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Issue 18
December 1, 2003

Community-Driven Development in Rural Thailand: Lessons from Japan

by Seiko Kashiwagi, Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC)


[Editor's Note: The following article describes a community development initiative in Thailand that is being conducted by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, a Japanese institution that works to promote international economic and social development through official development assistance (ODA) operations, among other activities. This particular initiative offers an effective example of both international exchange and cooperation at the local level.]

1. Revitalizing Villages in Thailand

In the rural parts of Thailand, it is very common to see village women who produce processed agricultural goods and handicrafts as a group activity in their spare time between farming duties. An initiative that makes use of these activities as a means of revitalizing villages is currently in progress. Thailand's Department of Industrial Promotion (DIP), Ministry of Industry, refers to villages that produce high-quality handicrafts (e.g., textiles and woven bamboo crafts) as "industrial villages." It is currently implementing the "Tourism Promotion for Industrial Village Development Project" with a focus on 20 selected villages from around Thailand with tourism resources in their vicinity. This project is aimed at raising the income of local citizens by establishing a community center in each village and using it as a base for the production and marketing of handicrafts and for the creation of linkages with surrounding tourist areas. Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) is supporting the costs of building these community centers through ODA loans.

2. Post-Construction Plans

As of 2003, several community centers were completed. Each village proceeded to establish a management committee for their community center, but upon setting out to implement their development operations, they encountered a problem. They were at a loss concerning how exactly to operate the center. The centers were built for the purpose of revitalizing the respective villages as a whole, so they naturally wanted the profits to be distributed not just to the people selling goods at the center but to as many villagers as possible. However, the question they faced was how to go about achieving this end?

The idea of applying knowledge gained from Japan's michi-no-eki (roadside stations) initiatives arose from this dilemma. The function and concept of Thailand's industrial village community centers are very similar to those of Japan's michi-no-eki. It was possible that Japan's ten years of experience concerning michi-no-eki could serve these villages well. With that view, JBIC solicited the cooperation of various parties actually involved in michi-no-eki initiatives in Japan and set up opportunities for them to share their experiences and knowledge with the individuals involved in the operation of Thailand's industrial village community centers.

3. Michi-no-eki in Japan

Most people are probably not familiar with michi-no-eki. They are roadside stations, located along Japan's national highways or major routes, that not only provide basic rest facilities like bathrooms but also offer a place for local residents to market their area's specialty products.

These michi-no-eki stations are officially recognized by the government (Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport), and there are 743 nationwide (as of August 2003). All michi-no-eki stations bear the same logo and are marked on maps and car navigation systems. These stations, which can be viewed as a "national brand" that reflects local community needs and characteristics, are serving as the heart of community revitalization in many of Japan's towns and villages.

Individuals involved in the operation of michi-no-eki stations in Tomiura town, Chiba prefecture, and in Uchiko town, Ehime prefecture, were invited to take part in workshops in Thailand in an advisory capacity.

4. First Workshop

Two workshops targeting community center representatives from the 20 industrial villages were held in August and November 2003. The first workshop, which mainly addressed the issue of the community centers' function, featured presentations by the Japanese representatives and group discussions. Based on this, the Thai participants drafted an action plan for improving the operations of their respective centers.

The question-and-answer sessions and group discussions with the Japanese advisors helped the Thai participants to broaden their perspectives on the function of the community centers. They started with the mindset of using the centers mainly to exhibit and sell products and provide information on surrounding tourist areas, but realized the necessity of expanding their approach to include functions such as disseminating the village's culture and tradition, fostering a successor generation of human resources, and providing a base of communication and coordination with related organizations.

The presentations by the Japanese michi-no-eki practitioners made a major impact on and elicited a positive response from the Thai participants. In fact, when Fumiko Noda (Chairperson, Michi-no-eki Direct Sales Operations Committee in Uchiko town) related how, over the latter half of her life, the michi-no-eki initiative has changed not only her as a person but also her way of life and her town, the audience burst into spontaneous applause.

5. Second Workshop

A second workshop was held in November 2003. Each village reported on the progress of their activities over the three months since the last workshop and took part in theme-specific group discussions concerning community center administration (i.e., production controls, networking, and publicity).

Remarkably, in many cases, the action plans that had been made at the first workshop were already in motion. With the help of its local government office and schools, one village with an outdoor stage situated immediately behind its community center had put together a play that introduces the village's traditions and way of life and was working to attract audiences for it. It planned to pass down cultural traditions and encourage the participation of local citizens. Another village that produces natural dyes as its specialty product had started procuring cloth from a village that produces cotton textiles as one step toward building a network among industrial villages. The sense of community in Thailand is said to be weaker than in Japan, but there were members of another village who had started working together as a community to carry out village beautification efforts such as clean-up and tree-planting activities.

The group discussions on how these community leaders could make their industrial villages successful continued in an animated manner from the afternoon, past dinner, until 10 o'clock at night.

6. Lessons from Japan

What the representatives from Tomiura and Uchiko ultimately imparted onto the Thai participants was not just their success stories but, more importantly, a spirit of community revitalization founded on the belief that they themselves can be the central forces behind local development as the ones who know their village the best. This spirit reflects the true essence of the concept known in the development arena as "community-driven development." When the Japanese representatives would provide some advice, the Thai participants would follow up with three or four ideas of their own. The Japanese advisors were impressed by this enthusiasm and clearly grew to feel a connection with Thailand.

These workshops brought home the significance of putting ideas into action and how exchange between individuals from different countries who share the same experiences can become the foundation for true development that extends beyond the simple transfer of knowledge. The cooperation between the community revitalization leaders from Thailand and Japan provided a glimpse into the breadth of potential for interregional cooperation. Moreover, it has revealed one possible answer to the difficult question of how JBIC can add value to its ODA loans.

Please send comments/inquiries to grassnet@jcie.or.jp.