Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Thai Rural Enterprise Development Strategies in the 1990s: A Critical Appraisal

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Thai Rural Enterprise Development Strategies in the 1990s: A Critical Appraisal

Article excerpt

Rural small-scale enterprise promotion has been pushed to the forefront of development strategies in recent years. It is now considered a mainstream strategy for promoting not just economic but also social development. Small-scale enterprise is viewed as a means of generating wealth and creating employment whereby the benefits remain at the site of production. Rural small-scale enterprise is also promoted as a means of reducing rural-urban migration, and thereby reducing pressure on fast-growing urban areas. The Thai government has for some time chosen to use rural enterprise promotion, and the promotion of rural industrial enterprises in particular, as its chief tool to generate equitable economic growth and employment in provincial areas. Generating rural economic growth has been a state policy since the 1980s (Amyot 1983), but its significance has been increased greatly with the Eighth National Economic and Social Development Plan (1996-2001). The interest of Thai non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in supporting small rural enterprises is altogether more recent and represents a major ideological shift.

Despite the important position occupied by rural enterprise promotion in state development policy, there has been no systematic field-based research into Thai government projects since the early 1980s. Furthermore, to date no research has been conducted on the role of NGOs in this field, partly, no doubt, because their involvement is so recent. In the wake of the Thai economic crisis, the government has redoubled its faith in the ability of its rural enterprise promotion strategy to deliver jobs and support livelihoods in areas to which redundant workers have returned. NGOs too have been reminded of the relevance of their work. However, the changed economic climate has presented both the state and NGOs active in this sector with new challenges. This paper aims to critically appraise the approaches of the state and NGOs in the pre-crisis and post-crisis context.

The lessons to be learnt from investigating government and NGO rural small-enterprise development programmes in Thailand are relevant to other Southeast Asian countries pursuing similar development trajectories. Governments in neighbouring former socialist countries are beginning to pursue cognate strategies as the limits to agricultural growth become apparent. Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar (Burma) are starting to initiate comparable rural enterprise promotion programmes. Indeed, the need to appraise the Thai experience is all the greater because state officials are training their counterparts in neighbouring countries to replicate Thai programmes. Thai NGOs have also been involved in giving training to counterpart organizations in these countries.

This paper outlines the main features of government rural enterprise promotion activities in Thailand, giving examples of contemporary programmes, and assesses their strengths and weaknesses. It then examines the approaches taken by NGOs, again using examples of current programmes. Finally, the paper compares the two sectors, assesses their relevance both as development interventions and in the specific context of the Thai economic crisis. The paper begins by defining analytical terms, sketching the broader political economic context of Thai rural enterprise and introducing the discourse of "community business" around which debates concerning small-enterprise promotion have converged. It draws on field research in the central, northern, and northeastern regions carried out between 1996 and 1997 and in 1998, interviews with central government and NGO officials, and on secondary sources, including project and consultants' reports.(*)

Approaching Thai Rural Enterprise Promotion

We first investigated the programmes and projects described in this paper under conditions of great economic prosperity and full employment. The Thai economy was so buoyant that many of the enterprise promotion programmes that we investigated were, in a fundamental way, irrelevant. …

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