How Thailand can proceed with ambitious SDGs

Vitit Muntarbhorn is a Professor Emeritus of Law at Chulalongkorn University. He has helped the United Nations as a Special Rapporteur and Independent Expert.

Two years ago, the Sustainable Developments Goals (SDGs) were adopted by the global community at the United Nations General Assembly to guide global development for 2015-2030, encompassing all countries. They came hot on the heels of the UN's more modest Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set for 2000-2015.

In retrospect, Thailand performed very well in fulfilling the MDGs. Several goals, such as the halving of poverty, were achieved long before 2015. The challenge now is to address the implementation of the SDGs, with a different scenario following the 2014 coup, the advent of military rule, a new constitution and possible reversion to limited civilian rule.

The SDGs are more ambitious than the MDGs and have a broader outreach. They advocate 17 goals with 169 targets such as the end to poverty and hunger, healthy lives and quality education, gender equality, sustainable management of water and sanitation, and access to energy.

Thailand's response to the SDGs has been interesting. It has set up a very high level committee to formulate SDG-related policies and promote implementation. The country also sent a voluntary report on national review on the implementation of the SDGs to the UN. The report contains a wealth of information from an interdisciplinary perspective.

In reality, the country is now guided by the 20-year national strategy framework for 2017-2037. The framework espouses six key elements: security, capacity building for competition, development of human potential, promotion of equality, impetus for quality of life consonant with environmental protection, and development of the state system and related services.

The framework is interlinked with the 12th National Economic and Social Development Plan for 2017-2021 which is complemented by four other components: development of infrastructure and logistics; development of technology, research and innovation; development of urban areas and economic space; and partnership for development. There is an overarching "Thailand 4.0" vision which aims to create a society based on "smart industry, smart city and smart people".

For Thailand, a range of priorities should be underlined to generate more traction to fulfil the SDGs by 2030.

First, the need for stronger national-local partnerships, particularly to ensure a more participatory process. To date, the drive has come from those at the top rather than from key stakeholders at the local level. The gender issue is relevant and the role of women from the bottom to the top of the political and administrative ladder is essential.

Second, the call for building capacity for competition under the 20-year strategy should address more effectively issues concerning those who are unable to compete such as marginalised groups. The issue of social support and social safety nets for all, such as access to health care and basic needs, is an inevitable corollary of the SDGs.

Third, a creative society that can enhance research and innovation depends much on freedom of expression and access to information. There is thus a need to overcome the pervasiveness of official control.

Fourth, governance comes into play. While there is now an emphasis on anti-corruption and anti-crime, the understanding of governance should be broader. Democratic governance is at stake and it is very much the crux of the SDGs, particularly goal 16 which calls for an inclusive society and accountable institutions at all levels.

Fifth, the advocacy of quality manpower, according to the SDGs, goes far beyond access to primary education. It covers early childhood education as well as secondary and other levels of education, while not forgetting the need to incentivise teachers and increase support for access to education, such as the provision of grants. The advent of digitisation offers additional opportunities but this too depends on the opening up of education and civil society space.

Sixth, while the call for an equitable society implies the need to enable people to generate more income, there should also be measures to share resources more equitably. This is an area where land reallocation, natural forest conservation and land tax go hand in hand to balance between the haves and the have nots, including the rights of local communities.

Seventh, underlying the SDGs as an accelerator is the effectiveness of budgets. The invitation is to avoid the silo effect of too many ministries and too many budgets. This is clearly the case in regard to anti-poverty measures and environmental response, including action on global warming. While Thailand is already adopting this approach to some extent, more can be done especially at the local level.

Eighth, financial inputs for the SDGs to open the door to "triangular co-operation" where different actors can contribute to the implementation process. The role of the private/business sector can be tapped more strongly, and there should be more support for small- and medium-scale industries which are closer to the livelihoods of local people.

Ninth, the call for an inclusive society under the SDGs invites the participation of the general population in policy formulation, decision making, implementation, benefit sharing and follow up. Therefore, there can be no substitute for a democratic system.

Tenth, the issue of rights and freedoms should not be overlooked. Not only is this pivotal to help prevent violence and discrimination, but it will also foster the environment of peace and sustainable development on which the SDGs are anchored.

The vision "to leave no one behind" under those global goals ultimately calls for not only accelerated action to enhance the well-being of all people but also checks and balances to prevent abuses and to share power.

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