Thailand makes UNDP’s list of “high achievers” in East Asia—a group that includes China, Indonesia, Viet Nam, and Malaysia. The rapid human development progress of Thailand and Asia-Pacific nations are helping drive a historic shift, with hundreds of millions of people lifted from poverty and billions poised to join the South’s fast-growing middle class, according to the 2013 Human Development Report, which was launched by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on March 14 in Mexico City.
The 2013 Human Development Report—The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World—analyses more than 40 developing countries that have made striking human development gains in recent years. The Report attributes their achievements to strong national commitments to better public health and education services, innovative poverty eradication programs and strategic engagement with the world economy.
The Report notes that Thailand’s success holds lessons for less developed economies, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. Countries endowed with arable land can continue to create stable jobs in agriculture which occurred in Thailand, whose employment pattern of the 1960s is comparable to that of many Sub-Saharan African countries today.
Thailand has become a job creation powerhouse, creating millions of stable jobs in non-manufacturing sectors such as retail, hospitality and construction, as well as in commercial farming. The number of stable agricultural jobs increased from just 519,000 in 1960 to nearly 3 million in 2008.
The Asia-Pacific region will be home to about two-thirds of the new global middle class, with billions of people becoming increasingly educated, socially engaged and internationally connected, though at significantly lower income levels than their counterparts in the middle class of the industrialized North.
“Emerging powers in the developing world are already sources of innovative social and economic policies and are major trade, investment and increasingly development cooperation partners for other developing countries,” said UNDP Administrator Helen Clark.
The 2013 Human Development Report warns, however, that short-sighted austerity policies, persistent inequalities and unresponsive political systems could threaten global and national progress unless corrected.
“Economic growth alone does not automatically translate into human development progress,” the Report says. “Pro-poor policies and significant investments in people’s capabilities—through a focus on education, nutrition and health, and employment skills—can expand access to decent work and provide for sustained progress.”
The Report recommends that East Asia’s most dynamic economies—including Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Viet Nam—could use their foreign reserve holdings and other resources for creative new approaches to development assistance within the region and beyond.
The Human Development Report analysis showed that while these countries differed greatly in their histories, political systems and economic profiles, they share common factors. Most had assertive governments that sought to take strategic advantage of the opportunities offered by global trade, while reducing poverty and inequality through pioneering home-grown social programs.
East Asian countries like Thailand face many of the same challenges of developing countries in other regions—ageing populations, environmental risks, political pressures and inequality—and countries will need to stay smart to maintain their momentum, the Report cautions. The Asia-Pacific region will see a striking increase in the share of the elderly in the near future. This will drive up the dependency ratio, which is the ratio of younger and older people to the working-age population. The productive-age population (ages 35–50), currently the largest population share, will reach retirement in 15–25 years.
Advancing health requires more than high-quality health services, the Report says. Previous Human Development Reports have shown that human poverty is multidimensional and many countries are discovering that they need simultaneous interventions on multiple fronts, including improvements in health and drug technology, widespread vaccinations, and public and private investments in health.
Thailand’s universal health coverage is mentioned by the Report as a bright spot. By 2009, 76% of Thailand’s population, about 48 million people, were registered in the Universal Health Coverage Scheme, which provides free inpatient and outpatient treatment, maternity care, dental care and emergency care. The scheme is fully financed by the government, with a budget in 2011 of $34 million—$70 for each insured person—which accounts for 5.9% of the national budget.
“This Report shows Thailand’s great achievements. It underscores the fact that Thailand can lead by example in the region and, at the same time, it highlights the challenges and opportunities for the years to come. UNDP and the United Nations Country Team stand ready to help the Royal Thai Government further its human development initiatives,” said Luc Stevens, UNDP Resident Representative and UN Resident Coordinator in Thailand.
East Asian states can—and should—be a powerful force in development, the Report argues, as they become important in other developing regions. China is already influential in Africa, through trade and investment as well as through assistance and cooperation. Burgeoning South-South trade and investment in particular can lay the basis for shifting manufacturing capacity to other less developed regions and countries. International production networks provide opportunities to speed development by allowing countries to leap-frog to more sophisticated production modes. New institutions can facilitate regional integration and South-South relationships. In this regard, the report recommends the establishment of a new South Commission to share knowledge, experiences and technology as well as to promote trade and investment across the South.
The Report says that Thailand’s manufacturing prowess continues to strengthen through the nation’s participation in international production networks. In 2009–2010, its exports of parts and components—notably in the automotive and electronics industries—were valued at $48 billion, a quarter of its merchandise exports. The government is keen to establish Thailand as the “Detroit of Asia”, not only a cluster for logistics, but also a high-tech hub that forges research collaboration among firms, universities and the public sector.
Human Development Data Highlights: Thailand and Asia-Pacific region
• Thailand ranks 103rd (0.690) on the 2013 Human Development Index, up 1 place from 2012. Since 1980 (0.490), Thailand’s HDI has consistently increased.
• When adjusted for inequality Thailand’s HDI falls to 0.543, a loss of 21.3 per cent.
• By 2025, 14% of Thailand’s population will be age 65 or older.
• The Asia-Pacfic region’s average life expectancy at birth is 72.7 years (second to Latin America and the Caribbean; and more than 2.5 years higher than the world average of 70.1 years. Thailand has a life expectancy of 74.3 years.
• The region’s average mean years of schooling of 7.2 years places it behind Europe and Central Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean. Thailand has an average of 6.6 mean years of schooling.
• The Asia-Pacific average gross national income per capita of $6,874 (PPP$ constant 2005 international) is a little over two-thirds the world average of $10,184. Thailand has a GNI per capita of $7,722.
• The average Gender Inequality Index value for the region is 0.333—placing it second to Europe and Central Asia. Thailand’s ranking is 0.360. Women just represent 15.7 per cent of Thailand’s Parliament.
• On overall life satisfaction based on the Gallup World Poll, the people of Thailand are the most satisfied in the region—6.7 (on the scale from 0 to 10), followed by Malaysia and Viet Nam.
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