thailand, are also responsible to help respect, promote and protect these rights, and not only because it is the morally “right’ thing to do. The children of today will share the future with us tomorrow, and if we fail to prepare them for the challenges that future holds, we will be failing not only them but also ourselves.
Where should we focus our energy, where do we invest the resources needed to ensure that the children of today will have the knowledge and skills the future requires?
We know that programmes aimed at improving parents’ ability to nurture their children during these early years in areas such as nutrition, learning and stimulation activities and using positive discipline can help improve children’s brain and psychological development, and their social skills.
We know that attending pre-school or day care centres can improve young children’s cognitive functioning, their readiness for primary school and their future school performance. Such interventions have even more of a positive impact on children from poor and disadvantaged families.
We know that poverty alleviation programmes, such as cash transfers or child support grants, can help poor families provide for their young children’s basic needs as well as be a strong incentive for further family investment in their children’s health and education.
We know that a cost-benefit analysis on early childhood interventions carried out by Professor James J. Heckman, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, showed that interventions during early childhood yield far higher returns compared with remedial interventions later in life. He found that the rate of return for investments in quality early childhood education is 7-10 per cent per annum, which is due to better outcomes in education, health, sociability, economic productivity and reduced crime. Professor Heckman noted that this return on investment is better than the return from the US stock market over the period of 1945-2008.
We know all this, and much, much more about the importance of investing more in children during the crucial years before they enter primary school, as there is a growing body of research to prove it. Yet the level of funding that we devote to programmes and services for children during this all-important period of their lives is relatively small when compared to the amount spent once they enter primary school.
I believe the case for much greater investment in early childhood has been fully made and that we know what needs to be done now.
We need to invest in the human capital our children represent in a scientifically proven manner. We need to generate higher economic returns and reduce the social costs of persistent child poverty. We need to achieve greater social equity. And, most importantly, we need to do this because children have the right to development, and because it is our duty as parents, adults and members of society, to help them realize their fullest potential.
Early last year the government introduced a new “Best Start” policy, which contains a number of important interventions for children during the early years. This forward-looking policy has been approved by the Cabinet and now awaits the finalization of an implementation plan and budget.
I urge the government to move ahead as quickly as possible on rolling out this policy and in ensuring that it is fully funded so that all children in Thailand benefit. If Thailand is truly serious about improving child development, reducing poverty, achieving greater equity and social stability, building capacity to meet the coming challenges of the AEC, and to be considered a champion of child rights, investing fully in children is the only way forward.