Help­ing ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties ad­vance

Ge­of­frey Longfel­low of the Thailand Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment Foun­da­tion has a few ideas for let­ting all Thais pros­per


Ge­of­frey Longfel­low, di­rec­tor of spe­cial projects for the Thailand Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment Foun­da­tion (TSDF), knows a thing or two about the mind­set of the ru­ral folks he works closely with to pro­mote the phi­los­o­phy of sus­tain­abil­ity as taught by King Rama IX.

His com­ing from a small town in the state of Mary­land, and then spend­ing over a decade work­ing in ru­ral Thailand, has given him am­ple ex­pe­ri­ence to un­der­stand that sus­tain­able devel­op­ment can suc­cinctly be de­fined as mod­er­a­tion, rea­son­able­ness and re­silience.

TSDF’s di­verse projects i nclude ev­ery­thing from a royal agri­cul­tural sta­tion to oc­cu­pa­tional pro­mo­tion projects.

Longfel­low, who has lived in Thailand for ap­prox­i­mately four decades, started as a vol­un­teer in 1977 for the US Peace Corps, which brought him to teach English in South­ern Thailand. He has also spent enor­mous amount of time in the North­east.

Af­ter work­ing for a di­ver­si­fied range of sec­tors, in­clud­ing the Na­tional Eco­nomic and So­cial Devel­op­ment Board in Bangkok, he was in­vited to teach at Chu­la­longkorn Uni­ver­sity’s Fac­ulty of Po­lit­i­cal Sciences and In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions in 1992. Three years later, he was of­fered the aus­pi­cious op­por­tu­nity to work for a hand­ful of royal projects un­der Her Majesty Queen Sirikit, in­form­ing for­eign­ers about Her Majesty’s work.

What im­pressed him most was how these projects were able to sup­ple­ment the in­come of hun­dreds of thou­sands while si­mul­ta­ne­ously pre­serv­ing indige­nous cul­ture and in­still­ing pride in peo­ple for their com­mu­ni­ties, re­gion and coun­try.

Work­ing for TSDF was a dream be­cause of his de­sire to do some­thing spe­cific for sus­tain­able devel­op­ment that would take him out in the coun­try and abroad, giv­ing these projects a higher pro­file through his per­sonal ob­ser­va­tion of how these projects were tan­gi­bly ben­e­fit­ing the masses. The fo­cus was on cre­at­ing closer for­eign ties us­ing Thailand’s sus­tain­able-devel­op­ment ini­tia­tives.

He started his vis­its by trav­el­ling up­coun­try twice a month, gaug­ing the ob­jec­tives of sus­tain­abil­ity devel­op­ment. Each vil­lage’s projects came with their own set of ob­sta­cles, which were his job to iden­tify. Do­ing this turned out to be an up­hill task. While he found that there were dif­fer­ent lev­els of devel­op­ment in each re­gion, the ob­sta­cles were the same.

“Lack of fis­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity, not able to man­age one’s per­sonal fi­nances was among the big­gest prob­lems I found,” he re­marked. “They get in very un­nec­es­sary debt. I don’t mean debt to pur­chase fer­tiliser for their farms, but debt from buy­ing per­sonal things. Peo­ple seem to have a ubiq­ui­tous in­abil­ity to say no to their chil­dren.

“I met a grand­mother who told me that she was un­der a lot of debt. She looked like a sim­ple woman. When I asked why she was un­der debt, she said her grand­daugh­ter in uni­ver­sity, who was study­ing in the next prov­ince, phoned her scream­ing, cry­ing and yelling that she needed an iPhone. The ques­tion is how to get peo­ple out of that. There is also a lot of an­ti­so­cial be­hav­iour, a lot of gam­bling still all over Thailand that has be­come an is­sue.”

Longfel­low says he has ob­served a mixed bag of progress and re­gres­sion tak­ing place in ru­ral ar­eas. While in­come has in­creased, peo­ple don’t use it prop­erly for the ben­e­fit of their lives. He sees this as a ma­jor ob­sta­cle to es­tab­lish­ing a mid­dle class.

“A mid­dle class has to re­spon­si­ble,” he re­it­er­ated. “It is my ob­ser­va­tion that peo­ple who are un­der a lot of debt are too bur­dened men­tally and emo­tion­ally to have much time for any­thing else. So this is a huge im­ped­i­ment to sus­tain­abil­ity which I am try­ing to pro­mote.”

Luck­ily he has been get­ting a lot of help. Longfel­low said the afore­men­tioned is­sues have been get­ting dis­cussed in the open, through so­cial me­dia in par­tic­u­lar. There is also a great deal of en­thu­si­asm and sup­port in so­ci­ety for sus­tain­abil­ity.

The next phase of his project is to en­gage the mem­bers of this new mid­dle class or the mil­len­ni­als. “Most of these peo­ple have healthy dis­pos­able in­comes, but ram­pant con­sumerism and dis­cre­tionary debt pre­clude them from truly be­com­ing mid­dle class. A great chal­lenge lies ahead for both me and them.”

Longfel­low’s job has taken him to the US on sev­eral oc­ca­sions. The re­cep­tion there has been quite pos­i­tive and en­gen­dered much in­ter­est in Thailand’s royal projects.

“I have met with count­less or­gan­i­sa­tions that are quite taken with the Thai model of sus­tain­able devel­op­ment, a no­table ex­cep­tion be­ing the aca­demic com­mu­nity, which is uncertain if our ef­forts are in­tended to keep poor ru­ral peo­ple in their place.”

Longfel­low has also got­ten Thai-Amer­i­cans in­volved, say­ing: “I have cre­ated an on­go­ing dia­logue with the sig­nif­i­cant Thai com­mu­nity in the US. I had over­looked this re­la­tion­ship at the be­gin­ning of my project, but this has now pro­gressed far beyond my ex­pec­ta­tions. As a re­sult, the TSDF has hosted for two years a tal­ented group of young Thai-Amer­i­cans, who have come to Thailand to bet­ter un­der­stand SD [sus­tain­able devel­op­ment].

“The par­tic­i­pants in the Thai-Amer­i­can Youth Lead­er­ship pro­gram quickly iden­ti­fied ob­sta­cles in the path of SD. They largely come from Wash­ing­ton, Bos­ton and, es­pe­cially, Los Angeles. These peo­ple want to un­der­stand and con­trib­ute to the moth­er­land.”

This year Longfel­low vis­ited Chile, Ar­gentina, Peru and Mex­ico in or­der to share the work of TSDF. In 2017, Longfel­low will con­tinue with his trav­els to pro­mote TSDF’s achieve­ments across the globe. He will use King Rama IX’s sus­tain­ablede­vel­op­ment model as the show­case for Thai ex­hibits at the Asian Cul­tural Fair in Mi­ami next March.

“Peo­ple from uni­ver­si­ties, boards of trade, cham­bers of com­merce and lo­cal gov­ern­ment or­gan­i­sa­tions re­ceived me warmly. Many of these peo­ple were aware that Thailand has en­joyed con­sid­er­able suc­cess with sus­tain­able devel­op­ment. I pre­sented the down­side to the pic­ture and shared the ob­sta­cles, and the for­mi­da­ble tasks ahead. It was strik­ing that many of our prob­lems plague these coun­tries as well. The Thai gov­ern­ment has sev­eral projects of co-op­er­a­tion in Latin Amer­ica, and the re­la­tion­ship pros­pers through our foun­da­tion.”

Ge­of­frey Longfel­low speaks with an elderly vil­lager about is­sues trou­bling her dur­ing his trip to the prov­inces.

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