ASEAN’s most sustainable investment

Yajai Bunnag




The best investment for the future in any country is the investment in its people. In this regard, Thailand has consistently promoted a comprehensive, future-oriented policy on human capital development in its own national agenda, and during Thailand’s ASEAN Chairmanship throughout 2019, has ensured that concrete steps have been undertaken so that human capital development will continue to fuel ASEAN’s dynamism as well. For example, it maintained support for the ASEAN Leaders’ Interface with Representatives of ASEAN Youth and organised such an interface during the 34th ASEAN Summit in Bangkok this past June. The interface allowed ASEAN leaders to listen to the youth’s perspectives on how to build an inclusive, sharing, and caring ASEAN Community, and to support the role of youth as agents of constructive change for the future.

Three students smiling at the camera with books in their hands and backpacks on.

In September 2019, the National Economic and Social Development Council of Thailand (NESDC), in collaboration with the ASEAN Secretariat, the World Bank, and UNICEF, organised the ASEAN High-Level Meeting on Human Capital Development in Bangkok. The Meeting opened with a video presentation entitled “Invest in Me,” which projected clear messages on the how and why to “invest in me,” or our youth, our future generation. First, quality education produces valuable human capital with a mindset on lifelong learning, healthy work ethics, and a socially responsive mentality. Second, skilled human capital can use technology to contribute to the improvement of peoples’ lives in society. Third, universal health coverage ensures that our youth and people are in good health and condition to be contributing members of society, enhancing further economic growth and human equity. In short, human capital development is fundamental to sustainable economic growth and human security.

Policymakers and practitioners who attended the ASEAN High-Level Meeting echoed this view. In his opening remarks, Thosaporn Sirisumphand, Secretary-General of the NESDC, reiterated the importance of enabling people to maximise their potential and become productive members of society. He shared Thailand’s experience and success in decreasing the number of people living in extreme poverty, and expanding the population’s access to healthcare and education.

A mother holding a toddler while talking to a doctor.

Thailand still faces the same challenges with other countries in the region, which include malnutrition, access to education, an aging society, and the emerging digital divide in our current disruptive world. However, Thailand is determined to equip its population with critical 21st century skills; namely, technological know-how and digital literacy. Thailand has been steadfast in exchanging knowledge and experiences to promote citizens’ well-being and to develop resilient human resources that are prepared for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

Healthcare through the Universal Health Coverage (UHC) seems to be Thailand’s foremost success story on human capital development. H.E. Mr. Anutin Charnvirakul, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Public Health of Thailand, stated that in 2018, the UHC scheme covered almost 100% of the population and significantly reduced infant mortality.  This has contributed to increased economic returns and reduced income inequality. Its success is demonstrated in the 20% return from investment in UHC and the reduced impoverishment of households due to healthcare costs.

The current UHC includes civil servant medical benefit schemes and social health insurance for public employees, in addition to the universal health coverage for all Thai citizens. The key take away message here is that countries do not have to wait until they are rich to achieve UHC, but that this goal can be achieved through firm political commitment and careful management of finance and resources.

The region has also witnessed progress in this area. Dato Paduka Lim Jock Hoi, Secretary-General of ASEAN, mentioned the success of low-income countries in Asia that have managed to shift into the middle-income status due to their commitment to investment in health and education. The rate of literacy within the region is increasing and more investment in UHC has contributed to a healthier, more productive population. In addition, countries in the region are working to provide higher access to drinking water and better sanitation.

However, there is still room for improvement. According to the World Bank, children born in ASEAN today will only achieve 56% of their potential productivity when they grow up. ASEAN encounters a human capital gap, both within countries and between countries, which means that the level of education and skills are not leveraged. This is reflected in disparities in terms of healthcare, education, and levels of development across the country and the region, which prevents the region from obtaining the maximum benefits from human capital.

ASEAN is addressing this problem by integrating human capital development into the ASEAN Community building process. ASEAN has actually long recognised that human capital development enhances competitiveness and opportunities, and renders benefits beyond economic gains, hence the emphasis of the people-centred theme embedded in every pillar of cooperation. The Secretary-General of ASEAN underscored that the education system should foster creative skills that complement technological advances in order to secure a sustainable future for ASEAN. Most importantly, all stakeholders should work together in formulating policies that respond to each individual country’s needs and challenges, collectively contributing to a stronger, people-centred ASEAN community.

ASEAN’s commitment to human capital development is laid down in the ASEAN Vision 2025 and the ASEAN Leaders’ Declaration on Ending All Forms of Malnutrition. These efforts are supported by ASEAN’s Development Partners; such as, the World Bank and UNICEF. The World Bank gives priority to creating a resilient and competitive region by accelerating human capital development. This includes improving access to nutritious food, developing quality healthcare, clean water and sanitation, and ensuring that adults can improve their skills through lifelong learning.

Human capital development is a dynamic and evolving process that has to be regularly revised and adapted to fit new circumstances. In the era of the digital economy, the link between human capital development and national growth is even more obvious, and there are vast opportunities that still remain untapped. ASEAN Member States and Dialogue Partners will continue this discussion, listening to the recommendations from the ASEAN High-Level Meeting on Human Capital Development to find ways to advance partnership on this issue to another plane.

A pyramid of wooden blocks engraved with academic-themed icons.

Source : Thailand Today


Yajai Bunnag

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