Thailand is known as a premier holiday destination with its tropical beaches, beautiful palaces and historic ancient ruins. However, for 6.2% of the country’s population that live below the poverty line, life is far from idyllic.
21 Dec, 2021
As the dawn starts to appear each morning, Aphichaya’s family rush to pack their tools and lunch for the day's work at the field. With their heads down and the hot sun beating against their backs, it will be another long day of hard labour. The family relies solely on subsistence farming for their income. Usually, they earn just over two Australian dollars per day.
In the remote and mountainous Omkoi District of Chiang Mai, it is common to see children working in the fields alongside their parents. As a result, few children reach university. Often, boys drop out of school before the age of 14 to work as day labourers. Girls do their best to complete high school before trying to find work in the city. Higher education seems totally out of reach for families with lower incomes.
For many Thai children and their families living in poverty, the struggle to meet their daily needs makes it difficult to dream of a different future.
19-year-old Aphichaya has experienced poverty firsthand, but her circumstances have not stolen her tenacity. Thanks to her parents’ unwavering desire for their daughter to have a good education and a different future, she was given a pivotal opportunity through her local church.
“I remember it vividly,” recalls Aphichaya. “One day, my mother took me to the church and she had a long talk with the staff. And then they told me that I am now registered in the Child Sponsorship Program. I was four years old. I didn’t know what it would be like but knew deep inside of me that my life would be changing forever.”
What is the need in Thailand?
Officially known as Siam till 1939, Thailand is the only country in southeast Asia that has never been colonised by a European nation. However, it has not escaped political unrest, sporting a long history of military coups.
Despite these political divides, Thailand has experienced rapid social and economic development over the past four decades, changing from an agricultural- to an industrial-based economy. It has been widely hailed as a success story in development, moving from a lower-income to upper-middle income country in less than a generation. Thailand’s economy grew at an average annual rate of 7.5% in the boom years of 1960-1996 and 5% during 1999-2005. This growth resulted in the creation of a vast number of jobs that helped pull millions of people out of poverty.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Thailand was the first country outside of China to report a COVID-19 case in January 2020. The pace of poverty reduction had already slowed in recent years after a rapid decline over the past three decades, from 65.2% in 1988 to 6.2% in 2019. This slowing rate of poverty reduction, coupled with the social and economic challenges of the pandemic had an adverse impact on the already vulnerable communities in Thailand. The people groups living in the nation’s northern- and western-most regions were particularly affected. The inequalities in socio-economic welfare still remain in these regions, due to a combination of a lack of infrastructure and services, alongside their status as ethnic minorities. This inequality is caused largely by disparities in the distribution of wealth, environmental degradation, the effects of urbanisation and COVID-19.
According to the World Bank, this inequality in socio-economic welfare is one of the leading barriers in Thailand achieving sustainable development and its goal of becoming a high-income country.
Thailand has one of the world's highest wealth concentrations, with the top 1% holding an estimated 58% of the country's total wealth.
Thailand’s Gini index, a measure that represents income inequality in a population, has only decreased marginally, from 43.8 in 1998 to 39.3 in 2012. This is despite the country’s rapid social and economic growth and drastic poverty reduction.
Poverty in Thailand is a rural phenomenon that occurs most drastically in the northeast—the most populated region in the country. The ‘rural poor’ make up 7.3 million people, or 80% of the country.1 Vulnerable groups such as informal workers, migrants and displaced persons are at the greatest risk economically. Half of all these vulnerable people work in the agricultural sector and the rest are part of the informal workforce, consisting of part-time workers, people who are self-employed, informal small- and medium-sized enterprises and landless laborers.
Recent research finds that child poverty tended to be higher in these rural areas as well; a larger number of children identified as poor, compared to the urban areas of Thailand. Given the large population size in the Northeast region, it is estimated that 38% of multidimensionally poor children live in this region.2
What does child poverty look like in Thailand?
The Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) found that while Thailand has made significant progress in reducing monetary poverty, more than 20% of children in the country are still multidimensionally poor. This figure has decreased since 2006, but considerable challenges still exist. In particular, OPHI research found that deprivations measured in the education and health dimensions remain high, with lack of access to education contributing most significantly to child poverty in Thailand.
The COVID-19 pandemic impacted global education significantly. However, the impact on the developing world was particularly devastating.
“Hundreds of millions of children have lost at least a full year of schooling due to COVID-19. This pandemic has brought about the largest loss of human capital in living memory and the worst education crisis in a century,” says World Bank Group President, David Malpass. “It’s vital for children to be in school, especially primary school age children. The consequences of school closures could be felt for decades and are contributing to even wider inequality, particularly for girls.”3
In Thailand, the pandemic has compounded the effects of existing vulnerabilities, with children becoming particularly susceptible to the devastating socio-economic impacts of the global pandemic. A survey conducted by UNICEF found that families with young children were more likely to experience higher costs of living and loss of income.
Prolonged school closures may have devastating consequences for children’s learning and well-being, especially for the most vulnerable who lack access to online learning.
According to a survey undertaken last year by UNICEF, nearly half of the families in Thailand were not ready for online learning: 51% did not have access to devices for online learning, 26% did not have internet access for online learning and 40% of parents and caregivers said they did not have time to oversee their children’s online learning.
Thailand is also a major source, transit and destination country for children who are sex trafficked through the region of southeast Asia. According to the Global Slavery Index, Thailand is home to an estimated 610,000 slaves, with girls living in poverty being especially vulnerable.
At Compassion’s local child development centres, beyond access to education and having their basic needs met, the children also attend a special life skills program where they learn income-generating skills and ways to protect themselves from abuse. Partnership Facilitator Chirayu Manlika says, “Despite everything we do to facilitate children’s healthy development, the cycle of poverty and abuse will continue if we don’t also provide them with skills to earn a living and strategies for protecting themselves.”
High-risk regions across the country are those that are the most economically deprived, with families struggling to meet their basic needs. This level of poverty means that children are often subjected to forced labour or are targeted by drug traffickers to act as smugglers, resulting in children turning to a life of crime and addiction at a young age. Children living in these high-risk areas also face increased vulnerability to sexual exploitation and being trafficked into the commercial sex trade.
Education and income generation training remain key factors in protecting vulnerable children and enabling them to see a future that is safe and full of opportunity.
Compassion’s story in Thailand
Compassion has over 40 years of partnership with local churches in Thailand. Across our 177 Thai church partners, more than 54,000 children and close to 200 mothers and their babies are receiving support.
Aphichaya was among the first children in her village to be part of the Compassion program at her local church. Each week, she happily attended activities at her local child development centre.
“The sponsorship program here is not just about what happens in the classroom at the centre. But what does happen influences everything else. It's the commitment and dedication from the staff, and their persistent and consistent love, care, and support,” she shares.
“Children just needs someone to be there for them. That brings hope and it helps children to be able to dream,” says Piyamary Shinoda, Compassion Thailand’s photojournalist.
“Through COVID-19 last year, we had many families come to know Christ and accept Christ into their lives through the work of project staff. They have seen that project staff have been praying for their families.”
Throughout the pandemic, the local church partners in Thailand have worked tirelessly to continue supporting children in poverty. Local workers have delivered over 340,000 food packs and 141,000 hygiene kits to vulnerable families. When face masks were not readily available, some local child development centres purchased their own materials needed to make facemasks for children and their families.
You can learn more about how Compassion’s local church partners have been meeting the needs of their community and how your support is making a difference in Thailand by watching the country update below.
How you can help
When Aphichaya experiences doubt that she will achieve her dreams, she reminds herself of the Word of God.
“Matthew 7:7 says, 'Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.' A dream doesn't have legs. If you want to reach it, you’ll have to walk toward it,” she says.
Today, Aphichaya is not just walking towards her dream—she's running at it.
She has been accepted into a Christian university with a full scholarship to study Communication Arts when she graduates from high school. She gives the credit to her loving family and the local staff.
“My mother is my hero. She always encouraged me to stay in school. And Saisiri, the project director, always inspired me to be a strong woman and pursue my dreams,” she says. “I am so thankful for the sponsorship program. Without the program, I couldn’t have come this far.”
As the saying goes, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, and children living in poverty need additional love and support from their global neighbours to become all they were created to be. Through your help and generosity, more children like Aphichaya can break the cycle of poverty and make their dreams a reality. And you can play a part in their story.
Would you like to learn more about poverty and Compassion's response in other parts of Asia? Read our blogs below:
- Asia in Focus: Poverty in Bangladesh
- Asia in Focus: Poverty in Indonesia
- Asia in Focus: Poverty in The Philippines
Words by Rachel Howlett and Sidhara Udalagama with field reporting by Piyamary Shinoda.
1Borgen Magazine (2016). Three Facts Explaining Rural Poverty in Thailand. https://www.borgenmagazine.com/rural-poverty-in-thailand/
2Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (2019). Child Multidimensional Poverty in Thailand. https://www.unicef.org/thailand/media/3171/file/Child%20Multidimensional%20Poverty%20in%20Thailand.pdf
3World Bank (2021). Pandemic Threatens to Drive Unprecedented Number of Children into Learning Poverty. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2021/10/29/world-bank-pandemic-threatens-to-drive-unprecedented-number-of-children-into-learning-poverty
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