31 March 2011

A Connection to Home: International NGOs in Rural Thailand

I have always thought that I wanted to work with an international NGO in some capacity. In the past month, I started questioning this ideology for the first time. During the last two units, I have seen the importance of grass-root Thai networks such as the Alternative Agricultural Network and the Thai Land Reform Network in empowering villagers to fight for their human rights. Since this empowerment came from such a grass-roots level with everyone in the organization really dedicated and involved in the issues, I started to question how an international NGO could truly help Thai villagers. The international NGO’s I have experience working with provide funding to developing countries, but after seeing the importance of networking, the power in numbers and the importance of empowering people to fight for their rights, I’m wondering how much money from abroad can really do. And is simply providing funding that affective? How do you know where that money is really going and if it is really helping to empower and enact change? How do international NGO’s truly know how to help people when culture, language, and government structures are strikingly different in every country?

Unexpectedly, I gained an understanding of international non-profits in a way that hit close to home while on or our Community Consultation Unit trip. For this unit, I went to Baw Kaew, a protest village in rural Northeast Thailand. The Community Consultation Unit is where we, as students, visit communities and exchange with them to find possible project ideas or campaigns that we can help with at the end of the semester. Baw Kaew is interesting in that in the 1960’s the government took over the land of many villages in northeastern forest regions for commercial use to plant and sell eucalyptus trees leaving these people landless. Baw Kaew was set up as a protest village composed of people from all of these different villages who had been kicked off their land in invasive and violent ways by the government. After protesting for their land rights for about two years, Baw Kaew is finally in the process of obtaining a Community Land Title. Since they are confident in their attainment of land, Baw Kaew has decided to switch their focus towards becoming a truly sustainable community.

Their first step in becoming sustainable is to create a seed bank with the purpose of collecting and distributing local seed varieties that have been lost overtime due to expiration and the government promotion of cash-crops. This was one of many project ideas that we may be able to help with come project time. When I asked P’Promot, an NGO working with Baw Kaew, if he had any relationships with international NGOs, he answered that they had a connection with one international NGO called AJWS that is helping Baw Kaew become more sustainable. I immediately thought of American Jewish World Service, an NGO I have been in connection with in the past. But no, could it be? Could AJWS, headquartered in Washington DC, actually have connected with this small rural village of Baw Kaew?

After the interview, I asked one of the translators to come with me to ask P’Promot what AJWS stood for, and sure enough P’Promot confirmed that AJWS stood for American Jewish World Service”. I immediately asked what exactly they helped with and why he thought their help was valuable. AJWS provides Baw Kaew with the funding of staff and educational activities and also helps connect Baw Kaew with other international communities working towards sustainability. Under AJWS’s Fighting Hunger from the Ground Up Campaign, AJWS internationally promotes local food production with a focus on food sovereignty. AJWS is taking two village members to India in the coming months to network, collaborate and offer solidarity and support with other international communities’ sustainability approaches.

Needless to say, I am ecstatic than an international NGO I am familiar with not only sought out, but is helping such a hardworking and inspirational community like Baw Kaew. I now am starting to see, first-hand, the important balance of the collaboration between international funding and networks with a grassroots movement that empowers people for the success of a movement like Baw Kaew’s.

Lena Morrison
Brandeis University


Patricia said...

Hi Lena!

I really like your post on international NGOs – this is an issue I’ve found particularly interesting as I’ve studied here. Before coming to Thailand, I was learning a lot at Bates about how international NGOs can be damaging. In a couple of environmental studies courses and an anthropology class called “development/underdevelopment,” we learned about international NGOs that had come into “third world” countries with good intentions and flawed results. I did a project on Oxfam, and how they had honestly implemented policy in Tanzania but eventually did more harm than good. In fact, I had come to think pretty negatively about NGOs until I came here and started learning about how they can be extremely beneficial. I remember that moment when we heard about AJWS, and I think that is probably just one example of how international NGOs have the ability to be effective if they have a comprehensive understanding of the area with which they’re working. Now I’m really interested in international NGOs and want to continue to learn about them when I go back home.

xx, Patty

Lyric said...

This is also a topic that has been on my mind. It is often hard to know which tactics, micro or macro, are most effective when assisting communities and working towards change within their movements. Throughout our stay here in visiting rural farming communities we have learned the importance of grassroots methods, and how often it is most effective when an NGO working with a community has a direct relation as well as origin with that particular region. This helps with their connection to the issue itself, and gives them higher expertise and understanding of the people and their lives. I think a lesson we have learned through studying globalization though is that their is power in numbers, and many issues seen in Thailand can be seen almost identically throughout the world. This similarities are what can bring knowledge and solidarity to people who may live in completely different places but are working towards a common goal of social and environmental justice. I think International NGOs are important because they can be a resource to bridge these gaps, which can help power be given to the "little people". I think it comes down to the fact that these communities appreciate assistance and support from anyone who is with them in their fight, and international NGOs are a great way to support communities working for change, even if they are on the other side of the globe.


Sofia N said...

For a while now I've dreamed of working for an international NGO in a developing country. In fact it’s hard for me to imagine myself doing something else for my future. The hard thing is I really identify with your questions that you posed in the beginning of your post about their effectiveness and whether they do more harm than good. In these past few years I’ve been learning about how many NGOs work. One NGO worker once told me “all non profits and NGOs are dysfunctional, just in different ways and to different degrees.” It’s disheartening to say the least. The thing is that if one can keep their hope up long enough to keep searching through all the bad eggs there are also some really incredible organizations out there. Something I wonder now is how does one educate donors about the poor NGO’s with out scaring away support from all of them?