Visiting northern Thailand last month I was interested to catch up on a local project that had been implemented under the Thaksin government’s poverty alleviation program. The project involved paying a group of “poor” villagers (though from my observations the poorest villagers did not participate – they were probably too busy chasing wage labour) 100 baht per day to cultivate a crop of peas. In addition to their daily payments to villagers would receive a share of the sale of the crop.

Fortunately, the village headman had taken some photos of the project. One photo showed the participants standing in front of a large sign advertising the initiative. I was, at first, a little taken aback to see that the sign made no mention of the “poverty alleviation” initiative. Instead the project was described as an initiative of the “Centre for Sufficiency Agriculture Education.” The operation of the project seemed to be the same as initially planned, but the name had been changed to reflect the new “sufficiency” orthodoxy.

And there were complaints. It seems that the officials in the “Centre for Sufficiency Agriculture Education” had demonstrated their commitment to farmer sufficiency by pocketing the proceeds from the sale of the crop. The villagers had been told that once expenses had been deducted there was nothing left to distribute. One of the cited expenses was a lunch (of fish) that the Centre had hosted for the participants. “Those fish must have cost about 500 baht each” one of the participants complained.

Of course, these sorts of problems with local development projects are common – whether or not they are dressed in the sufficiency garb. But it does make you wonder if the implementation of “sufficiency” at a local level is really going to involve any serious attempt to reform local development in a way that helps ensure that they target those most in need.

Yesterday, the Bangkok Post reported on another example of the “sufficiency makeover” this time in relation to the so-called SML (small-medium-large) scheme:

The cabinet yesterday agreed to modify the small, medium and large (SML) community loan project launched by the previous government and make it more in line with the sufficiency economy. Deputy Prime Minister Kosit Panpiemras said the cabinet decided to set up a revised version of the SML project, to be known as a village and community development project, which will apply sufficiency economy principles to the management of the system.

The SML project was part of the previous government’s efforts to eradicate poverty among grassroots people. Under the SML scheme, community members were given full authority to decide on wide-ranging issues such as budget management and approval of projects. However, Mr Kosit said their management practices are still not up to par. They had no direction and worked without a clear goal and a definite timeframe. The cabinet also approved the setting up of a new agency overseeing the village and community development based on the sufficiency economy. The approved agency will operate under the umbrella of the Prime Minister’s Office with Mr Kosit appointed as chairman of the agency’s committee. Mr Kosit said the Budget Bureau had earlier earmarked about 19 billion baht from the central budget for previous community and village development projects. There is now 9.7 billion baht left for the new village and community projects.

Mr Kosit said some work procedures of the SML project will remain largely unchanged. Only the name will be altered to comply with government policy. However, the previous criteria for allocating budget based on population will be re-evaluated, Mr Kosit said.