Welcome to JP Melville's review, experience, and statement on foreign aid and the international development industry. A conservative faith in family. A love affair riding the riotous tensions between money, personal freedom, the majestic travesty of our specie's ecological footprint, and economic politics. Selected writing of both prose and poetry, anecdotal travel log to rhetorical essay, dating back from the 1980's to the present. Enjoy!

Friday, 27 January 2012

A Research Paper

Northeast (Esan), Thailand

I found myself in the midst of writing a research paper about my international aid work in Northeastern Thailand.  I had called the paper: Multi-disciplinary Evaluation of Large Livestock in Northeastern Thailand.  It was essentially an agronomic conditions and economic analysis aimed at choosing an appropriate research project targeted at small agricultural producers.  The project was to be shared with or implemented in collaboration with peasants.  This collaborative technique derives from a concept referred to in the aid industry as ‘participatory on-farm research and development’.   Participation.  Development.  What were these words?  I stalled.
From a professional point of view, I was not quite prepared to begin writing the paper.  Gaps remained in my technical data.  However, a letter had arrived several days earlier, requesting that I present my work at an annual meeting of the Department of Agriculture.  The meeting would be held in Pattaya, an internationally famous resort just south of Bangkok on the Gulf of Thailand.
I was uncertain about this offer for several reasons.  Several of them were practical.  For one, all my writing would be in English.  I knew no one nearby who could critique the paper's content before I submitted it.  There were few foreigners in the Northeast and agricultural researchers like myself tended to be working in remote places which were difficult to access.  Another was the time constraint.  I had been asked to present my work in two weeks, a short period of time to prepare a presentation.  Where could I get my slide film developed?
A more important matter was the content of the paper.  I had not seriously begun reviewing my field notes before the invitation arrived.  In fact, I had not told anyone that I intended to write a paper.  So who requested that I attend the annual meeting of the Department of Agriculture?  I was more than a little concerned that I had been asked to present at the meeting merely because I was a foreigner, arbitrarily picked from some list.  Unhappily, the working foreigner in Thailand was, too often, automatically assumed to have expert qualities.  I had hardly been in the country for six months.  Who was I to understand the conditions of small farmers who had lived there generation after generation?  Who was I to make recommendations for change?  I saw very clearly how much the paper would be very much full of MY ideas.  An expert’s ideas.  A white man who had been posted by the Thai government and a collaborating Canadian development agency, CUSO, to Northeastern Thailand, a place officially described as dry, infertile, impoverished, and in desperate need of development assistance, a place which all Thai people referred to with profound sentiment as the Esan.

The Esan

I had been in an Esan village for the annual Sonkhran festival.  The main activity during the festival was throwing water on each other, to celebrate the first rains of the monsoon which arrived in April.  I was in the village for several days and nights.
One evening, I was asked to eat in Nai Udom's house.  After the meal, ever the curious researcher, I asked about the state of farmers in the Esan.  Nai Udom said that a lot of farmers in the village were in serious debt.  Each year they sold most of their rice.  Even then they could not pay off principle.  This was because, among other reasons, they had borrowed money for agricultural inputs like pesticides.  The crop failed anyway.  Or they had borrowed to pay for weddings, or sometimes to buy a small motor scooter.  Scooters and weddings do not make rice grow.
Nai Udom said that he was poor, but he had no debt.  He had some cattle and a good chunk of land and a family.  It was all his.  Some years, he bought three or four bags of fertilizer for his rice, though the fertilizer meant fifty dollars out of pocket.  He paid cash and got to keep all his rice.  He would have liked to do more, maybe send his daughters to the secondary schools.  But, things being the way they were, there was not a lot of money to go around.
Nai Udom did spend eight years working in Bangkok, each year hoping to save money. He talked about blue jeans.  How desirable they were.  How expensive they were.  And in Bangkok, he said, you always had to pay for your lunch.  Everyone was in such a hurry, running to make money.  He finally decided to return permanently to his village.  In the village, so long as the harvest was good, you never worried about where you might eat.  If someone was eating they would always invite you to eat with them.  People were eating in each other's houses all the time.
My thoughts tensed when, on his own accord, Nai Udom added that he thought he understood government, the banks, money, and development.  He said there was always some kind of program going on in the village.  Over the years, he could not see that there was much change for the farmers, so he figured somebody else must be benefiting.  Nai Udom was thirty-six and had been home for twelve years.
“I benefit from my hard work,” he said.  “Not from projects.”
Nai Ponsri was another farmer in the village.  He was the village assistant headman, a title for which he received a small annual stipend from the national government.  He had different ideas and different opportunities than Nai Udom.
On the last evening of my stay in the village, after a day of dancing along the paths between houses and tossing water on people and eating and generally doing the Sonkhran thing, Nai Ponsri took me by the hand and led me off to the village headman's house.  There, I was surprised to meet the provincial Member of Parliament. Beside him was an official from the Department of Agriculture.  I did not know they would be in the village.  With them were two secretaries scribbling notes in their notebooks.  A group of farmers sat before them in a small semi-circle.  The discussion focussed around a well drilling project for the farmers.  The project was to be implemented by the government in a minimum of six counties.  It had to do with increasing buffalo strength so that the beasts could pull ploughs faster and thereby increase rice production.  The project required a great deal of organization but everyone would be better off in the end, it was said.  Whisky and salted fish and cigarettes appeared and everyone was having a swell time.
Except Nai Ponsri.  Nai Ponsri became angry.  He shouted.
I had never heard a Thai person shout before.  Shouting was simply not done.  But Nai Ponsri shouted.
"Look!" he yelled.  "It just isn't possible!  The buffalo work as hard as they can already.  Your well is not going to put water in the fields where the buffalo need it to soften the soil.  We have a drilled well in the village already.  If you drill another... don't you know we haven't finished paying for the first one?  You're pushing us too far.  I mean all of us villagers!"
During previous visits to the village, I had heard similar sentiments expressed by some of the other farmers sitting in the group.  I waited for somebody else to speak up.  All of them smiled and murmured that none of them had a problem.
"No, nobody has a problem," they told the Member of Parliament who, too, was smiling.
In Thailand, smiling during difficult social moments was called grenjai.  Grenjai meant avoiding disagreement at all costs with one's superior.  In theory, this was due to respect.  In practice, there were influences, among other things, of karma, patronage, dependence, or even fear.
Nai Ponsri worked damned hard.  He had kept all of his daughters and sons in school as long as possible.  Two had even gone to college.  He tried to use any new technology on his farm.  He collaborated with researchers whenever possible. He was devoted to the village temple.  His household provided food to the monks on a daily basis.  Not to forget, there were his duties as village assistant headman - mainly maintaining whatever government programs they had operating in the village.
Nai Ponsri would know when his people were being pushed too hard.  The responsible ears, however, were not appearing to listen.  The farmers would be pushed just a little bit harder.  And Nai Ponsri would bend with the weight.
Sitting in semi-circle, everyone, including Nai Ponsri, agreed with the Member of Parliament… a new well… more water… the buffalo would thrive.
Sitting in my office, distant from the village, preparing to write a research paper, I wondered who I was, an agricultural researcher, to worry about a process called development?  Making a presentation in Pattaya would be good for my career.  A few photos. An overhead and PowerPoint.  Some text according to the texts.  Bingo.  An offer for a better job.

The Esan – Part Two

Development, I imagined, was something which farmers were quite capable of pursuing.  Experts.  They did pursue development; I mean, they did the best for themselves under the circumstances they faced.  To use development words: impact, response, action.
Evolution?  Nai Ponsri in his way.  Nai Udom in his more conservative way.  Is it capitalism?  Is it development?  Is it socialism?  The 21st century?  When have people not  explored and adopted new ideas.  Is not change is intrinsic to all of us, in incremental, self-initiated ways?  I had believed that development was a good thing.  Why, now that I was engaged in agricultural research in Thailand, did development have the appearance of doing more harm than good?  Was this Dunbar’s Number getting in the way?  Perhaps there was another process evolving in farmers' lives.
That process was development.  Thailand, really Bangkok and the surrounding metropolitan area, had become one of Southeast Asia's industrial tigers.  Industrial development.  Annual growth of the gross national product ranged between seven and ten percent.  Initially, industrial development seem peripheral to village life.  It was, in fact, deeply integrated.
The official primary vehicles for industrial penetration into rural areas were cash cropping and technology transfers.  Because nothing from the industrial sector came without a cash cost, farmers who wished to use industrial inputs on their farms had to have cash.  This established economic dependency.  Because the inputs for modern agricultural production depended on industrial production (specifically synthetic fertilizers, synthetic biocides, and the mechanization of farm production), technological dependencies were established.  Somehow or another, the exchange of agricultural commodities for cash and technology never favoured the farmer.  The real economic farmgate price for rice had been diminishing for years.  The real economic and environmental cost of agricultural inputs had been steadily increasing.  Maybe the unofficial vehicle was young girls.
Development, it appeared, was like building your own house, only to find on the day that it was finished that someone else had moved in.  Or, it was like preparing your meals and always having more guests than family, and the guests demanded the best portions, and more portions.  All while the house that you were living in grew older and older.  And the guests came in greater and greater numbers.  So you sent your children into Bangkok, hoping they would send money home, to help put a new roof on your aging home, to buy medicine for the grandparents.  You sent the young children, sixteen maybe eighteen maybe twenty, the naive, the eager, the innocent.

The Esan – Part Three

There were two busloads of young people that came home to the village for Sonkhran festival.  The busses roared into the village temple grounds in a flurry of dust.  The children poured out of the doors in a mass of excited confusion.  I met them in the procession of dancing and water tossing through the streets.  Young men with silver earrings in their ears.  Some with leather gloves on their hands.  Others drunk with white whisky and fatigue.  Whirling they were, twirling, arms about each other. Old friends seen again.  Those who stayed in the village.  Those who left.  Old friends already worlds apart with little to share.  Who understood the young man who was working in Patpong, an alley of sex bars in Bangkok which catered to foreigners?  He told me about the white women that he had known.  He told me what a beautiful face I had.  His words were Bangkok bar words, his soft slur appealing, ingratiating, tempting.  Someone shouted English words, great efforts to speak English.  Tight jeans, hips hugged, on young women, their eyes leering at the white man in their village, luring eyes that had learned to see.  New eyes.  Dark eyes.  These young women were forward, loud, unlike their village peers.  Long hair with permanent curls and coloured nails.
It cost the village one thousand dollars to bring their children home for one night and a day.  Everybody chipped in.  But more than the children came home.  And they have gone already.
What was left behind?
Who was I amidst all this?
I had tried to learn and I had tried to understand.  Despite the effort, I felt that I had very little to offer to ease people's burden.  I sometimes thought that my presence in the village actually helped make the situation worse.  Because I was the white man and assumed good as a direct result of that?  The assumed expert with answers.  So maybe it followed in people's heads that anything I did was good. Anything I had was good.  Anything I wanted was good.  After all, anybody could see that when I arrived in the village that I had a nice new motorcycle and eyeglasses and a leather bag and good clothes.  They knew that I had flown on an aeroplane.  They knew that I had been through university.  They knew that I knew how to use a computer.  If I wished to come to their village and do a project, well, why not?  I was welcome.
I worked as closely to farmers and listened as openly as a western mind could.  I wrote down and built their ideas into the research project.  I slept in their houses.  I ate their food.  I joined their celebrations.  I, in a word, participated to the depths of participation.  How was I to know if anything which I did was in fact of critical value to the village?  If I asked how things were progressing, the farmers all smiled and said agreeable things.

The Esan - Grenjai.

In the face of grenjai I was finding myself helpless to act.  I did not know if my ideas pleased the farmers or if the farmers were merely pleasing me.  I did know how the money from a foreign aid agency provided the stimulus for Members of Parliament and government officials to act.  In my own office I had seen my superior promote fish culture research, knowing it would be financed by international sources, and then divert a major portion of that funding to the building of a house for his sister.  I did know that agricultural input suppliers and commodities buyers made a healthy statistical contribution to Thailand’s growing GNP.  Agricultural aid monies, I could see, directly benefited intermediaries.  Only by a twist of my rationalized imagination could I see how those monies benefited farmers.  My imagination painted a beast, the industrial world, from which I came, blatantly devouring the ground on which the farmers stood - materially, traditionally, spiritually.
I had lost my confidence.  I found myself reeling having even thought that it was possible to help the farmers of Esan.  I did not know any longer how to act.
I only knew how much I was a foreigner, a participating development worker.  The smiling face of the industrial machine.  I stimulated and perpetuated mythologies of accessible wealth, progress, and happiness.
In that office, with those papers and books strewn about me, with the fan blowing to cool the monsoon's humidity on my skin, I swirled in a storm of images, feelings, thoughts, circumstance, and change.  I was living with my history and those people's history and both of our tomorrows.  And, in the name of development, I had discovered that I had been taught to justify food riots, to justify drinking water fouled by pollution, begging, forced migration from a new irrigation reservoir, child prostitution... I wanted to be a siren, screaming, "Beware!"
I needed solace, so I took and read again a poem written by Apichart Thongyou, a Thai development worker, written during his work in the Esan:

another new day.
Arising slowly,
lonely and thinking of someone;
turning and seeing Grandfather
sitting next to the water jar,
using an ax to cut a plow handle,
stroking it delightedly.
Loneliness disappears;
the person who turns the earth is right here.

I clasped my head in my hands, remembering I was trying to write a paper and prepare a presentation to be made in two weeks time to the Department of Agriculture in Pattaya, donning suit and tie.

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