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Thai Girl Tattle: Can Oxfam Really Help Thailand's Rural Poor?

Andrew Hicks stresses that lifting Thailand's rural poor out of poverty is the key to the country's future. However Oxfam's strees on agriculture may not be the answer to achieiving this goal. With a large population in the coungtryside there isn't enough land to go round.

Lifting Thailand’s rural poor out of poverty is the key to the country’s future, but how to do it? I for one don’t have any real answers.

My efforts to promote egg production at our local village school reminds me though of my long-standing interest in the small scale development work of Oxfam, the well-known NGO based in Oxford in the British midlands.

Their philosophy always seemed so very right and principles of sustainability chime so well with the more recent ideas of integrated farming and sufficiency. But how effective can this really be for solving the problems of rural Thailand?

Oxfam still has the right approach but the huge limitation that I see from living in a rice growing village in Thailand’s North East is that with a large population in the countryside there just isn’t enough land to go round. Agriculture is thus only a part of any possible answer to rural poverty.

My wife, Cat, has vividly described for me her childhood in a poor landless family here in the North East of Thailand where they lived essentially as hunter gatherers. Papa rarely if ever had any paid work and so they lived by foraging in the forests and hunting for insects, frogs, fish and rats and whatever else flew or crawled on the face of the earth. Her experience is quite typical of how life has been but now in some respects it’s even more difficult today.

In this way they raised a family of seven children and all the aunties and uncles had similar large broods. All of them eventually inherited parcels of rice land but these are small. When Papa gets old and the land is again divided among the seven children, the tiny plots hardly provide enough rice for their own consumption let alone a surplus to sell for cash. Most families do not have enough land to provide even a marginal living. To add to the problem, the forests that Cat describes as their main source of food are now all gone. The harsh truth is that the countryside can therefore no longer support its growing population.

Agriculture is of course still hugely important and governments and NGOs such as Oxfam can work to make it more efficient but any suggestion that the land is the sole or principle answer to rural poverty would be highly misleading.

I was therefore interested recently to learn something more of Oxfam’s approach to this conundrum as Oxfam and I go back a very long way and I have a lot of respect for its development work. If in my life I’ve done anything of permanent value it was being instrumental in establishing Oxfam Hong Kong, now a major independent Oxfam.

In the mid-seventies when lecturing at the University of Hong Kong I joined the local Oxfam group which ran the usual small shop selling second hand clothes. I then persuaded the committee to allow me to start general fund raising based on articles I wrote for the South China Morning Post on development issues and Oxfam’s work in the developing world.

When Pearl and Dean, the advertising agents for the new mass rapid transit railway were failing to fill their huge advertising hoardings, I persuaded them to let us have some space for free. We splurged on quality posters depicting classic images of starving Africans and the money came pouring in. This way we raised hundreds of thousands of pounds to send back to Oxfam’s head office in Oxford and when the Somali famine hit, we employed a full time fund raiser. Millions came in through the generosity of Hong Kong people, many of whom could remember poverty, and the rest is history. Now Oxfam Hong Kong is a huge independent organisation with its own extensive development programs throughout the region.

For me it was an exciting time. Every year I visited Oxford and had meetings with the Oxfam big wigs, including Frank Judd, then the director. And they in turn visited us in Hong Kong, always staying in my large university flat. At the time China was opening up and there was a steady flow of Oxfam staff planning new projects there. They were interesting men of the generation who’d gone through World War Two and had later found new and exciting work with Oxfam. I best remember Bernard Llewellyn and Guy Stringer, the deputy director, both larger than life characters sprung from a very turbulent era.

Bernard’s wartime experiences with The Friends Ambulance Service in China became the subject of a book he wrote and I’ll never forget Guy telling how he took the first shipment of emergency aid into Phnom Penh after the overthrow of Pol Pot. The stories of a barge being loaded in Hong Kong and towed up the Mekong (where they were charged customs duty on the shipment!) and how their engineers worked on getting water supplies going and restarting the cotton mill are worthy of books in themselves.

Guy and his wife Mary later stayed with me in Singapore when we tried to perform the same miracle again, to launch another new Oxfam, but sadly we hit a brick wall. The Singapore government refused registration of ‘Oxfam Singapore’ with no reasons given and despite the strong support of many individuals that was the end of a great idea.

Only this summer I was saddened to see an obituary notice for Guy Stringer in The Times, Mary having died a few years ago. Characters like these pass one’s way but rarely and I’m grateful for my involvement with them and with Oxfam.

In April I was thus very pleased to see on the agenda of the FCCT (Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand) that staff from the Bangkok office of Oxfam were to make a presentation of a new Oxfam report entitled “The Right to Survive: The Humanitarian Challenge for the Twenty-First Century.” The key point of this paper is that because of climate and environmental change the number of people affected by natural disasters will double and plans must be made to mitigate the impact and to provide additional emergency relief.

I of course went along to the meeting at the FCCT in Bangkok where one of the three Oxfam staff also presented information about work they are supporting in Yasothon promoting the growing of organic rice. According to the hand-out, one farm had actually doubled its yield of rice as well as presumably getting a better price for the organic rice produced. How this was achieved was not explained and while I stood up and asked some questions of the Oxfam panel, I am still intrigued and perplexed as I thought that organic yields would be lower.

It also came as a surprise to me that Oxfam was doing development work here but their website tells me www.oxfam.org.uk/oxfam-in-action/regions/eastasia.html that though Thailand is a middle-income country, pockets of poverty exist. Their work here focuses on achieving sustainable livelihoods through crop diversification and developing organic standards and practices. They also promote training of farmers on soil improvement and ecologically friendly pest-control as well as rice breeding and seed selection. Finally, it says, they aim to achieve community marketing so that farmers can get a better price for their crops.

After the FCCT meeting I chatted to a couple of the Oxfam staff and expressed my dismay at the struggle the people in my Surin village have trying to make a living from the land. One of them was distinctly upbeat though and, he said, with a few relevant tweaks from Oxfam they could soon change their lives for the better.

I am still unsure what these ideas might be though and felt frustrated that my questions could not clarify what exactly Oxfam had in mind. I therefore wrote a long ‘stream-of-consciousness’ memo and emailed it to the three Oxfam staff who had made the presentation at the FCCT.

Understandably, all I got was an ‘out of office’ reply from one of them (on 21 April 2009), but I received nothing more. Though I realize public relations is not the focus of their work and that they’d have no time to read a long memo from a nutty enthusiast, I admit I was a bit disappointed at their silence.

I have therefore added the text of my Memo to the end of this blog in the hope somebody reads it and, needless to say, I long for your Comments on the issues raised here, whether you be a Thai or a farang who loves rural Thailand and are concerned for its people.

Middle class urban Thais (who of course run this country) may often know little of the lives of the rural poor on whose cheap labour they rely for their comfortable life-styles. At least Thaksin Shinawatra when prime minister, made an effort to get into the villages and to inform himself, even if this was political grandstanding. Even so, he had no real answers other than pouring in money and, for example, his million ‘rent-a cow’ project lifted nobody out of poverty, except perhaps the overpaid administrators who spent huge sums for each cow put into the scheme.

In strange contrast there are many farang who live, as I do, deep in the Thai countryside who become knowledgeable about country life and farming. I would especially love to receive some thoughts and comments from you. So do please post a Comment and tell me your thoughts on the future of the Thai countryside.

The memo that I sent to Oxfam in April now follows on…

Some Reflections on the OXFAM Global Warming Report

From: Andrew Hicks

1. Your report is impressive and covers a vast canvas. As I have lived for some time in a small rice village in Surin, the case study on organic rice in Yasothon was an interesting focus. I am still perplexed though how it is possible to produce as good a yield as rice chemically fertilized. The number of buffaloes has fallen substantially in recent years and as they are already grazed in the fields over the dry season and the manure from their stalls is used on the fields annually, I do not see where any additional natural fertilization comes from. Mangorn, my brother in law also ploughs in the stubble soon after the crop partly to avoid the scourge of neighbours burning theirs off and the fires spreading so I am not sure what else he can do to improve fertility. I also wonder how pests are controlled.

2. The land in our village is very flat and water seems well managed with the water courses canalized by weirs, so there seems to be little further run-off and water loss that could be reduced. Being flat there is also little opportunity for reservoirs. Small ponds cannot contribute to rice cultivation so I’m not sure how water management can be better achieved. How about seed types that need less water?

3. Mangorn produces good quality khao hawm mali rice and I’ve always thought that the way to improve his income would be to cut out the middle men. If only he could be part of a co-operative or fair trade association that would allow the rice to be bagged and retailed or even exported (value being added locally) without the intervention of so many middle men. How can he do this without getting murdered by the millers?

4. Things are changing fast even in the six years I have been in the village. There is now a labour shortage so that some small farmers cast the seed rather than pricking out each seedling which leads to lower yields. For the first time this year Mangorn used a combine harvester as he despaired of finding labour. The full story and pictures are on my blog at www.thaigirl2004.blogspot.com. The Tyranny of Rice, 23/11/1008. (See also There’s Fish in Them Rice Fields, 19/1/2008, Harvest Home, 15/12/2007 and Whither the Rice Harvest? 12/7/2007, and many other blog articles on the local economy in the village.)

5. I’m not sure that talking about food security in the context of Isaan is relevant any more. This is now as much a remittance economy as an agricultural one. Families of my wife’s generation typically had seven children and as Papa divides the farm between them, land holdings become pathetically small. The fit thus have to leave the village to find work leaving behind children and grandparents and creating a massive social problem of which you are well aware.

6. How can economic activity be created to keep people in the village? It is hard to see how to improve the efficiency of such tiny land holdings. The ‘modern’ way that tends to occur is that the successful buy up the farms of the failing farmers and larger and more efficient holdings result. This also means more landless families, bringing the problems of poverty and an increasing wealth gap, as for example is so stark in the Philippines. It’s what may gradually happen in Isaan too, unless there is strong official intervention to keep the local economy intact. However, when officials talk about Isaan they tend to focus only on agriculture which is a big mistake.

7. The problem is beyond the scope of small scale development assistance which nonetheless still has a role to play. What is fundamentally needed is an official policy of regional development, devolving official agencies out of Bangkok and more importantly providing infrastructure and incentives for small industry in the regional centres. This would bring jobs and the modern wage economy to the people rather than uprooting them and cramming them into an overcrowded capital and Eastern seaboard. As a stimulus package and a populist policy, regional development going beyond agriculture is an opportunity that is sadly being missed.

8. In our local market town, Sangkha, there is one small garment factory employing a few hundred people that has been set up recently. With lower land and labour costs I hope it is a success as it could be a model for this sort of development. Could Oxfam study it and present it as a model for policy makers? (In passing, Khun Mechai of Cabbages and Condoms fame has promoted a small industrial estate, called T Bird as I remember, in Nang Rong, Buriram and this is a great experiment, but how to build on its success?)

9. Small isolated development projects are of course a drop in the ocean unless they inspire replication and a pyramid effect. This needs the participation of strong local agencies. I often wonder how effective official agricultural extension work is for example. I’ve never heard of it being used in Surin and I wonder if our local farmers’ instead just work traditionally on a hit and miss basis. Language excludes me from a full understanding of what goes on but I do not get the feeling that rice farmers are very professional in their approach. I cannot for example imagine anyone reading a conventional manual on converting their farms to organic rice. How about therefore developing handbooks on integrated or organic farming or whatever in the cartoon style of story book found on every news stand in Thailand? (In the eighties Singapore was having an economic downturn and presented its pay cuts and stringency measures to its populace by means of cartoon books… and why not.)

10. Local schools are another opportunity to promote development aims if you could get local education ministries on side. In our village school, my wife and I are working on a very small scale assistance scheme with the generous help of a friend in Japan, starting first with a free lunch programme… 45% of the children are under their correct body eight and otherwise eat only rice during the school day. (See www.adoptavillageschool.org and www.thaigirl2004.blogspot.com, Do They Know It’s Christmas, 12/12/2008.) My daughter in UK has just given us 50,000 baht (sadly not tax deductible) for a project in the school. The teachers who are most impressive, immediately proposed a chicken/egg house which is now newly built and when I get back to the village I will photograph it and post a blog of the story. It is a dream project if done well. The children will do all the work of running the project and I think the teachers see the potential for integrating the project into the curriculum with teaching of mathematics etc.

11. Formal employment is limited in the rural areas so most people start small businesses. Sadly they have limited expertise in managing the money so most businesses should never be started or unnecessarily fail. Nobody does a business plan even on the back of a cigarette packet and they seem to have a limited concept of profitability. If their business generates a flow of cash they just spend the money and have a good time, keeping no accounts. Teaching basic business skills as part of the early curriculum in schools could thus make a huge contribution to poor areas, helping to avoid the many hopeless projects that people throw themselves into, miring them in debt. Within a few hundred yards of our home three of the poorest families bought brand new Nissan pickups (top of the range of course) as these were on offer for a deposit of 9,000 baht. Within a year all had failed to use them to generate sufficient income to pay the finance and all the pickups were repossessed, leaving the families with massive unpaid debt. One of the families has fled the scene and disappeared, probably beholden to loan sharks, leaving their house derelict.

12. I do not yet know if the chicken/egg project would actually be viable as an independent business. Eggs may be so cheap that the capital cost and inputs such as feed will make it unprofitable. At present local chickens are free range scrawny things, but at least they cost nothing to feed. If hopefully raising chickens under cover is viable, a generation of children should leave the school with a grasp of how to do this and most essentially how to manage the money and of the concept of profitablity.

13. A development agency could work on a project such as this and create a blueprint on how to do it, with costings and designs for the building and equipment, feed and finance and with classroom materials such as maths and accounting and cartoon style manuals on how to run the business. Then it would be essential to promote the idea to school authorities and to assist them to launch multiple projects in rural schools. Our school runs from age five to twelve and this is a good age when the children are receptive to ideas such as this. A new generation could be given essential small business skill that at present are lacking.

14. Our school has a large fish pond but at present there is no money for fish food. They want to develop this as the next project, perhaps using organic methods of creating a sustainable eco-system in the pond. They are already trying, but no big fish I think result.

15. Returning to agriculture, in the last six years in Surin I have seen a big diversification into rubber, cassava and sugar cane. Rubber is a long term risk but the story about cassava and sugar that I usually hear is that prices fall during the growing period and money is lost. Farmers generally have no money to put into diversification and when the hoped for profits fail to materialize, they fall further into debt. Rather than focusing on farming, the only answer is for the men to go and work in the factories and building sites and the prettier girls go off to Pattaya, Patong and Patpong. All very sad.

16. Are there no new magic crops that can be pulled out of the hat? Is there anything the Israelis do that does not need heavy irrigation or capital inputs? How about ground nuts, cotton, sorghum and cassava that are key cash crops in the savannah of Northern Nigeria which has a similar climate of rainy season followed by a six month drought. Indonesia grows black pepper and vanilla which are called ‘green gold’ and I wish there was something new for us here in Surin. One can talk glibly about integrated agriculture and growing vegetables to lift people suffering drought out of poverty but in reality it is desperately difficult. Plants shrivel in the heat and even if successful they sell in the market for very little.

17. Raising pigs, frogs, insects, mushrooms and cat fish are all possible projects but it isn’t easy to be successful. Inputs such as feed usually deny a profit.

18. On my blog at www.thaigirl2004.blogspot.com there are numerous articles and photos about Mangorn and his struggle to support his family through farming. Also about our efforts at the school and about social problems in the village generally. If OXFAM can use any of the text or photos in any way, I’d be delighted.

19. I have also written on these subjects in a book now widely available at all bookshops in Thailand, called MY THAI GIRL AND I. This is my story of meeting my wife, Cat, and coming to live in our Surin village. (See www.thaigirl2004.com) It is also a vehicle for me to describe in a popular style the crisis in agriculture and for example the struggle of Cat’s brother, Mangorn to feed his family. There is one mention of OXFAM in it. During the late seventies and early eighties I lived in Hong Kong and with my then wife, we joined the local Oxfam group which ran the usual shop and persuaded them to let us begin general fund raising. When we managed to raise many hundreds of thousands of pounds a year Oxford showed great interest and support, we employed a part time fund raiser and the rest is history. Hong Kong was a ‘virgin’ community for such fund raising and I’m sure you know much more about the success of Oxfam Hong Kong than I do. I’m proud though to have been instrumental in getting it started and for several years Oxfam was a big part of our lives.

It is good to have made contact and I shall in future follow your work here more closely.

Andrew Hicks
April 2009


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