This is my third post on the 2007 Human Development Report for Thailand. Regular New Mandala reader Vichai reflects on my motivation for writing these pieces:

Either you are being stupid or you are merely being malicious. Or your master has given you instruct[ions] to pursue this nonsense or you won’t get paid.

After the Christmas season expenses I can only hope that the cheque is in the mail!

But this is a serious issue and one that deserves ongoing discussion. I thank those who responded thoughtfully to my previous post on this issue. I fully accept the inadequacies of my rudimentary and inexpert statistical analysis. But I do think it demonstrates the point that it may be fruitful to consider how sufficiency economy can be measured and how this may relate to other measures of human development. So far I have seen no consideration of this important issue in the Human Development Report.

The second chapter of the report is primarily a promotional piece for the sufficiency economy approach. As at least one New Mandala reader has commented it is surprising that an international agency such as UNDP has been willing to endorse the promotion of an approach that in recent months has been politically mobilised to help justify the military overthrow of an elected government. Some explanation from UNDP is surely called for.

That said, for interested readers, chapter 2 of the Human Development Report does provide an accessible introduction to the sufficiency economy approach and places it in the context of concerns about growing inequality, environmental degradation and the excesses of globalisation. There is much here that reads as good old fashioned common sense, though with a rather moralising tone. There are many wise words about moderation, reasonableness, resilience, knowledge and integrity. In itself, much of this is easy to accept as a good and wholesome thing, much like yoga, meditation and freshly squeezed fruit juice.

But, as usual, the devil is in the detail. At the heart of the sufficiency economy approach is the concept of self reliant agriculture – a three stage process of human development. Stage 1 involves the famous “model farm” where land is allocated between fish ponds, rice cultivation, and crops and fruit: “the production system maximized synergies between livestock and crops, and made the household self-reliant.” Stage 2 extends self reliance to the community level with local exchange of household surpluses to meet local needs. There is some external exchange “but local exchange should be preferred because it economizes on transport and other transaction costs.” Stage 3 involves a higher level of external exchange to sell excess production and to obtain technology and resources.

The chapter emphasises that sufficiency economy is not about economic isolation. Stages 2 and 3 involve increasing levels of external exchange. But (and this is crucially important):

Before moving to another stage, there first had to be a firm foundation of self-reliance or else there was a strong chance of failure and loss of independence. The driving force for development had to come from within, based on accumulation of knowledge.

This sounds like a sober and sensible approach to human development. But I think it is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of rural livelihoods. In many areas of rural Thailand limited land productivity, combined with population growth means that local resources simply cannot support the rural population. In the past rural villages survived by exporting surplus population to the land frontier. Now, surplus population is much more likely to move into urban employment. Most rural communities in Thailand probably derive more income off farm than they do in the agricultural sector. In other words local agriculture frequently exists, and persists, on a foundation of external social and economic linkages. The notion that external linkages should only be developed once there is a foundation in local sufficiency is simply not consistent with the economically diversified livelihood strategies pursued by rural people in contemporary Thailand. It is an agrarian vision from the past.

There is a more specific question to be asked. Chapter 2 of the Human Development Report situates sufficiency economy in the context of royal initiatives in rural development such as the Royal Project Foundation:

the key maxims have arisen from the King’s real-world experiences in development projects. They are a practical summary of what works, based on decades of experimentation, observation and evaluation.

The reference to evaluation is a little puzzling as there really has been very little attempt to frankly evaluate the various royal rural development projects. As those working in rural Thailand will know, the royal projects are usually treated as a no-go zone for critical analysis. Given the scale of investment in these various schemes (and the emphasis now being placed on them as a template) this is disturbing. Certainly there are valid questions about the extent to which the royal projects themselves may accord with sufficiency economy principles. Based on my observations, the royal projects in northern Thailand often depend on substantial investment in infrastructure (sometimes involving the appropriation of land and water resources from local farmers). They are supported by substantial budgets and benefit from generous inputs from other government agencies seeking to cooperate with royal initiatives. Farmer views are mixed. No doubt many have benefited from royal project extension schemes and direct wage labour employment at royal project development stations. But others complain that the royal projects sometimes tend to target relatively successful farmers who are most likely to demonstrate the success of extension crops. There are also grumbles about slow payments for crops and reduced payments when crops don’t meet appropriate standards. A good number of farmers I have talked to say they prefer to deal with private traders.

Of course, these are fragmented and anecdotal observations. But in the absence of detailed, frank and appropriately critical evaluations there is not much else to go on. We need much more open and transparent discussion of the ways in which the royal projects themselves contribute to human development and the ways in which they support or contradict sufficiency economy principles.

[New Mandala readers may be interested in this article in The Nation by Chris Baker. A New Mandala reader has commented: “In an article in today’s The Nation, Chris Baker refers to himself as the main writer and editor of the UNDP’s “sufficiency economy” report. His article makes one wonder whether there are actually two Chris Bakers in Bangkok.”]