How did Thailand escape the poverty trap?

Posted on Posted in South East Asia, Thailand

Abundance of food today

When you see the abundance of natural produce that is readily available to the whole population of Thailand it is easy to forget, or ignore even, that many of the rural Thai people, were on the ‘bread line’ less than 40 years ago. Those people now represent 70% of the Thai population and comprise primarily farming families. Fresh food markets abound in the cities, towns (large and small) and villages all over Thailand and they are very busy.

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Ruamchok Market – Chiang Mai

40 year turnaround

The dramatic turnaround from poverty to plenty in such a short period from 1980 to the present day is partly a result of Thailand’s remarkable economic growth and a testament to the determination of the Country and the  farming community to uplift itself. Unemployment in Thailand is very low at around 0.5% but I suspect a large number of those registered as unemployed make money on an ad hoc basis. Farm workers are typically versatile and although they may not have had any formal skills training they can usually turn their hand to most practical tasks. It is quite normal in any village to be planting rice in your own farm one day and then putting the roof on your neighbour’s house the next.

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Planting rice
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Putting the roof on

Poverty vs Starvation

But when we talk about poverty it is important to keep perspective and not confuse poverty with starvation. Although I’m sure there have been cases of starvation in Thailand in the past there can be little or no excuse now and starvation must be rare in this land where food is plentiful and sadly a lot is wasted. You cannot go far without seeing a temple so anyone who is homeless or hungry can seek shelter and food from the monks who will gladly share.

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My village temple

Thailand has a population of 70 million of which less than 8% are officially below the international poverty line, but there is no fear of starvation.

However, Thailand’s neighbouring South East Asian countries Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos haven’t had it so good following the devastation and havoc wreaked on them  during the Vietnam War. In the 10 years up to 1975, those countries have had a far more difficult route to reducing poverty levels which currently stand at: Laos 27.6% Cambodia 19.8% Vietnam 10.7% (a great achievement). And let us not forget Myanmar which suffered a long period of military dictatorship until recently, which stands at 26%.

Comparison with Africa  

Since I moved to Thailand from South Africa people have asked me how different it is.  There are so many things to compare but if I just try and compare poverty and starvation in SE Asia with Africa. I can’t; there is no comparison. The story all over Africa is a shortage of food, famine and many families starving.

That has been the scenario for as long as I can remember. It is not the case in SE Asia despite the ravages of the Vietnam war and the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge.

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Famine in Somalia (Photo credit: United Nations Photo)

Arguably the most advanced country in Africa, South Africa has an official population of 52 million (but more likely 60+ because of illegal immigrants). South Africa’s poverty rate is a staggering 58.6% and unemployment stands at 25%.  I lived there between 1990 and 2008 and survived an armed robbery in my own, home committed by 3 desperately poor young black men. The police never caught them, which is usual as they slip quickly back into the shadows of the Townships. Daily, I witnessed children living on the streets of affluent Cape Town – starving.

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Llandudno – Cape Town

On one side of Table Mountain (the Atlantic Seaboard) you have unimaginable wealth and a few miles on the other side (the Cape Flats) you have unimaginable squalor, deprivation, poverty and gang warfare.

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‘West Side’ & ‘Thug Life’ murals in the Coloured township of Manenberg, in Hard Livings gang territory (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is hardly any wonder that violent crime is at unacceptable levels. In the 20 years since the ANC came to power I see little, if any, improvement as social malaise continues and the gap between rich and poor widens. If anything social unrest is worse than it was before 1994.

Thailand has not experienced such contrasts in modern history and has not endured serious conflict for a very long time, despite continual political disagreement which sometimes turns nasty. Being in Thailand now for 5 years I realise how lucky I am to live my septuagenarian years in a peaceful, harmonious society with minimal poverty and an abundance of food.

Totally different from the exciting but knife-edged existence I had in South Africa for nearly 20 years.

Thailand life in 1975 vs 2014

40 years ago some villagers lived in basic homes like this which were considered to be top quality. Others weren’t so lucky.

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Many still live in the old wooden structures but they are gradually disappearing and now you see many more village houses like this one and even better.

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If a farmer had a bicycle then he wascock of the north’. Now everyone, at the very least, has a bicycle and a motorbike and I would say most families have a car. Every family has TV (though some may have been built by John Logie Baird himself) and even the old folk have mobile phones. Many now have access to the internet also.

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Farming was exclusively driven by manual labour and buffalo. Buffalo are still used in much of the North-East which is the poorest region but the largest rice producing area in Thailand. However, you will only occasionally see buffalo in the North where rice and many other crops are grown. Modern farm machinery particularly the versatile tractor has replaced the buffalo. Now trucks and pick-ups transport the produce to market instead of buffalo and cart. Equipment is not yet on the scale of modern farming elsewhere in the world and in Isaan (North-East) much of the rice is still harvested by hand. This is a laborious and outdated process which older farmers claim preserves more rice and saves on wastage.

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Nowadays it is hard to imagine that the fertile crop rotation land of the North only yielded subsistence level rice and little else. Families had to go to the forest areas to find other food such as mushrooms, bamboo shoots and wild herbs and berries. In fact many still do out of habit as there is plenty growing wild (e.g. papaya, pag and herbs). But now, all year round, farmers, with good irrigation and water flowing from the mountains, grow potatoes, corn, lam-yai, papaya, coconut, banana, onion, garlic, carrot, many kinds of spinach (pag), beans, herbs and more. There are chicken and pig farms in most villages so protein is always available in the plethora of markets all over the Country.

Farming into old age

Many Thai rural people are physically strong into old age and continue to farm, albeit on a small scale. The official average age of a rice farmer is high at 55 which supports evidence that less of the young are following the family tradition, opting for the more glamorous and lucrative city life instead. The family system of support is still strong and I see no signs of impoverishment in terms of a lack of food at any level. Let us hope the success continues.

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