Thursday, February 14, 2008

Doo Ngan (ดูงาน)

I can officially say I survived a Thai SAO “bi-tiow” (trip) or otherwise described as a “doo ngan” (work trip). It all started out under some fairly interesting circumstances. I was told that we would be leaving at 8:00 a.m. and as much as I like to think my naiveté about the concept of time in Thailand has lessened, I was once again deceived. I woke up in the morning to a rainy day, which is very unusual because it hasn’t rained for at least three months. As I sat there and waited one hour passed and given the normalcy of this amount of delay I unworriedly remained prone in my hammock comfortably reading the newest issue of Newsweek. As the clock ticked ever closer to ten o’clock I began to worry. Maybe they had forgotten me. Maybe the rain necessitated a cancellation of the trip. As my mind was pondering what had happened two pickups came rumbling down the road, one covered with a bright green tarp and one with at least eight cheerful Karen faces covered in a menagerie of plastic. The hastily honked their horns and I was ushered into my stately throne in the front seat that is reserved for the token farang. I watched in amazement as nearly twenty people braved drizzling rain and sickening curves for the more than three hour trip to Chiang Mai.

We arrived in Chiang Mai in quite a haste only to discover that the second pickup had yet to arrive. Shortly before it had been right behind us, but 45 minutes later it had yet to arrive. Finally it came rumbling into the parking lot, and the excuse; the nayoke was in need of an emergency hair cut! It turns out that the little trip we were embarking on was actually somewhat of a package tour. We had a lively crew of three who were there to fill up our whiskey and soda as we played cards on the lower floor of the bus with the curtains tightly drawn because everyone knows that if the police see you playing cards they will haul you right off to jail. No tolerance for that chicanery in Thailand! The crew was also generous enough to give a constant ear breaking commentary about everything that was of little interest. The night rolled on and soon eyelids were heavy and cards were sloppy and the allure of sleep captured everyone’s attention.

At roughly 4:30 a.m. I was awoken when I realized the bus had stopped. It had made several stops throughout the night so I figured that soon we would be on our way. About 45 minutes passed and I realized we weren’t going anywhere soon. We had stopped at a Thai roadside gas station. I was told that I should go bathe because we would wait here until the sun came up and we could hit up the first destination of our trip. To my gratification, the showers were actually the square water bins used to dip buckets into in order to manually flush the squat toilets. As disgusted as I was by the prospect of bathing in such conditions, it was far more appealing than having every person in the group why I hadn’t “aap naam” (taken a bath). I did my duty!

After our little shower break we all once again boarded the bus and were off to our first “doo ngan” destination. We first went to a very well funded daycare where the requisite Thai formalities were out in force. Each person involved with the daycare got up and gave their speech as the forty people from my tambon stared on in boredom. This was pretty much the norm as we went to our other “doo ngan” destinations, which included an SAO that had won several awards and another daycare. We had three official destinations and the rest was pure site seeing. Now site seeing is an interesting occurrence in these type of Thai trips. We went to “the world’s largest dam,” a royal project that portrayed the four regions of Thailand, a shrine to someone who I didn’t know, an aquarium, a little drive through a rubber tree plantation, and to the beach. All of this occurred over the period of a little less than two days. On every occasion it was like we were on a hunting safari. Instead of guns we used cameras and Thais sure do like to be in pictures. We stopped at a destination, unloaded the bus, took myriad photos with every imaginable pose, and then boarded the bus once again, all in under fifteen minutes.

It was an interesting trip to say the least. I think we were in the bus driving four hours for about every fifteen minutes on the ground. All this action was under the auspices of learning something to bring back to the village. To my utter surprise, I have spoken to several of the day care teachers and they said they got many ideas from the trip and are going to make new materials for the kids from those ideas. It’s hard not to judge the actions people from another take in order to achieve a desired end. I thought it was highly unlikely that anything of substance would come out of the trip, but apparently it did. However, I am still fairly convinced that that time and money (in very short supply) could be used in a more efficient manner. In the end I am not here to make judgments, but rather work within the cultural context I am given and make suggestions for possible improvements. The degree that the advice is taken is dependent solely on the people who is directly affects and their wellbeing is paramount.

Monday, February 11, 2008

What's Our Worth?

As many of you might have noticed, my blog has been severly deficient in one critical area. Can you guess? I'll help you out. What am I really doing in Thailand! There are a couple reasons why I haven't included too much about my actual work experiences. First, and probably most important, I haven't had too many. Even as I approach a year being a PCV, the fact that I have accomplished seemingly little is not worrying me too much. Given the nature of the CBOD (Community-Based Organizational Development) program, the first year is primarily dedicated to getting to know everything about the communities and people you work with in order to understand their problems, assets, and desires. It is normally not until the second year, and sometimes a ways into it, that most volunteers actually become busy. Even given this fact, it is still sometimes tough to validate your worth. I wrote the following article for our volunteer publication here in Thailand. I thought I wouldn't be a terrible idea to post it on my blog.

PCVs and Community Development

In my short year in Thailand under the Peace Corps’ wing I have come to realize that a gathering of Peace Corps volunteers at any point in time during the duration of their two year service is a unique specimen of social interaction. There is crying, laughing, drinking, sleeping, joking, complaining, boasting and gossiping among a menagerie of many other possible descriptive words. Although the time allotted to each of these activities changes throughout service there are several recurring topics that are at the heart of a Peace Corps experience. One of the most compelling but equally complex topics is, “Is my presence here really contributing to the ‘development’ of the communities I work in?” The answer to this question proves to be quite a conundrum yet I am going to try to tackle this in the most abridged manner possible.

The difficulties begin at the most basic level when trying to answer this question. Development, as a concept, can be seen as either completely lacking a definition or functionally lacking a definition given the inability of one person to construct an all encompassing definition from the myriad that can be found. When we talk generally of development, are we talking of social, economic, physical, or healthcare development? Many argue that “true” development must encompass each one of these areas, among many possible others. I view development as, fomenting the capacity of stakeholders so that he/she/they can be empowered to tackle problems and strengthen abilities in a way that is reflective of his/her/their unique context in order to sustainably improve overall wellbeing. This definition is purposely vague in order for it to encompass the multifaceted nature of trying to increase the wellbeing of the stakeholders, but also offers precise wording that is worth further discussion.

“Fomenting capacity” reflects the idea that development should be stakeholder-centered in order that the terms of development are not dictated but rather created through stakeholder participation in every step of the process. “Empowerment” is essential because any increase in capacity is wasted if the stakeholder is not empowered to use it. “Tackling problems” is purposely paired with “strengthening abilities” given that in development it can be very easy to overlook indigenous strengths, abilities or knowledge which can provide unique insight and skills throughout the development process. “Reflective of the unique context” is of utmost importance because the statement requires the examination of local cultural, political, social, and economic factors that hold sway over the success of development. “Sustainability,” although it is currently a word with increasingly little value as it is used ever more wantonly, when used with “empowerment” solidifies the role of this definition in imparting the idea that once stakeholders are given the proper capacity they will ultimately be able to continue on their path to prosperity and increased wellbeing with little or no outside help. Finally, “overall wellbeing” is used because an increase in wellbeing in one area at the expense of another can have serious negative impacts. The idea of “wellbeing” is purposely vague because it is essential that the definition of wellbeing comes directly from the stakeholders.

Although I have created this definition from my personal experience and education it is quite apparent that it is really a reflection of the most current practices and theories regarding development. It has evolved from the failures and successes of countless groups and organizations in their efforts to help aid in the ‘development’ of another region, nation, group, or individual. Some of you may now be saying to yourself that it also looks a lot like what Peace Corps has hammered into our heads since PST. If you have noticed this I say congratulations! In all the complaints I have heard about Peace Corps I have heard the least about the way they view development. This is specifically because it is one of those organizations that has work in the arena of development and learned from past successes and failures. This is particularly true of Peace Corps Thailand given its 45 year continuous presence in Thailand.

I write this article because it often seems that as a PCV in Thailand, especially a CBOD volunteer; we are more of a burden on the local population than an asset. This can quite easily be revealed as a superficial assessment. This statement becomes ever more lucid when using the previous definition to compare our role and successes with the other organizations in charge with development in many of our sites.

The main agency in charge of local development in Thailand is the SAO. I am quite confident that I will encounter very few people who would say that the SAO is an ideal development organization. It works within its means but is a product of government bureaucracy which is a system renowned throughout the world as the epitome of inefficiency and ineffectiveness.

In my area, Christian organizations have funneled large amounts of money to the local population in very well meaning manner but with little knowledge of the concepts that will make most efficient use of those resources. Finding money to give to impoverished communities is the easiest part of development. When you stop at this step it creates a dependence that propagates a sense of entitlement and saps the motivation and desire out of the population to help themselves.

Corporations and governments often embark on development not because they have concern for the wellbeing of the individuals involved but rather because the targeted group’s development will create social and political stability as well as new markets that will ultimately provide a larger consumer and tax base. As most everyone knows this practice has led to extreme environmental degradation, massive displacement, increased poverty, and social upheaval. This particular development practice is the epitome of what conscientious development organizations/workers aren’t.

Each of the main players in the aforementioned examples shows a large degree of ineptitude in fulfilling the requisites of a successful development program as outlined in my definition. Although inarguably each one of these actors has experienced success in their development efforts, I am quite confident that it is also not difficult to find a person or group who has been negatively impacted by their association with them as well. I believe that this revelation is the single most important factor that legitimizes a PCV’s role in development. How many times after a PCV leaves a community will an individual or group declare that they have been negatively impacted by the PCV’s presence? I challenge anyone to find more than a handful. Yet how many times to you hear locals profess that they have been profoundly impacted by a seemingly innocuous action undertaken by a PCV? More than you can count on the hands and toes of every individual in a Thai village!

Although PCVs may not be able to build a factory or a road they are experts at helping to foment the capacity of their village so that the village members can be empowered to tackle problems and strengthen abilities in a way that is reflective of the village’s unique context. Improving a child’s English abilities so that he has the confidence to run for elected office; helping provide a poor farmer with the skills to create his own income generation project; saving a teen’s life by educating him/her about the dangers of HIV/AIDS; helping provide the community with computers and internet so that they can take advantage of the tremendous amount of resources the world has to offer: this is sustainably improving overall wellbeing. Just because the worth of our existence in a Thai village is not immediately noticeable does not mean that we are worthless. You may not understand your true worth until your final day at site when more than one person sheds a tear over your departure or many years down the road when you read the news and see that a person or group you were involved with contributed his/her/their success to your presence so many years ago.