FEATURE STORY September 28, 2019

How Countries in Southeast Asia are Working Together to Accelerate Human Capital Development

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ASEAN officials and development partners at the High-Level Meeting on Human Capital Development in Bangkok, Thailand, on September 9. 

Chadin Tephaval/World Bank


STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • ASEAN countries have made great socio-economic progress, but children born there today will only achieve 59% of their potential productivity compared to children born in regions with high-performing health and education systems.
  • Leaders from ASEAN came together on September 9, 2019 to discuss strategies for human capital development in their countries, displaying the political commitment to prioritize public investments in people.

In their decades-long efforts to spur strong economic growth and significantly reduce poverty, countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) also successfully improved education and health outcomes for their people. Today, however, ASEAN’s average indicators on education, skills development, and health are below what is expected of its current income levels. These persistent gaps can undermine future growth and prosperity in the region.

To thrive in the global economy, where new technologies will create industries that have yet to be imagined, and where the changing nature of work prizes higher-order skills, ASEAN countries will have to go back to basics – and invest in its children.    

The challenge is significant. Almost a third of children in the region have stunted growth due to chronic malnutrition, making them highly prone to life-long cognitive and physical limitations. These can lead to poor school performance and diminished career prospects overall. And though schooling rates are high across ASEAN, limited education quality generates large learning gaps – 21 in 100 children have low reading comprehension skills at the end of primary school. Some 15% of 15-year-olds living today will not reach the age of 60 mainly due to noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses. Both issues are partly a result of unequal access to basic services, including healthcare and education, which in turn contributes to widening income inequalities.

ASEAN countries, while linked geographically and economically, have varying levels of life expectancy, job productivity, and education quality. At the core of these challenges is the need among all countries to accelerate human capital development. This month in Bangkok, Thailand, leaders from the region came together to discuss how to take this further.

“Disparity, poverty, education and health, remain a challenge in ASEAN. We have to make Human Capital Development an integral part of our development,” ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi told the ASEAN High-Level Meeting on Human Development on September 9, 2019.

Organized by Thailand’s National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDC) and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the World Bank and UNICEF, the high-level meeting was designed to facilitate dialogue among member states to share successful policy frameworks and emerging challenges, as well as help identify new approaches to human capital development and move towards a set of common, yet adaptable, policy directions.


"On pursuing UHC: Don’t wait to get rich, get committed."
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Mr. Anutin Charnvirakul
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Public Health, Thailand

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A panelist speaks during one of the sessions on human capital development.

Chadin Tephaval/World Bank


ASEAN has their work cut out for them. The World Bank’s Human Capital Index projects that upon adulthood, children born in ASEAN today will be just 59% as productive as they could have been. To change this, political commitment to shift public investments to the right places is critical. 

Thailand, for example, reduced the rates of child stunting from 25 to 11% over the last 30 years through targeted, community-based nutrition programs in areas with high levels of poverty. The successful approach brought together health, agriculture, education, water and sanitation by close community-level coordination to address malnutrition.


Anutin Charnvirakul, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Public Health, shared how Thailand kickstarted its Universal Health Coverage (UHC) scheme in 2002 even though it was still regrouping from the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. The UHC scheme entitled every Thai citizen to essential health services, and coverage reached 100% in 2018.

“UHC is about national commitment. We don’t have to wait until we are rich to get UHC. We just have to commit,” Anutin said.

Other countries in the region have also performed well in various areas. Vietnam stands out with its high-quality basic education system due to its commitment to education reform and substantial public spending, while Singapore initiated successful schemes to retrain and employ older workers.

Experts presented delegates with data that illustrated how globally, investments in health and education, especially for young children, generates high returns on productivity. It gives the future workforce the necessary cognitive and social skills to navigate a knowledge-based economy. The meeting ended with recommendations for accelerating human capital development in ASEAN. These include fighting malnutrition with nutritious foods and quality healthcare, orienting the entire education system around improved learning for the young and lifelong learning for adults, and achieving UHC to provide everyone with quality health services and financial protection from health-related shocks to their income.

But as Laurence Chandy, UNICEF’s Director of Global Insight and Policy Office, reminded participants, to realize these goals, countries will have to make “fiscal commitments and more importantly set clear policies for implementation that are specific to each country.”



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