The government’s plan to push sufficiency economy projects is meeting mixed reactions from people in the countryside By Nanchanok Wongsamuth
The Prasert Singsuksri family has farmed rice for four generations in Ayutthaya’s Bang Sai district, where a typical pioneer farm during his grandfather’s era would start out with 5-10 rai of land.Mr Prasert’s household now owns 50 rai, renting out an additional 20; hardly a model of self-sufficiency promoted by Thai governments.
Sufficiency economy projects are now back for the poor as the Prayut Chan-o-cha government plans to allocate 8.67 billion baht from 2014 to 2017 to promote development in 19,000 villages.
But for Mr Prasert’s family, where the source of income is solely from rice farming, life is hard when living costs keep rising, and the self-sufficiency model would not help them financially.
“I could survive with five rai. But where would I get the money to send my grandchildren to school or go to the doctor when I’m sick?” said Mr Prasert, 68. “Will the government provide a salary for farmers?”
The government is facing the daunting task of selling the idea of self-sufficiency to rural people in modern society, while pilot projects started several years ago.
Will they succeed this time?
Gen Prayut, who seized power in a bloodless coup in May, floated the idea of using the principles of His Majesty the King’s sufficiency economy philosophy for farmers and the poor last month.
Income disparity, he said, is one of the main problems in Thai society, and the project would help low-income earners and farmers out of this plight.
Like similar projects of this kind in the past, the 8.67 billion baht will be disbursed to villages under strict monitoring. While the amount of money varies from village to village, common uses include the construction of dykes, small rice mills and purchasing animals, much of which is collective infrastructure.
Government officials and villagers will spend the first year drafting a precise “project plan”, which will detail a village’s present situation, how the money will be spent, as well as the expected outcome. A committee is usually set up in each village to oversee the project and villagers are expected to participate in activities.
The King’s approach to development, called “the new theory”, was first introduced to the cabinet, government officials and the public in his 1994 birthday address.
In it, he outlined a three-part agricultural plan designed to serve as a guideline for farmers to achieve self-sufficiency.
The plan focuses on income diversification, the formation of cooperatives and equal partnerships between the private sector and the community.
The Royal Initiative Discovery Foundation, a royally-sponsored initiative founded in 2008 that specialises in rural development using the sufficiency philosophy, came up with a material implementation of the King’s theory in a pilot project in Nan province.
The foundation is one of the 38 key partners in the government’s four-year action plan from 2014 to 2017, announced last month, to implement the sufficiency model in 18,594 villages, or about 25% of all villages in Thailand’s 76 provinces, excluding Bangkok.
A new committee, chaired by ML Panadda Diskul, the permanent secretary for the Prime Minister’s Office, was set up to supervise this initiative.
The foundation’s director-general, Karan Supakitvilekakarn, said the move marks the country’s first attempt to provide a precise roadmap for the implementation of the sufficiency philosophy.
In the past, he said, each agency was working separately. For instance, when an agency received an instruction to build a dam, it would build a dam without considering the relationship with other agencies’ work or the communities involved. Under the new plan, all agencies will work together. The first year of the sufficiency action plan will focus on working with the communities to collect information, he said. The foundation, called Pid Thong Lang Phra (doing good without any intention of benefitting) in Thai, receives about 300 million baht from the government each year and has been working on around 100 projects in five provinces.
The reason the rural population is the main focus, Mr Karan said, is not only because they are the majority of the country’s population, but also because they are “in a tight spot”.
“The majority of farmers have debt-related problems, as everything needs to be purchased. So our first priority is to eliminate their debt,” he said.
The foundation uses increased income and lower debt as its key economic indicators. In terms of ethics, villagers are expected to stop gambling, stop buying lottery tickets and stop drinking alcohol, in order to discourage unnecessary spending.
In Nan’s Tha Wang Pha district, where three villages took part in the foundation’s area development projects, accumulated income in 2010 rose to 28.78 million baht compared with 18.08 million a year earlier, while debt in 2010 fell to 11.76 million from 12.21 million baht.
But Mr Karan acknowledged that many villages are still not willing to adopt sufficiency economy practices.
“A lot of villagers oppose [our projects] because they haven’t seen the benefits,” he told Spe ctrum . “[Farmers not adopting self-sufficiency practices] do not have an understanding of the concept and they think the concept does not make sense for them.”
On the other hand, many red shirt villages in Nan and Udon Thani provinces joined the foundation’s programme, he said, adding that the information-collecting process during the first year provided a bonding experience between villagers and authorities. “But it’s still a difficult task for government officials.”
QUESTIONS OF MANIPULATION
Like the post 2006-coup government which toppled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the Prayut government made the “sufficiency” economy philosophy the basis for policies for the rural people of the country. The move represented a stark contrast to the one million baht village fund introduced by Thaksin in 2001.
That micro-financing scheme, which was designed to empower villagers as a community, was given directly to the village fund committee set up by the villagers. They manage the fund themselves by deciding how to use it or how a “loan” will be given to each villager and on what terms.
But the scheme was criticised for being a populist policy, and there were cases of villagers using the money to buy pickup trucks and mobile phones, although many were used for the community business or to improve transportation and communication.
“Admittedly there were some abuses, but not as widespread as propagandised by the opposition,” said Suranand Vejjajiva, who served as the prime minister’s office minister in Thaksin’s government. “It is somewhat a social sanction. If an individual abuses his deal, he cannot escape from the village.”
Mr Suranand told Spectrum the fund taught villagers how to manage capital and cash flows, and the fund committee also built leadership skills and consensus decision-making.
To Andrew Walker, an associate dean at the Australian National University, the focus of postcoup governments on the sufficiency economy projects is no accident.
“Their [the post 2006-coup government] intention was to ideologically undercut Thaksin’s cultivation of rural political society by arguing that his policies had eroded the authentic morality of rural culture by promoting immoderate economic expectations,” Mr Walker wrote in his book titled Thailand’s Political Peasants: Power in the Modern Rural Economy .He argued that the sufficiency economy view is an elite misrepresentation of rural livelihoods in contemporary Thailand.
“Sufficiency economy is the antithesis of political society. Its heavily moralistic emphasis on the virtues of local knowledge, subsistence production, and limited exchange forms a stark contrast with political society’s pragmatic judgements about non-local connections, commercial engagement, development projects and state subsidies,” he wrote.
Mr Karan, however, said in a separate interview that the sufficiency philosophy is, in fact, based on rural empowerment. “The concept is based on the participation of the local people. We will work with the communities to find out what they need and what we can learn from them to create a sense of ownership with the local communities because they will be the key players to sustain the project in the future.”
Mr Prasert, the Ayutthaya farmer, has four children, but only his daughter Kwanta is helping him farm the rice.
Ms Kwanta told Spectrum she leaves the house only when necessary, and does not “go out and play like the Bangkokians do”. Even so, she says she is reluctant to follow “the new theory”, especially when the hard soil in her area is not suitable for growing other crops.
“How would I have any money left if I do subsistence farming?” asked Ms Kwanta, the fourth generation of farmers in her family. She also wondered how her two children would be able to climb the social ladder.
In March, the household sold 65 tonnes of rice for a lower price than they expected, at 5,000-6,300 baht per tonne. In April, the average price was 7,000 baht per tonne.
Six to seven years ago, Ms Kwanta recalls selling rice at an even lower price, but the cost of production then was only half.
And even with two harvests per year, she still struggles to pay her children’s tuition fees, her car instalment, electricity bills and food.
Ms Lat, a rice farmer and mother of two in Kalasin’s Yang Talat district, voted for the Pheu Thai party in previous elections because she liked its policies, such as the rice-pledging scheme that helped her make enough money to write off her debts.
Last year she sold five tonnes of rice for about 83,000 baht, which she used to pay off the debt she had with the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives. Her father Denchai Wongkranuan has been held in military custody for more than five months on terrorist charges, and household income from selling fish, lamyai and canvas tents has fallen by almost half.
While she welcomes capital, Ms Lat is sceptical of village-based projects, which provide a budget for a specific purpose.
“For instance, I don’t like raising cows because the earnings come in slow,” said Ms Lat, who asked to be identified only by her nickname for fear of retribution. “If villagers don’t like what they’re doing, they won’t be happy.”
Whether it is raising catfish, ducks, frogs or growing beans, farmer Ut from Roi Et’s Chang Han district has tried living by the so-called “selfsufficiency economy model” before.
“But I lost money, because there was no market,” said Mr Ut, who asked to be identified only by his nickname.
His friend Aun from Khon Kaen’s Nam Pong district praised the sufficiency philosophy as being a good model half a century ago, but an impossible one to implement in today’s society.
“Things have changed a lot, and the cost of living nowadays has gone so high,” she said.
Mr Ut sold five tonnes of rice last year, which he grows using organic fertiliser, but suggested the government provide marketing channels and low-interest loans to create alternative sources of income for the rural population.
“Don’t attend a lot of meetings. Come down here and get the information from the people,” he said. “We can’t return to the [subsistence farming of the] past.”
Mr Ut’s view is echoed by Sirote Klampaiboon, an independent scholar on human rights and political science, who argued that the government has the wrong set of views on the poor.
He said the sufficiency economy philosophy, whether intentionally or not, keeps the rural population in poverty. He said the philosophy also identifies overspending as the cause of poverty – a theory that blames the victim.
“But [the theory] overlooks the fact that the poor are unable to climb up the social ladder due to government policies, not because they are lazy,” Mr Sirote told Spectrum .The minimum wage, for instance, which was raised to 300 baht per day in January last year, is still considered low if inflation is taken into account.
The wealth gap in Thailand remains wide, with 75% of the wealth held by the top 10%, according to a Credit Suisse report on Global Wealth published last month.
In 2007, 69.3% of the wealth was held by the top 10%, compared with 74.4% in 2000.
Over the past 20-30 years, the changing economic landscape has given rise to an emerging rural middle class that has become the support base of Thaksin’s political parties – the latest in the form of Pheu Thai – which has won every national election since 2001.
Military coups in 2006 and 2014 toppled Thaksin’s and his sister Yingluck’s governments.
Red-shirt supporters believe they have long been looked down on by the established middle class and elite, with a common misunderstanding that they are uneducated and favour Thaksin for his populist policies.
Mr Sirote said without democracy, there would be no mechanism to better understand the poor, as they are not represented politically.
“I think MR Pridiyathorn Devakula [the economic adviser to the National Council for Peace and Order] does not know the meaning of poverty, because he has never been with poor people,” Mr Sirote said. “Not understanding how poor people live is a crucial issue that the middle class and policymakers are unable to grasp.”
STAND ON THEIR OWN FEET
The path leading to Don Mu village in Ubon Ratchathani’s Trakan Phuetphon district features a large building – the community bank – with benefactor Trairak Tengtrairat’s name imprinted on it.
An adviser to the Finance Ministry, Mr Trairak left his two sons for a week in village No 10 after a visit in 2010 with Korn Chatikavanij, the finance minister at the time. “He said he wanted his children to learn about the sufficiency philosophy,” said Yanyong Jitikornkun, the village chief’s assistant. “When he came back to pick them up, he asked if we wanted any help, and so we requested support for the building.”
A day later, the village received 265,413 baht – a figure Mr Yanyong can recite from the top of his head – for the new building, which cost more than 600,000 baht.
But Mr Yanyong admitted that the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives played a key role in the development of Don Mu, as it provided the initial 100,000 baht budget to set up the bank seven years ago.
These days the bank has 780 members and about 13 million baht in circulation, and a proportion is allocated for community welfare purposes.
With a population of 800, Don Mu is a highly organised village consisting of project committees and experts in several areas.
In a meeting room next to the bank, a large whiteboard contains dates of field trips and lectures. On Nov 10, for instance, visitors from Lampang province will arrive to study capital management.
Mr Yanyong said the village practises the King’s middle path by lowering household costs, focusing on subsistence farming and embracing the culture of saving. Ban Mu villagers consume what they produce, weave their own clothes and produce their own detergent for washing dishes, he said.
But the path to today’s success was not easy for a poor village with soaring debts.
The turning point came in 2001 when 80 villagers, including Mr Yanyong and the current village chief, attended a four-night camp, part of Thaksin’s scheme to write off loans for participants.
When they returned from the spiritually-oriented camp – which involved being a vegetarian and not wearing shoes – they started to practise organic farming, which is now the main source of income for the 171 households.
Using BAAC loans, they set up a community rice mill in 2005. The mill earned more than 300,000 baht in profit last year and has 80 shareholding members.
Since the village produces its own organic fertiliser, farming costs are less than 1,000 baht per rai. Apart from selling surplus rice to organic agricultural networks at 40 baht per kilogramme, some is sent to the King.
“The rice-pledging scheme screwed things up, as the price of 15,000 baht per tonne forced our mill to buy at a high price to survive against the competition,” Mr Yanyong said.
He conceded that the sufficiency philosophy does not make one richer or accumulate a large amount of savings, but agreed it does not suppress the poor.
“It enables them [the poor] to stand on their own feet without having to depend on capitalists,” said Mr Yanyong, 52.
About 10km from Ban Mu lies Kam Ka village No 7, which was third in the district’s selfsufficiency economy award in 2012.
When announcements were made for the award, mottos relating to honesty, corruption, cooperation and self-sufficiency were placed in front of houses, gates and buildings in preparation, said 46-year-old Kamson Krinrak, the village chief’s assistant.
The village has several funds, a community store and an organic fertiliser plant.
With a population of about 900, an average household owns 20 rai of land, at least one motorcycle and a harvesting machine.
But the majority of the working population have jobs in Bangkok, including Mr Kamson’s 26-year-old daughter, who works at Tesco Lotus.
Meanwhile, at Don Mu, the young ones are eager to return home.
“I told the villagers to prepare jobs for our children so they can return and make a living here,” he said. “My son, who just graduated, said he wants to live here permanently. But he doesn’t know what to do yet.”
AN ALTERNATIVE MODEL
Viroj NaRanong, research director for health economics and agriculture at the Thailand Development Research Institute, said the government must understand the change that has been occurring in the agricultural sector that now depends primarily on machinery and hired labour.
A large number of farmers in the Central region, for instance, are the elderly who operate large farms of more than 100 rai, which is possible only with machinery and hired labour.
Meanwhile, many farmers in the Northeast do not depend on farming as their main source of income.
“The government should stop promoting the ‘agricultural ideology’ and understand that agriculture is not the solution for the majority of the population,” Mr Viroj said.
Thailand has long passed the point at which farmers are the majority of the population, but the agricultural sector still comprises 30-35% of the population.
Farming has contributed to less than 10% of the country’s gross domestic product throughout the past 20 years.
“This means that on average, farmers will be poorer than the rest of the population, and the more people need to depend on income from agriculture, the poorer the average farmer will be,” Mr Viroj said.
But some farmers have lower costs than others. Even when agricultural prices are falling, those with lower costs will stay profitable.
Mr Viroj said without government incentives, many farmers will still see the sector as attractive and Thailand can still maintain an edge in agriculture.
He said the government should help farmers lower costs by finding ways and means to increase productivity and efficiency, instead of attempting to ask landlords or sellers to cut rents and input prices, or give farmers extra money for compensation.
As for village projects, Mr Viroj said some flagship villages are not really self-sufficient due to substantial government sponsorship.
“Government officials seeking credit for their organisations tend to rush towards successful villages and offer them extra assistance, so these villages aren’t really self-sufficient, and, in turn, they can start new schemes more easily with all the money they receive,” he said, adding that villages that receive awards become a showcase for the authorities.
He added that it is unlikely that the majority of farmers would join any inward-looking village projects.
“Thai farmers – like most farmers around the world – tend to be independent in their nature,” Mr Viroj said.
“Farmers nowadays also have more and more outside contact, making them less dependent on their own neighbours and less interested in forming a tight in-village organisation like farmers in a more distant past.”
First published: Bangkok Post, November 2, 2014