The price of success can, at times, be high. This year, Thailand scored an outstanding achievement in public health by effectively containing COVID-19. But the cost to the economy and peoples’ livelihoods has been painful. None have suffered more than those already living on the margins. In Thailand, as in many countries, the pandemic exposed existing disparities—and made them worse.
Turning crisis into opportunity is an old adage. Today, it is more relevant than ever. In the wake of the pandemic, executives in fields from auto manufacturing to tourism and financial services are saying their industries will never be the same. In response, they are exploring new ways of doing business during the ‘new normal’—and beyond.
Thailand’s government is charting a similar course. It has expanded payments and safety-net protections to the most vulnerable during the crisis. The goal is immediate relief, while the mission is to build back better. That means restructuring health, education, social services and income opportunities in ways that reduce disparities and increase fairness. The result will be a Thailand even more stable, resilient and competitive in the face of increasingly volatile global challenges.
Data is at the heart of designing effective remedies. From the United Nations to local governments, policymakers are demanding evidence-based solutions. The evidence shows that Thailand has made impressive progress, reducing poverty from over 65 percent of the population in 1988 to 7.8 percent in 2017.
However, the tools available to measure disparities have been mostly broad and flawed—so flawed that one bank was able to cherry-pick statistics and declare that Thailand is the most unequal country in the world. The World Bank and the United Nations Development Program, on the other hand, put the Kingdom firmly in the middle of the pack among nations when it comes to disparities.
Thai leaders, nonetheless, are committed to doing even better. And a breakthrough is taking place. The National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDC), the agency tasked with writing the Kingdom’s development plans, is working on an ambitious project named TP Map, or the Thai People’s Map.
Since 2017, the NESDC has been gathering, coordinating and analyzing information and statistics from a range of government agencies that had been working in silos and plugging it into TP Map. As researchers fill in more gaps in the data, the picture emerging from TP Map is more detailed than anything policymakers had to work with in the past.
“People can be poor in several dimensions,” said Wanchat Suwankitti, who oversees the project as the Head of Social Policy Monitoring at the NESDC. A person’s income may put them above the poverty line, but they still may have poor access to education, healthcare or housing. The quality of those services may be much lower than in another area.
Absent that detailed data, government programs don’t reach everyone in need with what they need. Sometimes, they bestow benefits on those who don’t qualify. With precise data, “each household can receive tailor-made assistance and the government can prioritize areas,” Wanchat said. It is a targeted, as opposed to a universal, approach.
Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is on board and has ordered governors and agency heads to supply information to TP Map. So far, TP Map has data on 42 million of Thailand’s 70 million people. Social service workers and government officials regularly update the database by visiting families, interviewing them, and uploading photographs showing the conditions in which they live.
The result will be fairer access to and smarter distribution of services and assistance. TP Map is revealing pockets of poverty that had gone undetected. It is also showing some bright spots: the percentage of lower-income students gaining admission to colleges and higher learning institutions has been rising. Education is one of the most potent tools in reducing disparities, according to Wanchat.
While that is a positive trend, the pandemic has taught Thai policymakers that advances can be fragile. A disaster can wipe out years or decades of progress. “We think of Covid-19 as a catalyst, as a wake-up call,” Wanchat said. For Thailand’s leaders, the call is to build resilience by reducing disparities. With TP Map, they are vowing to make the most of a new opportunity to create a more equal Thailand.