Foreign donors and the collapse of Thai democracy

This short post looks at foreign aid to Thai NGOs just before the coup, and speculates about how those programmes might continue or close down now.

There is relatively little foreign funding in the Thai NGO sector, because of Thailand’s reclassification as a middle-income country (in 2011). The major players are the UNDP, other UN agencies and the World Bank. The UN organizations generally try to find a compromise position between the Thai government and the US policy agenda.

At the community level, foreign donors have tried to improve marketing and employment skills of disadvantaged and marginalised groups. not surprisingly, their client NGOs have become polarized in recent years. Most have seen their role as countering redshirt ‘propaganda’ and identifying ‘moderate’ redshirt so as to ‘overcome’ polarization through incorporation of the moderate red shirts into the system though grants, scholarships and NGO jobs. After the coup, some of these soft yellow NGOs will suspend their activities. but others will put their knowledge at the service of the coup leaders. It is only a small step from identifying a moderate so that s/he can be integrated to identifying a radical so that he can be neutralized.

A few progressive Thai NGOs have used foreign funding intelligently to build up peasant organizations. The more successful they were, the more likely it is that they will now be forced to suspend their operations. Hopefully they have made plans, individually and collectively, to continue to put their knowledge and skills at the service of the poor.

The recent decline in foreign funding because of Thailand’s relative wealth has led to the downsizing or closure of many NGOs. These staff have gone into academia, the civil service or the corporate sector. But there will be no shortage of candidates if the coup leaders want to set up new and loyal intermediary NGOs. That isn’t something Thai generals have tried to do in the past, but this coup is bigger than the earlier ones, and the stakes are higher.

A few European states provide grants or other support to Thai NGOs.* These donors have for several years been trying to reorient NGOs away from service delivery, which the state or market can provide, towards networked lobbying and research to promote what they call good governance. That includes transparency, accountability, parliamentary oversight over the state and public oversight over the state budget and delivery of services. These programmes were intended to create a more inclusive Thai political economy, with some kind of social compact that would give the poor and the middle class a stake in the system, in exchange for their support for industrialization and liberalization.

On the one hand, these programmes were too little and too late; the generals again want to beat down the poor and then start again with a more conservative modernization project. So the European donors have nowhere to go with their programmes. Some will probably try to ‘do something constructive’ on non controversial issues like vocational training and natural resource management, others will probably shift their funds to Myanmar or Cambodia.

Any new cuts in European aid to Thailand might be presented as a statement of protest against the coup. But they actually reflect the almost total failure of the foreign donor’s dreams of a modern and inclusive Thailand.

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One comment

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