BANGKOK — International actors still have a role to play as Thailand works to steer clear of the middle-income trap, according to Thomas Parks, country representative for Asia Foundation Thailand.
Asia Foundation has worked in Thailand since 1954, adapting its program as the country rapidly developed: “Today, Thailand doesn’t need the support or kind of things we do in other countries in Southeast Asia,” Parks said. “So we’ve been trying to figure out: What are Thailand’s biggest challenges, and what role is there, if any, for development actors?”
It’s a question the development community is already asking about Indonesia, an emerging middle-income country, and the Philippines, which, according to the World Bank, is poised to make the leap from lower middle-income to upper middle-income. In conducting a recent study, the Asia Foundation has clarified that there are “a pretty clear new set of challenges that happen at this level,” Parks said.
Even as these countries move up, they struggle to remain economically competitive while dealing with bloated bureaucratic systems created in a different era. Meanwhile, bilateral aid budgets have dried up and many international NGOs have exited or are no longer implementing in-country programs. The most useful role development actors can play at this stage — when a country is at risk of “hitting a brick wall,” Parks said — is to step in as facilitators for community mobilization and input, or for research support to identify best practices in that country’s particular context.
“What's really needed is for somebody to ... roll up their sleeves, look at what the constraints are to change the entire system, and to try to help support reform coalitions and reform efforts.”— Thomas Parks, country representative at Asia Foundation Thailand.
In Thailand, one example is the education sector. The country’s ministry of education made impressive progress in access to education in the 60s and 70s, and was “way ahead of the pack in ASEAN in terms of getting education to every village,” Parks said. “The problem is the system was built for access, not for quality.”
Now, the country is faced with the challenge of hundreds of small schools providing poor education, and “a system that was built for a different time,” he added.
While the impetus for many countries is to invite Thai government officials to observe highly regarded education models elsewhere — and these exercises can certainly spur ideas for reform —“what's really needed is for somebody to sort of roll up their sleeves, look at what the constraints are to change the entire system, and to try to help support reform coalitions and reform efforts,” Parks said.
Asia Foundation has worked to form coalitions for change and entrepreneurship in countries including the Philippines, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and Mongolia, tapping “various local actors who have a strong commitment and interest in reform,” Parks said.
The foundation then provides support and funds essential research, but the coalition — which is ideally a mix of civil society and private sector actors with links to key officials — sets the agenda. It’s the same approach they’re taking to support Thailand’s education reform. Later this year, Thailand will host a summit on education that seeks to broaden the constituency involved in the reform process, as well as solidify plans for special education zones in order to test various solutions and monitor progress in designated areas.
“This group is going to be deciding the agenda, but what they’re saying to us now is that they’re keen to get international actors in various supporting roles,” Parks said. This might be through financial contributions, facilitating community input or monitoring projects.
Countries make progress and grow rapidly at lower stages because there are clear problems, and “the solutions are win-wins,” Parks said. “At middle-income and upper middle-income, you reach a point where you actually have to make tough choices, and you have to help the government to function much more effectively.”