This is my final comment on the UNDP’s 2007 Thailand Human Development Report (for my previous post see here). My comments in this post focus on the final chapter (“Sufficiency going forward”) which explores the ways in which the sufficiency economy approach can help to “change the direction of thinking and practice on development” in Thailand.
The chapter provides a series of specific “action points.” The ones that I found most interesting are those that relate to “alleviating poverty and reducing the economic vulnerability of the poor.” There are four action points under this heading.
1. “Make the Sufficiency approach central to government anti-poverty policy through schemes to build local capacity for self-reliant production, disciplined expenditure and prudent risk management.”
Comment: I have addressed this issue in my comments on chapter 2. To put it bluntly, self-reliant production is simply not viable for most rural people in Thailand. Rural people have responded to resource constraints by diversifying livelihood strategies. Development strategies need to focus on spatial and economic livelihood diversity rather than prioritising a foundation of “self-reliant production.” A development emphasis on self reliant production is not consistent with rural people’s quite reasonable aspirations for educational opportunity, employment mobility and increased standards of living. The “rural” can no longer be equated with the “agricultural.”
2. Provide the landless and land-poor with land from the extensive reserves of land that is unused because of ownership by government agencies, encumbered by legal process, or other reasons.
Comment: In some cases this may be reasonable but it is important to remember that land is no longer the basis for rural livelihoods, security or prosperity that it may have been in the past. Many of the landless households I know are not particularly interested in acquiring land, partly because they simply lack the capital to invest in the types of agricultural production that will provide them with a reasonable return. They are more interested in good jobs. In some cases underutilised land may be symptomatic of maldistribution. More often, I suspect, it reflects the economic reality that returns in other sectors are much more attractive. Of course, this is not to deny that there are many farmers with uncertain land tenure, especially those who live (like Prime Minister Surayud) in conservation forest areas. I wonder if this recommendation is suggesting that forest regulation should be relaxed somewhat to provide for more secure tenure for these farmers. I suspect not.
3. Implement the community control over local resources that was promised in the 1997 Constitution by passing the community forestry bill and other enabling legislation.
Comment: Again, there may be some benefits in some cases. But as I have written elsewhere I am very sceptical about the livelihood benefits to be gained from the proposed community forest legislation. In particular the community forest legislation does not give farmers resident in conservation forest areas any more secure tenure to their agricultural land.
4. “Ensure development spending is not skewed to certain provinces with political clout, but is equitably distributed, targeted at areas of real need, and used more creatively.”
This is just another tired attack on Thaksin’s so-called populist policies. What about some serious evaluation of Thaksin’s policies and the proposed alternatives?
The Human Development Report makes a range of other recommendations relating to community empowerment, corporate responsibility, public administration, national immunity and education. But what is striking is that there is nothing in the “action points” that seeks to seriously address the basic problems of inequality identified in chapter 1 of the report. Remember the key finding from that chapter:
People in Bangkok, Bangkok Vicinity and other regional growth areas enjoy higher levels of human development than people in more isolated provinces. The North and the Northeast, as well as a few provinces in the deep South, are placed at much lower levels.
What does the sufficiency economy approach presented in this report have to say about this persistent inequality? Very little.
This is the crux of my objection to the sufficiency economy approach. It is one of the ideological tools used by elites to take the pressure off them to address any serious redistribution of income or resources. Under the sufficiency economy ideological framework, initiatives that seek to direct resources to relatively impoverished rural areas are too readily dismissed as immoderate and populist handouts that undermine the sufficiency foundation of local communities. And the sufficiency economy emphasis on developing capability from within is too readily deployed to offer comfort to those who resist serious and substantial resource allocations to rural communities. Whatever is said about the application of the sufficiency economy approach to business or the national economy, its primary regulatory force is directed to rural communities. It is at the rural level that the template for action is most clearly defined: focus on establishing a foundation of local sufficiency before developing external linkages.
And it is towards rising rural expectations (for economic and political inclusion) that the elite urgings of moderation, reasonableness and immunity are most clearly directed.