Nong Sarai community, like other communities in Thailand, has been facing the effects of the state’s economic development and top-down planning.Villagers were more than 100 million baht in debt because of the trend for economic growth and industrialisation. Yet, the problems were solved by natural community leadership and sustainable living. The community elders decided to focus on happiness and not on the level of GDP. Now the community has become a role model for other communities in Thailand. This article will present how the community moved away from the old paradigm of development and established their own ways.
As part of our Paradigm Shift module in the Awakening Leadership Training, we visited Nong Sarai Sub-district (Tambon) in Kanchanaburi province, located about two hours southeast of Bangkok by car. It has a total area of 24.39 square kilometres, and consists of 9 villages with an approximate population of 3,500. Most of residents farm for a living—planting sugarcane and corn, as well as raising livestock.
We arrived there late evening and were served a hot dinner and greeted by Deputy Mayor of the local council, Mr. Siwarote Jitniyom, who gave a brief introduction about Nong Sarai.
We learned a lot about Nong Sarai but what struck us most in his presentation was the “Bank of Good Deeds.” The Bank is one of the main ways most of Nong Sarai’s villagers have freed themselves of huge amounts of debt—to be exact, a collective total of 100 million Thai Baht (USD $3,200,000)—over the past 20 years.
Why were the villagers in debt?
During Thailand’s First Economic Development Plan (1961-1966), the government’s heavy emphasis on boosting GDP (with a target of raising annual individual income to 5000 THB) pushed villagers to greatly increase their productivity. To drive up productivity, the local government built an irrigation canal near the sub-district. Instead of growing rice once a year, villagers began growing rice more frequently and used pesticides, fertilizers, and other agricultural chemicals. Labor practices also changed: in the past, neighbors relied on each other for help with farm work but with more frequent planting cycles, villagers began needing hired labor. They also started substituting buffaloes and cows with machinery in the fields.
However, in many cases, these new investments did not necessarily yield higher productivity nor higher returns…only increasing amounts of debt.
Traditionally, villagers in Thailand practiced small-scale, self-sufficient farming. They were content with having enough rice, vegetables, and animals for their own consumption. Mr. Siwarote described the by-products of development as “chemicals in the river and death in the field.” The once-happy community he recalled, had turned into a society full of worries.
To help release his village from debt, Mr. Siwarote began mobilizing residents using former Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s Sufficiency Economy Philosophy. First, Mr. Siwarote helped form a community group to identify problems in the community. After identifying these problems, they formed more community groups to identify common goals and concrete solutions. Importantly, their main goal was and remains the happiness of everyone whom lives in the community. So together, they also created a community happiness index based on indicators such as participation (i.e., election of leaders must be attended by at least 80% of all households), self-reliance, self-sufficient ecosystem (i.e., at least 10% of all households products used in the community must also be self-produced), and community well-being and health.
Siwarote has been the chairman of the Community Health Volunteers (VHV) since 2001 and has played a central role in the community welfare fund. He has witnessed the changing of the community and realised that following the Western developmental model was not the answer.
“We saw a lot of changes after irrigation canals were built. People planted more frequently because there was water available the whole year. That’s where the problems began. They raised crop productivity by using fertilizers and pesticides but we changed because of development. Good things such as labour exchange and agricultural mutuality faded away from the community. This new way of farming pulled them into a debt trap. They borrowed the money from loan sharks to invest in agricultural chemicals and technology and to buy luxury products. Debt was increasingly accumulated year by year and money flew out of the community. Finally, they realised that they were facing the serious economic problems” reflected Siwarote.
Siwarote looked back on the old days and realised that Nong Sarai people were happier and healthier even though they didn’t have a lot of money or possessions such as television, refrigerators, pick-up cars and etc. The community needed to target on happiness and well-being, not on money, material possessions or GDP.
As with life in the rural area, the temple is often the centre of community where people gather. In Nong Sarai the villagers go to the temple on every Buddhist holy day, and at that time, about 50-60 villagers gathered and discussed the situation to find solutions. Firstly, they wanted to solve the financial problems, by starting a community Savings Group. Afterwards, Siwarote and the VHV team established the sub-district welfare fund in 2002, with the fund commission composed of representatives from 9 villages. Together with the people of Nong Sarai, the commission gradually developed a 3 year sub-district master plan, aimed at finding solutions to debt problems, improving people’s well-being and bringing back the community’s happiness.
From there, they started to share information and knowledge with the rest of the community. They also started a master planning process which led them to become more aware of their own capacities and abilities for finding necessary solutions, and for improving their quality of life. They developed occupational groups (based on different livelihood responsibilities), improved their means of production, and established a community enterprise for selling local agricultural products and other goods such as rice, drinking water, local snack foods (e.g., banana chips), etc. It took about two years for the villagers to turn around their way of life.
These changes allowed the villagers to not only generate more income but also lowered their expenses through the production of household products and organic vegetables for their own consumption. Additionally, they established a Bank of Good Deeds, based on a system of establishing credit based on good deeds performed for the community and using this form of credit, instead of proof of property or other traditionally recognized assets, to secure loans. Besides promoting actions that benefit the collective good, the Bank has also helped encourage residents to save money.
The village later formed a community leadership council called “Sapa 79” which consists of 79 members representing Nong Sarai’s local administration group, the public health center, the senior citizen’s group, and the local women’s group. The group’s responsibilities are divided based on abilities. For example, the women’s group makes the snacks and weaves baskets to sell in the learning center, and the local bank works to support the community welfare system.
Ms. Jumpa Jitniyam, who hosted some of us in her house, said she is very happy to live in the community because “we do everything by ourselves…anything for the village, we do it together.”
She also said that when you do good things, for example, cleaning garbage, everyone follows.
Nong Sarai villagers also set up a community welfare fund to provide families with additional monies to care for newborn babies, an elderly persons, children with HIV, or in the case of a death.
19-year old Boom told us that he prefers to live in the village rather than go to the city. “There is no noise, no pollution here,” he said. The young boy once dreamed of being a policeman or soldier, yet now he chooses to study marketing at a nearby vocational college in Kanachanburi in order to help promote self-reliance in Nong Sarai. For him, the city is a place of never ending competition but the village is place where one can find mutual support.
“I plan to study marketing and come back to support the community,” he told a group of us at his house. When asked what influenced him to do this, he said he frequently attended the village’s monthly meetings, which led him to learn about problems facing the village, and feeling more invested to help.
Another man we met in the village said he would like to call Nong Sarai “a hand-made heaven”.
The community has realised that to achieve the sustainable happiness, human development is also necessary. More than 100 activity groups such as the snack group, handmade broom group etc., were formed and could be divided into five categories, namely finance, social welfare, healthcare, occupations, and human and environment. Villagers could develop their ability and skills through working in these groups. The community also collaborated with the temples and schools in designing a local culture curriculum for all schools in the sub-district.
The Bank of Good Deeds
The mobilisers believe that morality can also bring happiness and encourage villagers to do good things by the creation of a “Good Deed Constitution”. Sixty-seven indicators of good deeds were created. Even a small positive action can be counted as a good deed, such as attending the community meeting at least 8 times a year. When a villager does a good deed in accordance with the indicators, it will be translated into the credit to get a loan from the ‘Good Deed Savings Bank’ instead of using the assets to secure a loan. For instance, if a villager can reach 15 indicators, he or she can get a 10,000 baht loan. If reaching 18 indicators, one can get a 15,000 baht loan. This is how Nong Sarai lives by a motto of “Good Deeds Can Make Your Stomach Full’.
The Bank’s source of money in circulation comes from members’ savings, a loan from Thailand’s Community Organizations Development Institute (CODI), and a loan from the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC).
However, lending money is not the main target of the Good Deed Savings Bank. It actually focuses on encouraging people to perform good deeds and contribute to other people and the community. Now the Good Deed Savings Bank has been widely accepted and the Nong Sarai Model has been studied and practised over the country.
The Community Welfare Fund and Community Enterprises
After paying off all debt, and the bank functioning successfully, the community work has been broadened and deepened into other areas. Profits have been used for the community welfare fund and to support the community enterprises in all 9 villages.
The welfare fund is distributed to the disadvantaged, elderly, and disabled people. The members of the fund can receive a grant in cases of birth, illness, or death occurring in the family. School supplies and scholarships are be delivered to all schools in the sub-district every year. Additionally, necessary materials and tools such as tables, chairs, microphones and etc. are donated for public use.
Each village has its own particular occupation so they do not compete against each other. Their specialties are as follows:
- Village No.1 has organic fertilizer production
- Village No.2 has a drinking water plant and community store
- Village No. 3 has a community store, a Waste Bank, and curry paste manufacturing
- Village No.4 has a financial institute, welfare fund, community learning centre, the Good Deed Savings bank, petrol station
- Village No. 5 has washing liquid manufacturing and a Waste Bank
- Village No. 6 has the Snack group, handmade broom group, the Self-Sufficient Philosophy centre, Biogas production, the central rice market, a weaving group
- Village No. 7 has Effective microorganisms (EM) Manufacturing, a learning centre and store
- Village No. 8 has a bakery and snack production
- Village No. 9 has a coconut leaf broom group, a rice mill and Thai snack production
Lessons Learned and Challenges
There have naturally been challenges. Firstly, there is still a long way to go in converting the whole community to organic agriculture. More than half of farmers remain attached to the conventional farming system. Secondly, many visitors arrive the community every day since becoming well-known for its development model. They can generate income from being a learning centre and from selling local products, however, the pace of community life seems to be increasing.
The reputation of the community attracts a lot of organisations from both government and non-government to collaborate with. This gives them opportunities to use new technology and innovations to develop their own enterprises and farming such as the smart rice mill from a university. However, the community has to be careful of those who seek advantage and deviate the community from its own goals.
It is nevertheless one of the most self-reliant and sustainable communities in Thailand. Nong Sarai has been on its path as a self-organizing community for more than 10 years. Obviously, the quality of life is improved. Although villagers are still in debt, they do not owe loan shark money anymore, as they can borrow from the community bank with a fair interest rate. Their income is more than their expenses. The economically poor have a chance to get a loan by accumulating good deeds. The community economy is more stable and the statistics of theft and violence have decreased.
The keys factors of success are good leadership, strong participation from villagers, support from other organisations and sectors, and holistic development approach. They not only focus on economic development but also on other dimensions including physical and psychological health, culture and tradition, youth development, livelihoods, and morality.