Regular New Mandala readers may recall my commentary on the UNDP’s 2007 Human Development Report for Thailand. Kevin Hewison has also written a commentary and generously provides a preview here. The review will appear in the Journal of Contemporary Asia, 38, 1 (2008).


Over many years, various UN agencies operating in Thailand have sought to honour the monarchy by bestowing awards on various royals. The palace craves international honours and when international agencies recognise supposed royal greatness and brilliance, this has considerable local propaganda value.

In 2007, however, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has gone much further, devoting its 2007 Thailand Human Development Report to the alleged virtues of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s development ideas – rendered in English as “Sufficiency Economy” (SE) or setthakit pho phiang in Thai. According to the UNDP report, the king’s ideas about the SE are potentially useful for individuals, companies and developing countries. The UNDP Resident Representative gushes that the agency is “immensely honoured” to be able to disseminate the king’s “important messages across the globe” (p. vi). Extolling the “very special uniqueness” of the king’s development thinking, SE is claimed to offer a “much-needed alternative to the unsustainable road the world is currently travelling down” (p. v).

Such grandiose claims are not substantiated by the text of the report under review. In fact, in explaining the king’s thinking, this report does little more than reproduce claims touted by fawning Thailand-based publications that glorify the king’s supposed brilliance on development issues. The UNDP report does not subject the king’s ideas to critical assessment. One gets a feeling for the nature of the report in its thin bibliography; it includes almost no serious works of social science. And, flipping back to the acknowledgements, it is clear that the palace has managed the report’s production, with an Advisory Panel co-chaired by one of the king’s privy councillors and the Director-General of the Crown Property Bureau, while the Panel is populated by a coterie of academic, business and bureaucratic acolytes (p. vii). Hence, the king is praised as a “scientist, philosopher, advocate, and exemplar of the Sufficiency Economy…. He offers … outstanding leadership that might be unique, but is still an inspiration from which the world can learn.” (p. xviii), This kind of breathless wonder for the king and his ideas abound in a report peppered by royal quotations, providing a semi-religious context, where the king’s words count for more than evidence and analysis.

Chapter 1 of the report, where the state of Thailand’s human development (HD) is assessed, is the only part of the report that can be said to avoid blind adherence to SE ideas. This is because this chapter does a good job of assessing Thailand’s progress toward meeting the UN’s Millenium Development Goals. The chapter notes substantial success in all areas – health, poverty, gender equality, and so on – while noting some important problems. In particular, rising inequality is highlighted, together with some issues related to health, education and employment. These sections provide a useful summary of Thailand’s recent development and are based on a fine collection of data (Annex II). Interesting, the remainder of the report, on SE, includes almost no data. This lack of data means that there is no way to adequately assess its outcomes, except as a philosophical, political and ideological set of ideas.

The one section of Chapter 1 that deserves criticism is the brief discussion of political participation. This section argues that “[p]olitical participation has increased markedly;” commenting that decentralisation has expanded, elective bodies increased and voter turnout risen in recent years (p. 16). This was true until the September 2006 military coup that overthrew an elected government and imposed strict controls on political freedoms. Given that the report includes a Foreword by the military-appointed Prime Minister, General Surayud Chulanont, and other comments regarding post-coup developments, the positive comments on political participation pander to the military-backed government.

This is important as the junta and its government have elevated SE to the status of national economic ideology. SE ideas are used to distinguish this military-backed government’s economic policies from those of Thaksin Shinawatra’s government that was overthrown by the 2006 putsch. While the report may have begun its life long before the coup, that the UNDP decided to promote SE when it was intimately associated with the junta and an unelected government is quite a political statement.

Chapter 2 sets out to explain the meaning of SE. Accurately pointing to the 1997 Economic Crisis as the genesis of SE ideas, there follows an unconvincing argument that SE is not about “self-sufficiency”, turning “back to the roots” or antithetical to globalisation or modern economics. These arguments are embedded in a selection of decontextualised quotations from the king. Finally, the report concludes that SE means moderation, wisdom or insight, and built-in resilience (p. 29). In other words, don’t rush to join the global capitalist system, but do so carefully by building local “sufficiency” first. SE is necessarily reduced to such trite notions because it is touted as being for everyone: a “guide to conducting life and taking decisions … [for] an individual, household, community, project, business, nation or the whole world” (p. 31). In practice, such “simplicity” is required for the transformation of royalist propaganda into a national ideology.

The people and organisations that promote SE are a contradictory lot. The king, promoting moderation, heads the wealthiest family in Thailand that own huge tracts of land and large capitalist corporations. His known institutional wealth is about US$40 billion (see Porphant Ouyyanont, The Crown Property Bureau in Thailand and the Crisis of 1997,” Journal of Contemporary Asia, 38, 1, 2008). Military-appointed Prime Minister Surayud spends considerable time talking up SE and his government has made huge budget allocations to SE activities (in one announcement, the government allocated 8 billion baht to such projects; see Bangkok Post, 6 June 2007). Meanwhile, Surayud has foreign sports cars, an expensive watch collection and luxury homes, despite having been on a relatively low military salary for his entire career. It may be argued that Buddhism’s middle path – seen in SE’s ideas about moderation – is not against great wealth or pleasure, but only attachment to wealth or the craving of pleasure. The truth that emerges from these contradictions seems to be that SE is so broadly defined that it really is whatever one wants it to be. The wealthy can enjoy their wealth so long as they do so within their means. For the poor, the advice is to do better with what they have; make do. In class terms, SE becomes an ideology to justify the very inequality the UNDP report claims is of concern.

Chapter 3 includes a series of case studies of SE. Interestingly, almost all of the examples pre-date SE and are included by arguing that these examples use ideas that are compatible with SE (p. 38). These examples are not new, and are regularly touted in the Thai media. While each example is interesting, as noted above, there is no data available that permits any real assessment. One of the contradictions of this chapter is the discussion of the king’s concern for the environment (pp. 48-9). A range of examples are provided but nothing is said about the king’s long, fervent and continuing support for large dams that displace and disadvantage communities and cause the flooding of forests. The discussion of corporate SE successes suggests that SE is a business model and even develops SE checklists and scorecards for companies. However, this simplistic discussion adds little to existing literature on sustainable business and corporate social responsibility.

The section on SE and the national economy (pp. 58-66) is interesting because it includes a critique of the Thaksin government’s policies on development and social welfare. This section reproduces many of the criticisms made by the anti-Thaksin movement that led to the 2006 coup. While grudgingly accepting that Thaksin’s policies were immensely popular, the criticisms are of a lack of “moderation” and of the central role of government. On the latter, the report is explicit, stating that interventionist governments will certainly make incorrect decisions that are “not necessarily best for society.” Rather, it is argued that governments should be limited to creating institutions that “help markets to work … efficiently…” (p. 63). The ideological nature of SE is reinforced in the discussion of how SE is being made an essential part of all levels of the national educational curriculum (pp. 66-8) and by the statement that SE “now serves as a mission statement for the nation” (p. 68).

Chapter 4 attempts to link SE with the UNDP’s agenda on HD and to draw the policy lessons of SE. One of these lessons reinforces the anti-state message of Chapter 3, asserting that redistribution and welfare should be limited so as to not “breach with the principle of self-reliance.” The report urges that government “handouts” are to be avoided and that all funds should be channelled through “existing community institutions” (p. 72). This is in line with the king’s long-held belief that welfare makes people lazy. His is a classic conservative position, arguing that social welfare reduces personal responsibility, extends the role of potentially corrupt government, and assigns tasks to the state that are rightfully those of family and community.

The report concludes by stating that SE “offers a way to avoid mindless growth…” (p. 76). While this reviewer doubts this, one of the interesting outcomes of marrying the UNDP’s HD data collection with SE is that the data do not match SE assumptions. In fact, the provinces that generally do best on HD indicators are the ones most enmeshed with the world capitalist economy. Orthodox economists might look at this as sufficient reason for sniggering about SE, but this misses the point of SE, which is to provide an ideological reference for conservative Thais working to prevent any diminution of their political and economic power. Their power was challenged by Thaksin’s massive electoral victories, popular appeal and welfare policies.

In the end, the UNDP has produced a report that purports to address critical development issues but which does little more than add to the policy nonsense that passes for the military-backed government’s development strategy. The government continually cites this UNDP report and UN awards to the royal family to justify its adherence to SE. Worse, the publication of this report provides additional support for royalist propaganda that continually assaults the senses in contemporary Thailand, on television, in schools, in newspapers and in most public places. There can be few places in the world where a constitutional monarchy has been so central to the political control of a military-directed government. This reviewer suggests that the UNDP do some serious institutional soul-searching to understand why it has been used in this way or has been complicit in promoting military-backed government.

Kevin Hewison
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill