Residents living outside a dyke by the Chao Phraya River endured major flooding in 2022. Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

Inequality and environmental strains remain persistent despite Thailand’s 66th in HDI

Increasing polarization and human insecurity are also growing concerns for Thailand, similar to the rest of the world, which has seen uneven development progress leaving the poorest behind, thus exacerbating inequality and stoking political polarization, the new UNDP’s Human Development Index report reveals

The new UNDP’s 2023/24 Human Development Report (HDR), “Breaking the Gridlock: Reimagining cooperation in a polarized world”, launched this week has revealed the latest survey results on HD ranks and scores of 193 countries. The Human Development Index (HDI) referred to is a summary measure reflecting a country’s Gross National Income (GNI) per capita, education, and life expectancy.

Along with 38 OECD countries, Thailand achieved a higher HDI score compared to the pre-pandemic level with an improvement from 0.797 in 2021 and the pre-COVID score of 0.801 in 2019 to 0.803 in 2022. This score has placed the country in the “very high human development” category, positioning it at 66 out of 193 countries and territories in a rank.

When disaggregated by gender, female HDI for Thailand is higher than that of males, 0.807 per 0.798, a development not seen in other countries across all categories of human development, even among those in the “very high human development” category, according to the HDI report.  Still, female’s access to education and income per capita remains lower than those of male, the report noted.

Despite Thailand’s remarkable overall human development progress, inequality as well as environmental strains remain persistent. Thailand’s HDI declines by 15.2% to 0.681 when discounted for inequality.  Furthermore, the country’s HDI falls by 6.6% to 0.750 after adjusting for its carbon dioxide emissions and material footprint.

“This is in line with UNESCAP’s latest assessment of the country’s SDG progress, which shows that while being on track with the goal of no poverty, there is minimal progress on reducing inequality and there are reversals in progress on achieving zero hunger and implementing climate action”, the UNDP noted.

Similar to the rest of the world, increasing polarization and human insecurity are growing concerns for Thailand, the UN development organisation said. According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Growth Report 2024, the country’s social polarization score stood at 0 out of 4, indicating a high degree of polarization.

At the same time, although Thailand’s Index of Perceived Human Insecurity is at 0.47, lower than most countries in Southeast Asia, the number of mental health patients in the country doubled from 1.3 million people in 2015 to 2.3 million people in 2021.  The suicide rate rose from 6.03 per 100,000 people in 2017 to 7.38 per 100,000 people in 2021. Together, these factors undermine its capacity for social dialogue and stifle the much-needed collective action, the UNDP remarked.

“The political will, whether in administrative politics or electoral politics, will be aligned if sustainability is at the core. If we don’t adhere to this principle, we will end up with uncertain directions,” said Assoc. Prof. Niramon Sutammakit of the Faculty of Economics, Thammasat University, and acting director of the Inclusiveness, Environment, and Social Development Division, Thailand Science Research and Innovation (TSRI)

Global human development trend

The 2023/24 HDR report has also revealed a troubling trend of the rebound in the global Human Development Index (HDI) which has been partial, incomplete, and unequal. After 20 years of convergence, the gap between the richest and poorest countries started to widen since 2020, the report noted. While rich countries are experiencing record-high levels of human development, half of the world’s poorest countries remain below their pre-crisis level of progress. This prompts them to face a gridlock, as countries fail to address and act on shared challenges.  

The intertwined crises, from the pandemic to climate change, are outpacing their willingness and institutions’ capacities to respond to them. The destabilizing effects of global shocks along with the perceived inability of institutions to protect people stir polarization, which fuels protectionist, inward-turning policy approaches, the report further noted.

“This is starkly at odds with the global cooperation needed to address urgent issues like the decarbonization of our economies, misuse of digital technologies, and conflict,” the UNDP remarked upon the findings.

A global gridlock at this current juncture is particularly alarming in light of 2023’s record-breaking temperatures, which emphasize the immediate need for united action to tackle the climate crisis, or in the advent of artificial intelligence as a new and fast-evolving technological frontier with little or no regulatory guard rails. Without breaking such gridlock, both well-being and human agency are under threat, the UN development organisation said.

Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it cited, has stalled or reversed for 30 per cent of the SDG targets and is weak or insufficient for another 50 per cent. The world is more off track in progress towards the SDGs than four years ago and is regressing on key goals on climate action, biodiversity loss, food security, poverty, inequality and gender inequality.

Against this backdrop, even in very high Human Development Index countries, less than a quarter of people feel secure, its report said.  Half of the people surveyed worldwide report having no or limited control over their lives, and over two-thirds believe they have little influence on their government’s decisions, it further noted.

Failure of collective action to advance action on climate change, digitalization or poverty and inequality not only hinders human development but also worsens polarization and further erodes trust in people and institutions worldwide, the UN development organisation remarked.

To break the gridlock, the report emphasizes the reimagining of global public goods, which will allow countries to move beyond narrow zero-sum thinking and supports cooperation even with diverging interests and views. 

This includes, for example, planetary public goods for climate stability and digital global public goods for greater equity in harnessing new technologies for equitable human development.  This needs to be underpinned by new and expanded financial mechanisms, including a novel track in international cooperation that complements humanitarian assistance and traditional development aid.

The report also identifies ways to ease political polarization through new governance approaches focused on enhancing people’s voices in deliberation and tackling misinformation. It also proposes strategy to narrow agency gaps via strengthening institutions to be more people-centered, co-owned, and future oriented, ensuring inclusive engagement in decision-making bodies and processes at national and subnational levels.

This, it said, requires the whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach towards an emancipatory vision of development, enabling all people, especially vulnerable populations, to participate in and benefit from development, free from discrimination.

“The widening human development gap revealed by the report shows that the two-decade trend of steadily reducing inequalities between wealthy and poor nations is now in reverse,” said Achim Steiner, head of the UN Development Programme. “Despite our deeply interconnected global societies, we are falling short. We must leverage our interdependence as well as our capacities to address our shared and existential challenges and ensure people’s aspirations are met. Our problems are intertwined, requiring equally interconnected solutions.”