Saturday, May 7, 2011

Thailand

Ok first thing I love about Thailand is that I arrived here on day 2 of their new years festivities... from conservative Muslim dress code to half clad Thais, a city wide water fight, gay male dance groups performing on the street, and a fire truck out to spray people with the fire hose. Incredible right!? Other things I love include the people, the food, the beaches, and the ease of being a traveler here.

The last month and a bit I have spent here in Thailand (with a brief and wonderful sojourn to Singapore to purchase a 2 month Thai tourist visa) has returned me to the cultural aspect of my project in a new and interesting way. My year so far has been focused on local culture and how it can be, and should be, accommodated and included in development work. This has obviously taken me on a look into the difficulties that come with entering into another culture with the goal of changing the status quo.

My time here in Thailand has highlighted another aspect of development and its relationship with culture that I am almost kicking myself for not consciously articulating and realizing earlier. In addition to a look at what is outside of the organization (ie. the local culture) it is perhaps even more important to be conscious of the culture from which the intervention is emerging. In other words reflexivity. I have become aware of how essential it is that organizations are aware of what they are bringing in to a local community and the impact western culture can have and the legacy it can leave.

Backing up and starting from the beginning. I first traveled south visiting the beaches (wonderful!) as well as getting the chance to see how development has progressed since the unbelievably destructive Tsunami in 2004. Entire areas of the country were decimated and in some areas the visible reminders were still there ruined remains of hotels flooded out and boats still perched on the mountains they were washed onto by the surging ocean.

While it happened over 6 years ago the tsunami has left a resounding legacy. While much of the destruction has been cleared out and many of the towns I visited rebuilt the effects of development are still being felt. Appropriate and conscientious development were central themes in peoples comments about how life and rebuilding has continued. References to areas where development has been unrestrained and the unsightly impact of such leniency as well as talk of areas that have been and are being very carefully rebuilt (this often related to the natural environment). The disaster opened the door for a "clean slate" so to speak and in some instances that opportunity was taken advantage of and in others the opportunity was wasted. I left the south realizing that the legacy of development choices are long lasting and far reaching.

Since the south and my trip to Singapore I have journeyed North starting in Chiang Mai, what a great city. Tiny compared to Bangkok, I had a great time sightseeing on bike, visiting some incredible temples, and shopping at a very cool night market. I also got the chance to meet with an organization working for children's education and health in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Burma. In my meeting with the director, I asked him a question I have asked in every organization interview I have conducted: what is the hardest part of doing what your organization does?

His reply was a first although it referenced a challenge I have seen other organizations in different countries contend with. He told me that often the hardest part is dealing with the legacy many aid organizations leave and the messages they disseminate. Offers of cash compensation for people who attend capacity building workshops or meetings, constructing without asking of or involving the local community, dumping money into communities, or big promises with no delivery or followup... the list goes on resulting in a messed up motivational structure and a population that in many ways becomes complacent, unwilling to work to improve their situation in the moment as they know that inevitably another organization will just roll through and do it for them. I like to call it "development saturation."

This thread of our larger conversation really bummed me out. How irritating that organizations that suck have a bigger impact than just failing in their own goals. They make it harder for the other organizations, often good ones, to do what they set out to do. Back to that idea that kept recurring in the south a choice made in the moment has a far reaching and lasting legacy.

Reflexivity, how essential. Maybe the problem is not so much dealing with local culture but rather with our own. Instead of thinking about how we cope with the local culture maybe we need to look at how we must be careful bringing in our own. Namely the big aid culture that dominates development work. This is again one of those Anthropology lessons I have failed to apply until now: tread softly.

Anyway, I am at the moment in Mae Sot a town on the Thai Burma border - so close I had Burmese food for dinner, can see the neighboring country from here and thought twice before using Thai currency as I wasn't completely sure I was still in Thailand. What incredible diversity within one country. I have been visiting with an organization doing vocational training of sorts and I am so excited by what they are doing... am tire of writing now but more to come in the next couple of days!

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