Monday, December 27, 2010

Sufficiency economy pondered upon

"Sufficiency economy" can be better understood if it is seen as something quite uniquely Thai, with all its cultural nuances and non-translatable terms. It could be better understood if one is able to speak Thai and has followed its debate, discourse, promotion and implementation in the Thai language. When one tries to explain it in English, there are frustrating confusions, such as, is it an economic thought? Or is it a Buddhist philosophy? Is it the same as sustainable development or environmental sustainability? Most importantly, is it worth discussing or can it be applied anywhere else but in Thailand?

The person explaining from the Thai point of view can't explain it sufficiently, first, because of that frustrating incompatibility of the English language for explaining many Thai concepts. On top of that he/she is also challenged to apply western economic concepts to something that is more an expression of Buddhist philosophical thought than an economic thought. One speaks about the mind and its effects on the quality of life while the other speaks about quantitative monetary concepts. One calls for a middle way that considers family and community relationships and environmental responsibility, while the other is just looking for cost efficiency or the best price that expresses the right balance between supply and demand. How do you quantify the diverse levels of how each unique individual defines what is "sufficient" for him or his community? Price, demand, supply, efficiency, etc. becomes hopelessly inadequate as measurements. How does one quantify generosity or charity or a 'right' mind? Because sufficiency economy fails to answer these questions, its critics declare that it is not an economic thought nor a viable economic model.

The story of sufficiency economy developed in Thailand nearly along the same timeline as the story of how sustainability caught on as desired developmental goal recognized by the UN in 1972 at the UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm, popularized 15 years later with the Brundtland report (1987) and adopted as a major wold challenge at the Rio Earth Summit (1992). In Thailand, sufficiency economy was being shaped and implemented as an economic thought since the late fifties/early sixties when a young king travelled laboriously around his country initiating development projects where he could to better the lives of people in remote areas.

Despite its current popularity, sufficiency economy is not a mainstream economic model in Thailand. It is more like a supplementary prescription for the shaping of economic activities to counteract the ills of a dominantly capitalistic model. Sufficiency economy as an alternative economic thinking is one that is gaining ground one poor village by one poor village converted, as individuals who were inspired by its principals implemented and demonstrated successful local action again and again. In many cases, villages that could not feed themselves started growing their own food as an alternative to growing cash crops that had only caused them to become increasingly indebted. Instead of buying expensive fertilizers, they have expanded the supply of organic food, some even becoming successful with an export niche market.  At the same time, depleted forests are being regenerated and a future in which environmental and community awareness where values such as love, friendship, and generosity gain triumph over profit and greed are being re-enforced.

A recent article, "Sufficiency Economy" was published by PETER JANSSEN on The Manila Bulletin (, December 27, 2010: ), focused on a Thai abbot at Doi Pha Som forest temple (วัดธาตุดอยผาส้ม) in Chiang Mai, Sorayut Chayapanyo (พระสรยุทธ ชยปัญโ), who had rebuilt an old temple, regenerated the surrounding forest, and helped villages grow out of debt. Stanford educated, but rejecting that privileged knowledge, he explains sufficiency economy as not being 'anti-capitalist' nor 'anti-Western', but as something between market economy and socialism. Sufficiency economy was shown as being meaningful in impoverished rural areas where access to the market economy was difficult. Money or greed were no longer the main locomotive of local economic activities once people learnt how to search for ways to become dependant on what they had.

This was not a new story for me. I have heard many very interesting local stories of how poverty was transformed into resourcefulness over the years adopting those principals proposed by the Thai King, proposed in his annual speech of 1972. What this story gave to me, this time, was the realization that it was the availability and strength of a localized social network or social structures, very particular to Thailand or maybe a Buddhist society, that plays an important role in nurturing the emergence of leadership or inspired action by individuals in the successful implementation of a sufficiency economic model.

Before Thailand became a modern economy with its building blocks in the late fifties/early sixties, much of its rural economy, community life or social fabric was structured around the temple. The temple was not simply a religious institution, it was also the place where education was being given, funds being raised for community development, and where the binds of society were formed and strengthened. In many cases, it was the ground where many non-monetary activities were supplementing the economic livelihood of its communities, with its festivals and fairs, funerals, alms giving and donations.

This was a social network that encouraged individuals to make a difference, usually with very small means.  As the modern economy grew, the state and modern markets took over much of the role that the temple played. Festivals are now just commercial events hosted on government grounds. They don't do much for that very personal tie that binds. As a modern Thai, I don't remind myself the value of giving each single day as my mother does, just by consistently getting up every morning to cook rice for a group of passing monks.

When I read yet another story of how one person transforms a community, it dawned on me that poverty is not converted by economic intervention, but by changing the emphasis on our values. When we review what we want of the world by starting a review of  our minds, not from the point of view of what objects or things we need, but from a point of view of what qualities in life we really need to make us contented, we can come to realize that we really don't need all those consumerist products and services the markets try to push on us. We then realize that we don't need to focus on chasing money so much when we can focus on just trying to define what makes us contented.

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