22 April 2009

Changing Development

The earth around my adopted family’s home in Rasi Salai sits parched. The presence of water in these former wetlands is no more than a memory. The construction of the Rasi Sali dam dried the wetlands and blocked the river for migratory fishes. The loss of these two important pieces of the local ecology has led to the loss of the livelihoods of the villagers of Rasi Salai. Traditionally, the wetlands supplied the villagers with large fishes that they could survive off of and trade with for any other additional wants or needs. Yet at the government’s insistence the Rasi Salai dam was built for the purpose of generating electricity.

The construction of the Rasi Salai dam is part of an overall goal of the central government to industrialize Thailand and join the ranks of advanced economies. During European colonization of East Asia, leaders of Thailand adopted policies aimed at rapid industrialization in an effort to compete within the emerging global market. To this day, this goal has remained at the forefront of Thai policy with Thailand’s 10th Development Plan. This plan has pushed the development of dams along the Mekong River for the production of electricity to feed the region’s growing urban areas and industries.

Communities all over Thailand have experienced the negative impacts of development projects similar to Rasi Salai. The central government's interest in rapid industrialization has led to the drafting of policies focused on development solely focused on economic benefits at the sacrifice of traditional livelihoods. Without a space for communities to participation in the drafting development projects their needs will continue to be ignored and their livelihoods will continue to be the price of industrialization.

What is needed is a different approach to development. This new approach needs to begin with a validation of traditional livelihoods. A development model based on equality can not work if the government views traditional livelihoods as backwards or as barriers to progress. Only until the government begins to view these livelihoods as legitimate as “modern” urban livelihoods, can a fair developmental policy begin to be drafted.

The government also needs to have a space for communities to voice their needs, concerns and thoughts. Their voice needs to be listened to the same validation given to the representatives of corporations and industries lobbying their interests. What villagers offer needs to be then incorporated in whatever policy the government creates. Only a forum based on equal representation can produce legislation which does not marginalize populations.

There is external pressure for Thailand to develop. As foreign economies grow they are able to extend influence and control over Thailand. It can be argued that this is reason enough for Thailand to continue to industrialize. It is not a question whether to industrialize or not. It is a about finding a model of development that is inclusive and incorporates the needs of all parties involved rather than a historical few.

Lukas Winfield -- Portland State University


Anonymous said...

I’ve been thinking about the current power structures that support industrial development. I’ve also been thinking about why the government and companies support industrial development. And from what I have experienced in Thailand, I only see the government trying to further develop their own power in the world, by supporting companies who want to further develop their pocket size. I haven’t seen a genuine desire to use industrial development to help the people of Thailand. It has become a system that only supports people who are money hungry and are willing to sacrifice their beliefs and ethics.

So how do we change the current power structures? How can the marginalized have a voice, when no one in the system can hear them?

I think if we care, we can make change. But we will have to make some sacrifices. We will have to become committed to making change, by changing the way we live day to day.

Piper- CIEE Spring 2009

Hannah Dillon Clark said...

On a tangent, I’ve been thinking a lot about Adam Smith. The neoliberals that advocate this sort of development policy center around Smith as their ideological figurehead—but really the policies they are advocating are in direct opposition to Smith’s theories. The Wealth of Nations was essentially a denouncement of corporate agglomerations and monopolies, praising instead small, locally owned businesses like farmers and craftsmen. Smith’s “invisible hand” of the market was only supposed to intervene when true competition was allowed—or essentially, when there was equality of power in the prevailing economic system. And now these neoliberals are instead advocating for mergers and acquisitions, rallying against economic regulations that would level the playing field and allow equal competition. Confusing?

We're trying to operate in an academic system that denounces anyone that doesn't support the "free trade, economic growth, or bust" as anti-progress, as someone that wants to watch the world's poor go jobless and hungry. In advocating economics as an unbiased social science, there is no room left for debate or questioning. But, it seems pretty obvious that development economics isn't working for communities in Thailand.

--Hannah Clark, University of Michigan

Anonymous said...

Phew, that post covered a lot of ground and I support every acre. I feel like the topic of development has so many layers that are so intertwined it's hard to see any starting point. It's important to see patterns and how things have led to one another, but like you said, Lukas, to me a more pressing question is, "what have these large-scale development projects come to mean for society today, and is this model just?"

I'm not really going to delve into that question, given that this is a blog response and would not do it justice! But one thing is clear to me through our experiences here: it is not fair. Not only are the villages most negatively impacted by the projects and left in the dark, but the government also seems largely oblivious. Everything is under someone else's jurisdiction. Some of the leaders genuinely believe they are doing the best for the villagers and truly want to help them "out of their poverty" or whatever it may be. They are not inherently "bad guys." Still, like you said, Lukas, there is not an equal playing field. There is a lack of communication and largely a lack of interest to listen, some might say "care," about the communities left at the margin. Every time. You'd think you'd get used to it. But every home stay we've had, I've somehow managed to be shocked, to feel hurt and surprised at what literally goes on all the time.


Jenny said...

Word Lukas. I also can't help but wonder why the central government feels pressured to industrialize in the first place. I know it's because of corporations flexing their power over the state and elected officials, but then I have to wonder why corporations feel that pressure as well. It's the old race to the bottom, except no one's winning anymore. If we look at the headlines, a lot of corporations are losing out too. Global trade is on the downturn, to use economic jargon.

Corporations are under enormous pressure from shareholders and investors. I'm not saying they're right, but this is the way the current system frames things. Maybe this global financial crisis will spark some much needed change. Then again, there are people like Zoellick at the World Bank who think global problems demand global solutions. Kind of like fighting fire with fire isn’t it? It’s frustrating because development is such a HUGE issue, but a HUGE solution isn’t going to work. >_<


Anonymous said...

Nice post Lukas. You touched on a lot of issues I have been struggling with in trying to conceptualize large-scale development projects, and in considering possible alternatives…

In a roundabout way I want to echo what both you and Jenny were saying. I think in terms of alternatives it goes back to not necessarily being against "development" but being against huge and unnecessary projects (I’m reminded of conversations we’ve had on “excess” and “sufficiency” in this context) that don’t take into account public participation. Impact assessments are often done after the impacts have already been realized. Projects are proposed and pursued without informing those who will be affected. At times large scale projects, with potential large scale impacts, are pursued without even an intended purpose, as is the case with the proposed dam projects on the Mekong River.

This doesn't mean eliminating projects all together, but pursuing these projects in a way that returns power (over decision making and resources) to those most affected (villagers, people) and respects the fragility of the environment and our relationship to it.


Anonymous said...

I loved the way you describe the Rasi Salai Dam project. I feel that you hit the nail on the head about the government’s failure to balance development schemes without destroying communities. On my mind is the way the government keeps information from villagers. For example the Hua na Dam has to redo their EIA because the first one was done incorrectly yet the government still allowed the dam to be constructed. Regardless of improper EIAs, the government also hides the purpose of their project. In Ban Cun villagers only found out the possibility of a dam because they saw the surveyors conducting tests and surveying the site. Lampaniang project is allowed to continue despite the disastrous flooding that occurs because of dredging because they are doing it in small enough chunks that no EIA is needed. I think the government is denying villager’s rights for the sake of development and it is quite frustrating.

Muriel said...


I feel like this conversation harkens back to a discussion we had very early in the semester about whether a sustainable non-oppressive livelihood is viable in an urban environment. I do not believe the answer is any more clear for us now especially now. I want to caution our dichotomous pairing of traditional/rural with modern/urban because our experiences have shown that for many of the people we have come into contact with, the viability of a sustainable livelihood is composed of compromises… or perhaps I should not even use the term “compromise” but those products of industrialization which we talk about has become an integrated part of people’s daily routines (e.g. the growing number of youth migrating to Bangkok for temporary work). I believe we have to imagine “mid-way” alternatives as well as consider a return to traditional ways of life. Like what P’Suvit said about thinking about what constitutes as “enough,” perhaps this process must be a gradual one, composed of small compromises.

- Muriel Leung, Sarah Lawrence College '10