PhD Defence, 16 December 2019 'Beyond Static Inequality: Public Policies & Economic Mobility in Thailand'

Interview with Patima Chongcharoentanawat of Thailand

Thanks for joining us, Patima. Can you tell us about your background and how you got funding for your PhD? 

After gaining a Master's in Applied Economics from the University of Michigan in the US, I returned to Thailand and started working as a plan and policy analyst at the National Economic and Social Development Council, a policy planning agency under the Office of the Prime Minister. My responsibility was to formulate plans and recommend policies related to poverty, inequality and human development to the cabinet, prime minister and line ministries.  I really liked my job but at some points felt that I was struggling. I needed more knowledge and skills to come up with more concrete policy recommendations based on more robust research evidence. Therefore, I decided to apply for the government scholarship to sponsor my PhD study. I took the written and oral exam and was fortunately awarded the scholarship.

How did you hear about our PhD on Innovation, Economics & Governance for Development? 

My scholarship is quite flexible, so I could study wherever I wanted. I got an offer from well-known universities in both the US and UK. However, since I’d already done a Master’s in the US, I didn’t feel like going back for another 4-6 years. The offer from the UK was attractive, but at that time I really wanted to have one year of coursework before starting my research and such coursework was not offered at the university where I got accepted.

At that time a friend of mine had just graduated from the Master’s programme at UNU-MERIT – and it was her who suggested I take a look at their PhD programme. I remember being so impressed when looking through the course structure. This is because although I wanted to do a coursework, I was also worried that it would be repetitive, as I had already done so many courses on macroeconomics, microeconomics and econometrics during my Bachelor’s and Master’s. So when I saw that UNU-MERIT offers something really different, which can be better applied to policies such as economic development, the economics of innovation, poverty, human development and social protection, I really thought that might be the right school for me.

What are you working on now? Can you explain your research in non-technical terms?

I’ve been working on socioeconomic upward mobility and the role of social protection programmes and labour market policies in promoting mobility. Upward economic mobility is a policy objective in its own right. It indicates the extent to which opportunity exists in society. In the presence of mobility, inequality is less problematic as individuals, through their own ability and effort, can rise into higher socioeconomic classes regardless of their backgrounds. However, a growing body of literature substantiates that the prospects of getting ahead, especially for those at the low end, are increasingly elusive. A recent study reveals that in OECD countries, children from poor families would need at least 150 years to reach the average income level, while in some developing countries such as Brazil, Colombia and South Africa, it could take as long as 300 years. This phenomenon not only goes against moral principles but may also lead to long-term economic inefficiency, persistence of inequality and disruption of social harmony. Hence, the impediment to mobility must be tackled in order to ensure that the equal opportunity to succeed remains achievable for all walks of life.

The purpose of my thesis is to understand economic mobility in the context of a developing economy and the role that social protection programmes have played in promoting economic mobility. I use Thailand as a case study to explore this research objective. In my thesis, I examine the extent and pattern of intra-generational income mobility, and identify factors driving mobility based on longitudinal data from Thailand. My study establishes causality linking participation in certain programmes which, in theory, have the potential to overcome mobility constraints including vocational training, microcredit and social pension, and changes in mobility outcomes by means of various impact evaluation methods using both absolute and relative mobility indicators.

Results gathered in my thesis suggest that Thailand still needs to overcome several challenges to transform the country into an inclusive and open society where everyone has an equal opportunity to prosper. In theory, social protection programmes seem an obvious mobility-enhancing intervention to address the socioeconomic immobility. However, in practice, only the social pension programme is found to impact beneficiaries along the outcome dimensions considered. My thesis concludes that the implementation of social protection programmes alone does not necessarily remove binding constraints to upward mobility. Programme design and detail of implementation matter. Moreover, social protection should be regarded as an integral part of the wider system of social and economic support aiming to enhance productive capacity, unleash economic opportunity and promote sustainable upward mobility.

You'll defend your thesis on 16 December 2019. What will you do next in your career? 

After graduation, I will return to my previous job back home at the National Economic and Social Development Council. Thailand aims to become a high-income economy within the next two decades. The creation of equal opportunities and a just society represent one of the six key pillars in the 20-year national strategy (2018-2037) which aims to move Thailand toward a high-income country with “security, prosperity and sustainability”. Yet, so many challenges lie ahead of us. For my part, I hope to use all the knowledge, skills and professionalism gained during at UNU-MERIT to contribute to the benefit of my country.