One Hundred Days of AFTA


In an article that reminds me why I still plan to re-subscribe to The Bangkok Post, despite its thoroughly disgraceful treatment of the pro-democracy protests, evidence is presented of the positive aspects of the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (AFTA), which came into force at the beginning of the year and has just passed its first one hundred days.

Many tariffs have been reduced or eliminated (although plenty still remain in the case of so-called ‘sensitive’ products) and so cross-border trade will increase and, as subsidies are reduced or removed, industry will have to become more competitive or fold. One longstanding problem with ASEAN has been the low level of intra-country trade and reliance (by the larger economies) on trading with distant, western markets. Of course, there are powerful political reasons behind this but lack of economic partnership perpetuates political difficulties.

On the whole, there are more winners than losers, especially since most countries have governments willing to intervene in their economies to support local industries and, now that we have reached 2010, a lot of people now realise how to make this kind of arrangement work. However, this being a capitalist world, there are inevitably winners and losers and, while winners can be left to get on with it by and large, the losers are the ones who need additional assistance from government. As ever, it is the vulnerable who need most consideration. Women, in particular, are facing the worst of the ongoing global economic crisis, with many manufacturing jobs (often women-dominated) replaced by stimulus package construction jobs (male-dominated), for example, while reductions in family income mean more women and girls face reduced opportunities for education and social mobility – i.e., once you are poor, you stay poor with poor social mobility. This also has negative effects on quality of life – in practical terms, women are more likely to be stuck at home, especially in rural areas. Then again, when women want to replace lost jobs, they may be forced into the informal economy, where working conditions are insecure. This is not necessarily the karaoke industry but street vending and petty trading, where no protection is available from bullying by officials or gangsters.

Drug Resistant Mosquitoes?


The history of much of mainland Southeast Asia has been, before the modern age, one of under-population and the inability of kings to establish effective control over regions remote from their directly-held power bases. One of the principal shaping forces of that history has been the terrain – thickly forested, mountainous with river valleys – which has been so habitable to mosquitoes. And where there are mosquitoes, of course, there is malaria. Malaria has been one of the biggest killers of mankind throughout history and countless millions of lives have been needlessly lost to it and, indeed, still are. In the twentieth century, it appeared that malaria was being brought under control as newly developed drugs proved more or less effective in curing it or preventing it one way or another (when I lived in Sudan, it was the case that foreigners such as myself could be kept safe because the drugs would be effective for a limited period but full-time residents would not because drug effectiveness would not last – people died from malaria while I was living in Kassala and others were seriously ill). In Thailand and neighbouring countries, the massive deforestation caused by the thirst for the income provided by teak and hard woods had the side effect of reducing the habitats available for the mosquitoes and was an important reason for subsequent population growth. Unfortunately, resistance to drugs increases in living species as we are forced to accept the negative consequences of evolution: the mosquitoes along the Thai-Cambodian border, for example, seem to be becoming fiercer and more resistant. The problem is intensified by the widespread prevalence of substandard or counterfeit drugs, which are weaker and presumably easier for the vile yung to shrug off. As ever, it will be the poor and the vulnerable who are likely to suffer most from this, since they live in the more dangerous rural areas and have fewer opportunities to access high quality medical care.

School Dropouts Show Reality of Poverty


While the Bangkok elites of the Abhisit regime (the worst Prime Minister since ….?) try to make out that the economy is recovering (it isn’t, not yet) and bring out the recovery plan just the ten months too late, the real nature of the economic crisis is revealed by the details: last year, 113,432 students dropped out of school, largely because of poverty. The worst-affected region was Ubon Ratchathani province, which had 2,771 dropouts.

More than 45,000 children were forced to give up school in 2009 because of their family’s poverty (this according to official figures – might there be some discrepancy with the actual figures? Certainly it underestimates the impact of the ethnic minority people who are denied citizenship, for example). That is a shaming indictment of the Thai government – it is no wonder that people outside of Bangkok hold the Democrats in such contempt as indeed do many of us in Bangkok.

The poverty in Thailand and the real effects of the global economic crisis are hidden from the Bangkok elites, the tourists and the foreign correspondents. When the working classes do seek to bring their grievances to the public’s attention, they are suppressed by the state: leaders of the Triumph workers’ union have been issued with arrest warrants in a very obvious attempt to destroy or at least seriously damage the union (it is a common tactic, along with the use of violence against union organizers and members). The union is applying to the National Human Rights Commission for assistance – I mentioned the other day somewhere that appointments to human rights bodies in Thailand, including Amnesty International, raise eyebrows in the way that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger raised eyebrows.

Of course, we are lucky that court decisions are not made for flagrantly political reasons.

Muhammad Yunus in Bangkok


Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus has opened a micro-finance centre in conjunction with AIT in northern banker. Professor Yunus is world-renowned for his scheme, which aims to tackle poverty reduction through making small loans available for poor people to improve their lives through achieving small but significant and achievable goals.

The Grameen Bank, which is the name of the lending institution, offers low cost loans mainly to women, since it is their experience that women are more likely than men to use the money for the reason stated and not to waste it on other, less productive projects. The bank’s record is impressive in achieving money being repaid on time and people managing to achieve their goals and, thereby, improving their lives.

The Bangkok Centre will be the first of its type outside the Professor’s Bangladesh home and will combine lending facilities with research of an innovative nature aimed at finding new ways of combining sustainable agricultural production with income generation. It all sounds like good stuff.

Inevitably, not everyone believes in the ability of microfinance, at least as practiced by the Grameen Bank, to reduce poverty to the extent that sometimes is claimed. On the one hand, there are people who contest the figures and also wonder whether the poverty reduction is quite as effective as it is advertised as being. On the other hand, there are those who claim that it is not the ability of individuals to borrow money that will make a difference to poverty reduction but the system in which they live and which prevents them from improving their situation. So, in order to reduce poverty (if people really do wish to do that and there are certain influential people who do not seem to wish that to happen) then there must be some kind of radical political change. It is not very likely that such political change will occur in Thailand in the foreseeable future.

The more optimistic view is, not surprisingly, supported by governments and international non-governmental organisations, not least because it suggests they can do some good without compromising their own position and privileges.

Rubber Trees in Isaan


One of the ways to eradicate poverty in Thailand’s poorest region, the north-eastern area known as Isaan, has been to introduce new cash crops that can deal with the comparatively poor agricultural conditions. General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh introduced the Green Isaan (Isaan kiew) policy back in 1989 which saw large areas of land cultivated with rubber trees for the first time. This policy was re-emphasised under Thai Rak Thai, which had as a central policy the redistribution of resources and eradication of poverty throughout the Kingdom. In that period, the amount of land growing rubber trees was multiplied.

Rubber is usually grown in the south of Thailand, where the higher levels of rainfall are more suitable for the trees. However, there is a lack of affordable land for expansion of rubber plantations in the south and demand for the product is increasing now that the wood is considered suitable for furniture (we have some rubber wood furniture, although I cannot remember exactly what it is – but I do remember buying it). So, the opportunity in Isaan is evident, especially when new varieties can be developed that are resistant to drought and other weather conditions traditionally unhelpful for rubber.

The reasons for expanding rubber plantations in Isaan go beyond just providing an alternative cash crop for local people and also include alternative employment opportunities and the chance of reducing flooding in the region – large-scale deforestation across Thailand has made flooding during the rainy (monsoon) season a much more dangerous undertaking since the tree roots that once held the moisture in the soil had all gone. Then, after the floods, come droughts since again the roots do not hold the water. More trees should help to reduce the problem, although monocropping (as has been tried with the fast-growing eucalyptus trees from Australia) has previously caused problem of depletion of resources within the soil.

By the way, all that stuff about koala bears being stoned on eucalyptus leaves all day long and having to cling to the trunk for dear life turns out not to be true, sadly.

ILO on Job Losses and Poverty


The International Labour Organization (ILO) has issued a new report which is rather more pessimistic about jobs in 2009. In 2008, the global unemployment rate rose from 5.7% to 6.0% – that’s about 190 million people, 76 million of them young people. Depending on how the current economic crisis develops, another 50 million jobs could be lost worldwide and 200 million people returned to poverty (that will be 1.4 billion working poor).

To combat rising unemployment and rising poverty, the ILO recommends governments should:

i) wider coverage of unemployment benefits and insurance schemes, re-skilling redundant workers and protecting pensions from devastating declines in financial markets;

ii) public investment in infrastructure and housing, community infrastructure and green jobs, including through emergency public works;

iii) support to small and medium enterprises;

iv) social dialogue at enterprise, sectoral and national levels.*

The report deals in the regional rather than national level but some of the comments about ‘Southeast Asia and the Pacific’ are clearly directly relevant to Thailand:

In recent years South-East Asia and the Pacific has profited through trade and other economic linkages from the economic boom in China and India, and the slowdown in these countries will have a negative impact in the region. Reliance in many countries in South-East Asia on manufacturing exports to industrialized economies, foreign direct investment, tourism revenues and remittances, makes this region highly vulnerable to a prolonged recession in the developed world. Economic growth in the region declined to 5.1 per cent in 2008, and is currently projected to decline to 4.2 per cent in 2009.

The employment-to-population rate decreased slightly between 1998 and 2008, by 0.4 percentage points; the decrease was larger for youth than for adults. The unemployment rate in 2008 increased to 5.7 per cent, from 5.5 per cent in 2007.

As a proportion of the employed, extreme working poverty more than halved during 1997-2007. In 2007, 16.4 per cent of the employed were counted among the extreme working poor, but 46.6 per cent were among the working poor. In other words 30.2 per cent of the employed survived on between USD 1.25 and USD 2 a day.

* The Abhisit government has promised to do some of these things, to a limited extent – it remains to be seen how much this actually materializes (and yes I did have another dream about being arrested in the middle of the night so nothing controversial today or for the next few days from me).

Thailand and the Millennium Development Goals


A new report from UNESCAP entitled A Future within Reach 2008 about progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in the Asia-Pacific Region has been published. Since documentation is better in Thailand and China, these are used as the benchmarking countries for the other 26 countries considered.

Best progress has been made towards economic growth and poverty eradication and Thailand has been at the forefront of this improvement (as I wrote recently, this was not accompanied by reduction in income inequality because of the 1997 financial crisis, principally). However, much less progress has been made with malnourishment and with child health. The report shows that 21.0% of the Thai population overall remains undernourished (using 2004 figures) and 17.6% of children under 5 are underweight. These figures are inter-related of course and undernourishment for children leads to poor health, poor educational outcomes and so forth as adults. The best way to improve social and economic development in Thailand as a whole, therefore, is to promote the incomes of rural people and the poor wherever they might be found.

For the region as a whole, the main problems are:

*                               child mortality: Of the 47 countries for which data are available, 15 are offtrack and several have regressed.

*                               maternal mortality – Some 250,000 women in the region die each year during childbirth or from pregnancy-related complications.

*                               climate change and environmental sustainability: Of 48 countries for which data are available, 30 are off-track for meeting the 2015 emissions target.

*                               water and sanitation – Eight out of 38 countries investigated are off-track for providing their rural populations with access to safe water, and 17 out of 32 countries are off-track for providing rural areas with access to basic sanitation

*                               hunger and malnutrition – Around 545 million people in Asia and the Pacific are consuming less than the global standard of 2,200 calories per day – constituting 65 per cent of the world’s undernourished.

*                               communicable diseases – Although the prevalence, at 0.3 per cent, is lower than in some other world regions, it is still some way from meeting the MDG goal of halting and reversing the spread of HIV Aids by 2015.

*                               global cooperation: In 2005, only five countries had lived up to the developed country pledge that international aid should constitute at least 0.7 per cent of their gross national income.” (See the accompanying press release from the Asian Development Bank hosted at Eldis).  

HM the Queen’s 76th Birthday


Today is August 12th and in Thailand that means the birthday of Her Majesty the Queen. The day also serves as Mother’s Day and it is a Public Holiday. Throughout the Kingdom, areas have been set aside for portraits to be put up and visitors’ books placed for people to record their good wishes to HM on her 76th birthday.

In a speech last night, HM spoke about environmental problems in Thailand in particular, focusing on the lack of water resources, fewer fish in the river and the need to preserve the remaining forests. The damage has been done to the environment of a period of decades – since economic modernization began in the 1950s really when improved technology enabled people to harvest the trees at a much higher rate. So much of the forestland has gone now that there is a greatly reduced ability for the land to retain water when it passes through – the result has been increased flooding.

It seems that every year, when the floods come, there are farmers who have lost everything and then feel themselves forced to resort to suicide – and not just that but they will kill their wives and children first. It is a very terrible phenomenon and a reminder of how narrow the margin is between survival and misery for the many subsistence farmers that populate the country.

Thailand, in common with all the countries of mainland Southeast Asia, is watered by a series of north-south flowing rivers with their origins in the Himalayas. They include the Mekong, Chao Phraya, Irrawaddy, Salween and Hong (Red) Rivers. The frozen ice on the mountains regulates the flows of the rivers and enables 50 million people to rely in whole or in part on the River Mekong for protein or income. Reports from scientists suggest that the ice in the mountains is melting at a rapid rate – some suggest it will all have disappeared within thirty years. If that happens, there will be alternate floods and droughts and millions will be at risk of starvation. Action is really needed now.

HM the Queen’s 76th Birthday


Today is August 12th and in Thailand that means the birthday of Her Majesty the Queen. The day also serves as Mother’s Day and it is a Public Holiday. Throughout the Kingdom, areas have been set aside for portraits to be put up and visitors’ books placed for people to record their good wishes to HM on her 76th birthday.

In a speech last night, HM spoke about environmental problems in Thailand in particular, focusing on the lack of water resources, fewer fish in the river and the need to preserve the remaining forests. The damage has been done to the environment of a period of decades – since economic modernization began in the 1950s really when improved technology enabled people to harvest the trees at a much higher rate. So much of the forestland has gone now that there is a greatly reduced ability for the land to retain water when it passes through – the result has been increased flooding.

It seems that every year, when the floods come, there are farmers who have lost everything and then feel themselves forced to resort to suicide – and not just that but they will kill their wives and children first. It is a very terrible phenomenon and a reminder of how narrow the margin is between survival and misery for the many subsistence farmers that populate the country.

Thailand, in common with all the countries of mainland Southeast Asia, is watered by a series of north-south flowing rivers with their origins in the Himalayas. They include the Mekong, Chao Phraya, Irrawaddy, Salween and Hong (Red) Rivers. The frozen ice on the mountains regulates the flows of the rivers and enables 50 million people to rely in whole or in part on the River Mekong for protein or income. Reports from scientists suggest that the ice in the mountains is melting at a rapid rate – some suggest it will all have disappeared within thirty years. If that happens, there will be alternate floods and droughts and millions will be at risk of starvation. Action is really needed now.