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close this bookPromoting Sustainable Human Development in Cities of the South: A Southeast Asian Perspective (UNRISD, 2000, 56 p.)
close this folderIV. Focus on Southeast Asia
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThe Philippines
View the documentThailand
View the documentIndonesia


With little over a third of its population living in urban areas, Thailand is the least urbanized but at the same time the most industrialized of the three countries being examined here, possessing the highest per capita GNP.5 Urbanization, and indeed economic activity, is concentrated in and around Bangkok to an extreme degree. The Bangkok metropolitan region (BMR) contains almost half of the urban population and if the Eastern Seaboard is included (an almost continuously urbanized subregion) this brings the regional population up to 80 per cent of the total urban population of the country. Outside the BMR cities are modest in size - only a handful containing populations much in excess of 200,000. But urbanization is occurring with some rapidity and it is expected that by 2008 half the population will be living in urban areas.

5 Unless otherwise noted, information in this section is derived from Mitlin (1998) and the experience of the author.

Although the statistics for the three countries are not comparable, urban poverty is clearly less extensive in Thailand than in Indonesia or the Philippines. In the mid - 1990s there were just under 2,000 identified poor urban communities housing about 1.7 million people amounting to 8 per cent of the urban population. (Of course not all families living in low income settlements would be below the poverty line, but the numbers of families living in otherwise more affluent neighbourhoods could also be expected to subsist below the poverty line.) The distribution of poor urban households is fairly even across the urban areas, with half in Bangkok, another quarter in the outlying BMR and the rest distributed in towns and cities throughout the country. There are few urban areas of any significance without identifiable poor communities living in makeshift conditions.

The quality of life of Thai towns and cities, reflecting the better economic situation, is less obviously wanting than is the case with urban areas in either Indonesia or the Philippines. However, conditions are still far from ideal. While water supply is generally good (even some very rudimentary poor settlements have metered house - to - house water supply!), wastewater disposal is poorly organized almost everywhere. This results in the gross pollution of local waterways and unfilled land, along and upon which are located many of the low income settlements in very unsanitary conditions (Rattanatanya, 1997). Only 42 per cent of urban solid waste is officially collected, with dumping of significant amounts of industrial hazardous waste constituting an additional problem in some parts of the BMR in particular. Air pollution is also a serious problem in certain urban locations, especially Bangkok.

Although urban poverty is relatively contained, it is not insignificant, with an estimated 15 per cent of poor households squatting - meaning that they have no legal right to any urban services and that even education is provided at the discretion of the school. The environmental conditions of poor settlements were in the past very abject - houses usually being built in flood - prone areas and over paddy fields where wastewater and solid waste accumulated in a very insanitary fashion and where precarious boardwalks were the only means of access. A few areas remain in this condition although various programmes for upgrading of basic infrastructure and introducing health programmes have improved basic environmental and health conditions notably.

The impact of currency deregulation in July 1997 was more severe in Thailand than in the Philippines with an immediate impact on industry and consequently on employment. In fact this was preceded by a major real estate crisis that had already severely reduced employment in the construction sector. Open unemployment tripled between mid - 1997 and mid - 1998, and the number of people living below the poverty line increased from 16 to 28 per cent (Lee, 1999). Measures were soon taken at the national level to initiate programmes aimed at alleviating the hardship caused. This included establishing a National Social Development Committee to devise and oversee augmented social programmes (already a priority in the new constitution), and collaborating with the World Bank, which instituted a Social Investment Fund aimed at funnelling money directly into projects in poor settlements.

Concerning sustainable development, it might be expected that, with less pressure to alleviate poverty in Thailand, more energy would be spent on addressing problems of the future concerned with sustainable development. This has not, however, been the case. There is wide usage of the term "sustainable development" by government agencies, NGOs and the media - and it also featured in the eighth National Economic and Social Development Plan (NESDP), 1995 - 2001 - albeit not in the new constitution. However, little progress has been made towards any coherent idea of what this might mean in practice.

Government agencies concerned with the environment - the Office of Environmental Policy and Planning (OEPP) in particular - have sponsored various sectoral programmes on global environmental issues. These include global warming and biodiversity. They have not, however, been studied within any more comprehensive framework regarding sustainable development in the Thai context, or how to achieve it, nor has it involved local authorities or communities.

It is only very recently that a subcommittee of the National Environment Board, including experts and representatives of various government agencies and NGOs, was convened to oversee the generation of a national Agenda 21. The draft - entitled Policy and National Action Plan for Sustainable Development - was approved by the subcommittee in mid - 1999 with the intention of gaining cabinet approval so that it can form one of the inputs to the ninth NESDP.

The concept of sustainable development has made virtually no headway at the local level. As we shall see below, there have been some initiatives in developing Local Agenda 21 processes, but these have been entirely oriented towards improvement in local environmental management without reference to the distinction between sustainable solutions and those that are questionable from a sustainability perspective.

Moving now to the issue of decentralization and democratization, following the collapse of the military regime in 1992, there was a clear popular resolve to radically reform the Thai polity, to establish once and for all a thoroughgoing democratic regime at all levels that would not be subject to frequent reversals. The issue of decentralization was directly connected with this aspiration. There was much public debate and after several years of work on the part of the constitutional commission, a new constitution was enacted in October 1997. The new constitution has much to say about an augmented role for local government and also about the right of members of civil society to participate in government decision making.

Of course implementation of the constitution requires laws and regulations and, at the time of writing, relatively little had been done to give substance to the constitutional call for decentralization. The larger urban areas (thesaban) have had democratically elected councils since shortly after the establishment of the constitutional monarchy. Where previously the mayor was appointed by the council, a new law requires separate election of mayors. The smallest rural administrative units (tambons) have now gained similar arrangements - known as "local administrative organizations" - and the smaller urban places (sukaphiban) have all been "upgraded" to thesaban, including the introduction of "local administrative organizations".

However, the linchpin of local government in Thailand has always been the provinces (changwat) and so far these have not been subject to any major change. Perhaps it would be useful to add a word here about the background to the politics of decentralization in Thailand (Atkinson and Vorratnchaiphan, 1994). Local government in Thailand is organized under the Ministry of Interior (MoI), which was the first to be established in the process of modernizing the Thai state at the end of the last century. It was given far - reaching powers to establish a strong, centralized administration specifically to guard against incursion of European colonial powers leaning against all the frontiers of the country. At the time, provincial societies saw this as a process of internal colonization, but uprisings in the early years of this century were systematically crushed. Over the years, this relationship came to seem natural - it was the prerogative of the Ministry of Interior to run the provinces and of provincial societies to accept their disempowerment.

During the recent constitutional debates, many called for the election of provincial governors and the creation of autonomous units at this level. This was openly and bitterly fought by senior officials of the MoI. The main point is that provincial governors are, in terms of status, close to ministers and run provinces almost as personal fiefdoms. The goal of many ambitious MoI staff is some day to be appointed governor of a province. On the whole, the other ministries are happy with this arrangement because they administer their programmes through provincial offices that are co-ordinated by the governor, who also plays a role in determining their programmes.

Local programmes and projects are almost entirely planned and executed by central government agencies through the provinces. The budgets of thesaban, sukaphiban and tambons are derisory and although there has been some improvement since the late 1980s, when they were not only small but diminishing (R 1992), local budgets remain very restricted. Since the Municipal Act of 1954, municipalities have had many responsibilities that they are supposed to carry out, but without untied financial resources they are not in a position to determine their own priorities or to carry out activities that are not directly supported by national government agencies. The battle to achieve genuine decentralization in Thailand - that is progressing in both the Philippines and, as we shall see, Indonesia - is by no means lost, and the constitution, together with the eighth NESDP, lends some support to those who would pursue it. But it may be some time before the provincial nexus, and with it the centralization of government budgets, is broken.

It might be conjectured that it would require effective pressure from the local level to force the situation with regard to decentralization. Of course - as we have seen in the case of the Philippines - powers given by central government do not of themselves empower local stakeholders without their active involvement.

In fact at the local level there has been considerable development of mechanisms and activities promoting participatory initiatives in Thailand (Atkinson, 1996). On the one hand, the private sector has been invited to contribute in a structured manner to the development decision - making process at national and provincial level through Joint Public and Private Sector Consultative Committees (Laothamatas, 1992). This may be interpreted negatively as allowing business interests privileged access to development decisions involving public funds, which is denied to other civil society actors. It is notable that it was with direct United States and Japanese government "development assistance", in the spirit of liberalization, that this arrangement came into being.

On the other hand, NGOs have been somewhat slower to develop in Thailand than in the other two countries under review (Webster and Saeed, 1992). Nevertheless, there have been notable successes by development NGOs focusing on the organization of poor urban communities. Also there has been a spontaneous formation in many provincial cities of active "civic groups", comprised of middle class professionals, academics and business people to promote the improvement of the urban quality of life through pressure on municipalities and philanthropic work.

At the level of poor communities, there has also been considerable activity. This has involved not only spontaneous organization and the assistance of local NGOs, but also pressure at the central level that has precipitated experiments by the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority and the institution of a national agency, the Urban Community Development Office (UCDO), for the support of community organization and self - activity. Starting in Bangkok already in 1978, poor communities were encouraged to form community committees as vehicles for both self - help and negotiating local government improvement programmes. This became national policy in 1988 and by the late 1990s almost 90 per cent of poor Bangkok communities possessed these committees - whereas in the provinces less than a quarter had yet formed any.

Many community committees have gained support from the UCDO or other sources - including international and bilateral assistance organizations - to make improvements in the local environment, create small businesses, etc. Many municipalities now possess social development offices that work with community committees - which in some cases have formed networks - to determine municipal programmes in poor areas. However, not all municipalities are responsive to working with community committees and where communities do not organize - as is the case in many provincial towns - then they are likely to lose out on the provision of services. Also, in cases without land rights the institutional environment can be very hostile.

Furthermore, there is no monitoring of the representativeness of community committees and of whether they are serving the interests of the whole community or just part of it. As yet the emphasis is entirely on making small gains within the community with little interest in influencing the wider political process and the distribution of resources at the level of the district or the municipality. Certainly there is no consideration of the long term of "sustainable development".

One further approach to participatory planning has been taken within the municipalities. This is a process initiated by a GTZ - funded project in the early 1990s (Atkinson and Vorratnchaiphan, 1996). This was initially concerned with improving environmental management in municipalities, eventually becoming an initiative to develop a comprehensive participatory municipal planning system. The initial project helped to establish multi - stakeholder committees and trained them in problem identification, prioritization, planning and implementation.

In November 1995, a year after the end of the project, the MoI issued a directive requiring all municipalities to form such committees and to adopt the planning process as a basis for municipal budget planning. While some initiatives were taken by other donors and by the Municipal League of Thailand - the latter using the concept of Local Agenda 21, albeit with very little attention paid to sustainable development - this was entirely inadequate. By the late 1990s few municipalities had done any more than assemble a planning committee and even these tended to bypass it in compiling the municipal budget.

As is the case in the Philippines, this of course relates back in part to the lack of interest in opening up the political decision - making process in a situation where traditional power brokers are able to wield power through patronage - with poor communities often their most loyal supporters. Some local NGOs have tried to encourage the municipalities towards greater participation, but on the whole there has been considerable hostility between municipalities and local NGOs - including civic groups that comprise precisely elements of the new middle class that feel the need for substantial municipal reform.

The bottom line, however, is the general weakness of municipalities. Even where these accept a more participatory approach to budget planning, the limited resources mean that plans cover relatively little of what gets done locally. The main decisions are still taken by national government agencies and private sector actors without any access to these decisions for civil society interests. There has been talk at the national level - around a notion termed "Area Functioning Participatory Approach" (AFP) - to introduce more participatory methods of planning at all non - central levels of government in line with the general requirements of the new constitution. But at the time of writing this had not borne any tangible fruit.