From Thailand to the World: Sharing the Sufficiency Economy Philosophy

22 Feb 2017

Paulius Kuncinas, Asia Managing Editor

Paulius Kuncinas
Asia Managing Editor
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For decades, the Anglo-Saxon economic model has increasingly disenchanted the developing world. It has found the overemphasis on financial indicators and the lack of regard for people, the land and water, health and culture run counter to the long-term interests of society.

A shift towards recognising the interdependence of an economy’s various actors has been ongoing. In many ways, Thailand has been ahead of this curve and has taken up a leadership role globally, as it recognised early the possibility that other, superior ways of organisation may exist.

So how has Thailand become a vanguard of this model, and what can other economies learn from it?

Early Beginnings

Thailand has been a pioneer in development theory for some time, with the late king Bhumibol Adulyadej having started his contemplation of the relationship between man, the environment and the economy more than half a century ago. His work, which eventually became formalised as the Sufficiency Economy Philosophy (SEP), broke significant ground and brought into question some aspects of conventional thinking on the progress of nations. It advocates reasonableness, moderation and prudence and calls for a holistic, balanced approach to growth, contrasting the more mainstream emphasis on profit and simple performance metrics.

As the country refined its practices and principles at home, it increasingly partnered with other countries to share its ideas abroad. Through South-South and triangular cooperation, it transferred its experiences and knowledge. The SEP is now shared globally, from the South Pacific to South America, with various government agencies and ministries, led by the Thailand International Cooperation Agency (TICA), providing monetary support, expertise and support in kind. The commitment is broad, deep and persistent, with Thailand dedicated to expanding its engagement and becoming a centre for development theory and practice.

Its efforts have dovetailed nicely with growing scepticism in the developing world about the aid it has been receiving from Western nations. The countries have found that assistance, though generous on paper, is not always as effective as it should be. Donors have often failed to take into account local conditions and have tended to gear their commitments more towards their interests than those of the target economies. In response to these realities, the developing community started to formulate a new approach, moving from straightforward North-South flows to an architecture that promotes the sharing of knowledge, skills and ideas in an equal and mutually beneficial manner.    

Position to Lead

The world is now just catching up. Since the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 and the global financial crisis in 2008, developed countries have started to see the wisdom of the king's words and ideas and have begun to utilise some of the practices advocated in international cooperation. So-called Alternative Development is now accepted throughout the world and has become a central theme in relevant discussions. Thailand is often recognised as being at the vanguard. When it led the G77 in 2016, its promotion of the SEP and related concepts was met by receptive audiences seeking guidance about how to adjust models and reconfigure relationships to achieve more equitable and sustainable solutions.

Thailand is in a particularly good position to lead. It not only comes ready with a well-established and highly-respected philosophy, the SEP, but it also has a track record that suggests success in implementation. Its economic performance in modern times has been exemplary, with major indicators measuring the human condition rising nicely over time. The country has avoided extreme poverty and starvation, and its policies have allowed for a clear improvement in quality of life throughout society. Even the 1997-98 crisis strengthened the nation's reputation, as the economy turned out to be remarkably resilient despite the devastating crash.

Wide-ranging Programme

While Thailand's traditional strengths are in agriculture, the SEP covers the entire economy. It is certainly a significant source of wisdom for farming communities, as the king focused on improving output from the land thorough better use and on the long-term productivity of the soil. But the SEP has been applied in areas totally unrelated to agriculture. It has been utilised in finance, tourism, education, manufacturing and general corporate management.

Under the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the world came together to lift nations from poverty. Under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), starting from 2015, more emphasis was placed on the workings of society and on creating systems and structures that promote consistent and healthy growth over the long term. The emphasis moved from fixes to solutions. In some ways, the shift in thinking brought the international community closer to the Thai way of approaching development, with the economy and society being considered end to end with the aim of achieving adjustments that last over time and build on themselves. All the 17 SDGs are at least somewhat related to the SEP; the two work together nicely, with the latter helping in the achievement of the former.

Thailand emphasises that its programmes are not anti-capitalist and are not anti-globalist. The country is not seeking self-sufficiency. Rather, it is working to develop an economy that is strong and stable enough to operate effectively in the world economy, one that not only supports the people but also allows them to be effective participants in the international markets. Above all, the SEP is a balanced programme that charts a middle course. It does not call for radical solutions but for incremental but meaningful changes in structures and human relationships.

Continued Engagement

The country also notes that while it is a keen supporter of South-South arrangements, it has high regard for the work being done by the developed partners. It understands that the North has played an important role in the advancement of the rest of the world and that it will continue to do so. The country's recognition of the contributions made by all players, and its willingness to work with all parties on an open basis, has resulted in it achieving the status as a major hub for international cooperation. Countries like Germany utilise Thailand when seeking to form North-South-South partnerships, with Thailand acting as both a bridge and as a contributor adding value. 

Thailand's engagement with the world is ongoing and growing. The country continues to be active globally and is committed to sharing the SEP and working with partners to improve sustainability. Its efforts take the form of direct aid in support of key projects in health, education, infrastructure, environment, agriculture and tourism. It also comes in the form of training, scholarship programmes, study visits and roundtables, which are held annually to help in the sharing of ideas with representatives from developing countries.

Thailand remains committed to projects in the region, especially those involving CLMV neighbours. It continues to work closely with its partners across the border and is achieving productive cooperation with them. It also remains focused on a few specific countries outside the immediate region with which it has particularly strong ties, such as Bhutan. But it continues to broaden the geographical scope of its cooperation. Its efforts include a Model Village and Technology Transfer Centre in Timor-Leste and a demonstration project using the SEP for sustainable agriculture in Tonga.      

TICA welcomes suggestions from parties wishing to engage Thailand in cooperation, either in one of the existing programmes or under a new model. It operates as an open platform in the pursuit of sustainability and hopes that other countries will chose work with it in innovative ways to achieve global goals.

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Asia Thailand Economy

Paulius Kuncinas, Asia Managing Editor

Paulius Kuncinas
Asia Managing Editor
Follow Paulius on Twitter LinkedIn