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FEATURE STORY November 13, 2019

Developing Human Capital is Key for Future of ASEAN and Thailand


Panelists at the ASEAN: Invest in Me seminar.

Chadin Tephaval/World Bank


  • Human capital development is about investing in people for greater social equity and economic growth in the future.
  • Investment in human capital is largely about investments in children. Research shows these investments have very high returns, far exceeding those from investments in infrastructure and physical capital.
  • Thailand’s productive work force (ages 20-59) is currently 58.9% of the population but will drop below 50% in the next two decades as the population ages. Human capital development becomes all the more important today for increasing the work force’s productivity to support the aging society that Thailand is quickly becoming.

Digital technology has disrupted all facets of our life. It has brought constant and unpredictable changes to the way that we live and work. Today no one can rely on staying in a specialized job their whole career because chances are technology will render it antiquated before long. New types of work that didn’t exist yesterday will force everyone out of their comfort zone to accommodate novel ways of doing things. The unrelenting pace of technological innovation is demanding three things above all from the modern work force – cognitive, social and adaptability skills.

This combination of advanced cognitive skills such as critical thinking to solve complex problems; socio-behavioral skills such as perseverance and empathy to forge teamwork; and adaptability skills such as reasoning and self-efficacy to achieve a desired result; are increasingly important in labor markets globally, according to the World Bank’s World Development Report 2019: The Changing Nature of Work. Thus, what can developing countries do to ensure that they have such a work force to compete in the economy of the future? The answer, in a nutshell, is human capital development. Even more simply put – invest in people.

“We are talking about (investing in) good health, nutrition, education and skills that make it possible for people to have a productive and prosperous life,” Dr. Gabriel Demombynes, the World Bank’s Program Leader for Human Development, told the ASEAN: Invest in Me seminar organized by the World Bank and Chulalongkorn University’s School of Integrated Innovation in Bangkok last month.

The World Bank’s Human Capital Project has been advocating that countries accelerate more and better investments in people for greater equity and economic growth. But where should human capital development start?

“The most effective way to acquire the skills demanded by the changing nature of work is to start early,” said Dr. Birgit Hansl, World Bank Country Manager for Thailand. “Early investments in nutrition, health, social protection, and education lay strong foundations for the future acquisition of cognitive and socio-behavioral skills.”

"No more ‘old-style’ lectures for today’s students "
Dr. Natcha Thawesaengskulthai
Vice President for Innovation and New Development, Chulalongkorn University


VIDEO Sep 09, 2019

ASEAN: Invest in People to Build Human Capital

A child born in ASEAN today will achieve only 59% of their full productivity potential. For ASEAN countries to provide a more sustainable, equitable and prosperous future for all its people, investing in education, healthcare and social protection programs will be key to building strong human capital.


According to Dr. Gabriel Demombynes, World Bank’s Program Leader for Human Development, "Human capital development played a standout role in the success of many ASEAN countries."

Chadin Tephaval/World Bank

Investment in nutrition at the earliest stage of life is particularly important. Almost a third of children in ASEAN have stunted growth due to chronic malnutrition, which puts them at high risk of cognitive and physical limitations that can last a lifetime. The quality of education in many countries in the region also face difficult challenges with 21% of children not being able to read at the end of primary school, according to Dr. Demombynes.

The situation is even more dire in Thailand.  “A third of 15-year-olds today cannot explain the text that they read,” UNICEF Representative to Thailand, Thomas Davin, said. This means that it would be difficult for them to manage any daily life or employment tasks requiring reading skills beyond a basic level.

Tertiary education is also a priority area since it is a basis for innovation with universities performing the key function of imparting knowledge and developing critical thinking. But the traditional method of lectures and passive reading is no longer sufficient. “Students seek a more dynamic and engaged form of education. They seek connection and relevance to the real world,” Dr. Natcha Thawesaengskulthai, Vice President for Innovation and New Development, Chulalongkorn University, told the gathering.

Athitchai Wanapaisorn, a student at Chulalongkorn University, agrees. “Exams involve no thinking. Exams encourage students to follow instructions rather than thinking critically for themselves. The more important skill is the ability to apply information,” he said.

To give Thailand a more pertinent education, Chulalongkorn University has established three innovation platforms: 1) School of Integrated Innovation (ScII) that provides a transdisciplinary, future-oriented, and demand-driven education; 2) Chulalongkorn University Technology Center (UTC), a platform for impactful research and deep-dives into technologies; and 3) Siam Innovation District (SID), a public–private partnership, that uses the commercial Siam Square complex to engage the public on making Thailand an innovative society.

Professor Worsak Kanok-Nukulchai, Executive Director of the School of Integrated Innovation, pointed out that Thailand will be facing another big problem ­– an aging population. Currently 58.9% of the Thai population is in the productive work force (ages 20-59) but by 2044 this will drop below 50%. It will have a serious impact on the economy as there will be more people living off their pension or saving but fewer people working and paying taxes. Great strain would be placed on the health and social welfare services while government revenues might wane.

“We are facing a big challenge. Government, business leaders, and education institution must understand the magnitude of change and think about how they can develop human capital,” Professor Worsak said.

Dr. Pattama Teanravisitsagool, Deputy Secretary-General of the National Economic and Social Development Council, said this is why Thailand’s national development strategy focuses on upskilling, reskilling, training, and life-long learning. It’s to ensure that people in the work force stay highly productive to the end of their career and beyond. Mr. Paramate Nisagornsen, Vice-President for Regional Business, Siam Cement Group (SCG), values the strategy and raises the question of whether 60 is still the appropriate age to retire.

“We would like to see people, after reaching retirement age, be allowed to continue to learn and contribute to society. SCG wants to support them on their life-long learning journey,” Mr Paramate said. And that sums up what human capital development entails – developing human potentials over their entire lifespan.