21 November 2011

Fragmentation of Responsibility in Government

During this past unit in which we learned about the dam and water management problems in the Issan Region, we had the pleasure of visiting the Rasi Salai District office of the Royal Irrigation Department (RID). At the beginning of the exchange, Banya Bak Cha Goon, the exchangee, gave a short PowerPoint presentation. In describing Thailand’s governmental structure for managing natural resources, P. Bak Cha Goon explained the complicated network consisting of sub committees, committees, district offices, national offices, and the vice prime minister, among other branches. When I heard this, I couldn’t help thinking that this framework would make communication and decision making between governmental groups extremely difficult. This sentiment was reverberated when we asked him about the status of the Hua Na Dam, another dam in the Rasi Salai district and he responded saying that because he was not on the subcommittee that dealt with the Hua Na Dam, he was uninformed of the current situation. I was very troubled that the Head of Water Operations and Management did not know about what was happening to a contested dam in the same district.

This was not the first time, however, that our student group received this type of reply, as we heard a similar comment when exchanging with the Phu Pha Daeng Wildlife Sanctuary. These two incidents are evidence to me of the fragmentation of responsibility within Thailand’s natural resource management offices. I think that this lack of discourse within governmental branches and field offices has also hindered community participation in decision making because the paths of communication villagers could use to voice their demands are often fractured.

Although some responsibility should fall on villagers to continue trying to convey their problems, the serpentine top-down structure that I have observed does not aid their cause. I am not suggesting that the Thai Government should abandon their organization tactics but I am proposing that a better exchange of information would help ensure that the demands of those whom the government is trying to help (the people) are being heard and met because right now, based on my experience, they are largely being ignored and communication has been a common excuse for these failures from government officials.

Alex Waltz
Carleton College


Mary lim said...

I definitely agree that analyzing the problems within the government that hinder the connection between the state and the communities is crucial. It is definitely frustrating to find that the officials we speak with are unaware of how change is implemented within their office and I believe it reflects a gaping hole in the bigger picture.
I often wonder if it is because of the heavy centralization of the Thai government. Most of the time, energy and change seems to happen only in Bangkok and the effects slowly trickle down to the provincial and local offices. Many times, government officials have also admitted that they can't do anything because they don't have that kind of authority from Bangkok. So perhaps this fragmentation and lack of communication is a weakness of the centralized state structure, of the system.
I definitely agree that the villagers can only go so far in changing the current situation if their voices are unheard through the tangled web of government structure.

Julie said...

It makes grassroots movements much more difficult when there is no clear governmental structure to work within. When I sat at that exchange I attempted to make a chart of all the different committees and working groups, which had RID members, which had villagers. Needless to say there were many lines and arrows attempting to convey some sort of structure. What worries me is that protests and letters can only go so far in movements. There comes a time when in order to stop the dam from being constructed or have a say in when the gates are open, you must be able to communicate with the governing office. From what it seems like, the villagers have no way to actively and efficiently communicate with even the provincial office. There was talk of forums and meetings with the villagers, but when we spoke to those villagers, they had a more realistic version of those meetings. If they occurred, it was where the government wanted them and they got to pick who attended. The structure is very complicated and to an outsider, it seems like nothing could be accomplished in it.

Daniel Pastan said...

This has been an issue that has consistently affected villages and the very real challenges that they face. Most recently, our unit focused on mining issues, and we had the opportunity to meet with some government representatives from the Loei Province Department of Industry. The Provincial Government is responsible for approving and issuing mining licenses to companies who express interest within their province. One community in particular that we visited, Na Nong Bong, is dealing with serious health and environmental issues that have come from one particular mining company’s follies. When we asked the Department of Industry representatives what was being done to ensure that the mining company was not breaking established regulations, the representatives claimed that their office, which issues mining licenses and establishes regulations, is not in charge of handling the after-effects. In fact, that responsibility was spread out so thinly that we could not even figure out whom a villager would need to seek out and from which office in the case of a serious incident (which happens currently to be the case in Na Nong Bong). I wouldn’t consider myself to be anti-government necessarily, but how are governments supposed to address the issues of citizens if there aren’t appropriate structures in place that allow for the input of common peoples? Alex, I think you described it very well as a “serpentine and top-down structure.” At this point, how could we restructure the government without venues for public feedback?

Sara Stiehl said...

Every time I hear the words working group from a government official in Thailand, I shudder. This tangled web of working groups, sub-departments and departments is a disaster for successful communication. Yet, the ideas behind the creation of working groups seem like a logical method to improve communication if the government wasn’t so centralized. The USA executes communication from working groups to the district levels partially successfully, and I could see the intention and the theory behind creating them in Thailand to be the same, the larger issue is the amount of power that the Bangkok offices hold for all the regions across Thailand. Even in Loie provence, where the governor is elected, the rights to mining and land titles are given from the Bangkok office. Is the information about the potential mined area scouted by a Bangkok based working group or is it by a Loie working group that then submits their information through the web of structure in hopes that it is communicated successfully? I think the issue lies not with the working groups, but within the structure that the working groups function. District offices should have more power in decision making, this would increase the opportunity for villagers to make an impact when seeking governmental literature reform and assistance.

Liza Wood said...

I certainly agree with this post, and all of these comments – the government structure is complex to the point of discouragement, and at the end of the day, all power lies in the center. But I often find myself thinking about the intentionality of this structure. As most of us in CIEE Thailand know – almost every space is intentional. And so I wonder, does the government prefer, and maybe even create these bureaucratic structures for the convenience of dissolved responsibility. I remember being at this exchange with the RID and asking the exchangee about the potential of the Rasi Salai damn being removed. His answer was rather vague, but the main point was that the Royal Irrigation Department was not even the department that built the dam in the first place – it was constructed under a project of the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand. This shifting of responsibilities is just another example of snake-like structure, making it hard to hold anyone accountable. Personally, I think that the best solution for the villagers is to continue with the efforts in developing a strong and sufficient community. They have a new learning center and are in the process of creating a green market – it is these types of projects that will help them move forward as a community – not jumping through hoops in the government to get the dam removed.

Aiden F said...

Echoing a lot of these comments... I honestly have thought about little else on this program. I don't think there's anything valuable about having such a centralized structure of government. You can't know anything about the effects your policies have when they're made without consideration of local ways of living. It's nonsense to think that a government that is primarily appointed can accurately represent the country in a way that can positively benefit them. And they're not even benefitting the Thai people! They're benefitting companies that they themselves own, or have the minimum 51% stake in, and so much is leaving this country in terms of natural resources! Fuck!
Okay. But seriously. I see what's happening here in Thailand, and I see parallels in the USA, and I see how globalized ideas of 'development' are screwing everyone over. The structures we've accepted as the way things should be have turned into something destructive. And I think the global state of revolution we seem to be in is reflective of that.

Ellery Kirkconnell said...

Hi Alex,
This can be touchy topic to write about, but it’s something that needs to be written more often and I am glad you took that initiative. Here in Dominican Republic I work with undocumented families in marginalized communities. Many of them, if not all, live in conditions that aren’t suitable for anyone to live in, yet these brave families manage. When ask about the government participation or any aid from them, there is noon. The only help that these family receive from non-profit like, Accion Callejera (the organization I’m partnered with this semester), and a few others. What bothers me the most about this situation is that the government has put in place a law that parents, community, and the State have to follow in order to reinsure the development in growth of a child. Article 11 of Law 136-03 in the DR- states that a child needs to have a safe and secure environment for its development and growth, yet the government seems to have “forgotten” about these marginalized communities and children living here (Which it no surprise that many are undocumented in the first place). It’s a frustrating situation, but not being from here and soon I will be leaving this country, doesn’t help the situation and it’s always forcing me to question about possible answers.