Central role in development for Thai NGOs?

Juree Vichit-Vadakan

As in many countries, development NGOs in Thailand are regarded with some suspicion by many people. Yet their experiences and values make them ideally suited to take a lead in social development. Current government downsizing and willingness to outsource services is creating a context in which this could happen. Can Thai NGOs avail themselves of these opportunities? One challenge they will need to come to grips with if they are to do so is that of financial sustainability.

Development NGOs are by no means the only civil society organizations (CSOs) in Thailand. Other categories include elite-based CSOs – older ones like the Thai Red Cross, the Foundation for the Blind and other health CSOs, and some newer ones – and charitable associations that focus primarily on social welfare activities.

The total number of CSOs and CBOs (community-based organizations) in Thailand is anyone’s guess. It has been estimated that there are at least 20,000. Many CSOs have a very short life span, fading away as quickly as they surface.

Intermediary organizations that work as civil society resource organizations to support the sector are few and far between. There are some NGO coordinating networks and consortia. Most intermediary organizations also implement activities and work in the field. The Centre for Philanthropy and Civil Society at the National Institute of Development Administration was probably the first formal institution with the specific purpose of strengthening the third sector.

Emergence of CBOs

CBOs are a relatively recent phenomenon in Thailand. Most have sprung up almost overnight in the past decade or so. In reality, some are largely the fruit of the development activities of NGOs and state agencies that have worked at grassroots level to organize local groups and to mobilize them to carry out certain activities.

Given that state predominance in development activities has thwarted local autonomy and participation over the past hundred years or so, the emergence of CBOs is a good sign. Irrespective of their maturity and preparedness to embark on sustainable activities, it is a positive development that people at community level are beginning to overcome barriers and to take initiatives to come together to improve their lives.

Some notable successes are savings groups in the south and east of Thailand. Village savings groups have mobilized villagers to save regularly. The groups use their savings as credit for members to borrow, and interest on loans is given back to members as interest on their savings or as welfare payments. Internal control and sanctions make loan default virtually non-existent. Low transaction costs enable the village credit system to thrive, unlike banks and financial institutions that face both high overhead costs and loan defaults. Inherent in the success of these savings groups is their small size, which makes them manageable at the local level by villagers who are not professionals.

Other CBOs engaging in community business meet with mixed results.

The funding challenge

Funding is one important issue that most NGOs and CBOs face, particularly in the past few years. After the Student Revolution in 1973, and particularly after the student activists from the 1970s were reincorporated into Thai society, the NGO movement took off with strong support from foreign donors. The availability of foreign funds in the early years may have inadvertently prevented Thai NGOs from seeking funding locally. It was only when Thailand was declared by foreign donors to be ‘well on its way’, ‘comfortable’, ‘high growth’, etc, that Thai NGOs awoke to the harsh reality of withdrawal of donor support. As a result, some NGOs embarked on mobilizing local resources, with mixed results; others attempted to develop sources of earned income, while others downsized or shut up shop altogether.

The public perception of NGOs is a problem here. Many Thais have great misgivings about NGOs, seeing them as agents of foreigners aiming to undermine Thai society and the Thai way of life. Fingers are quick to point at NGOs that engage in social movements and social advocacy, though it is often difficult to categorize NGOs as either strictly advocacy organizations or service deliverers.

As long as NGOs are perceived as ‘marginal’, ‘troublemakers’ and ‘foreign agents’, it will be difficult for them to raise funds from the public. Thai people in fact give quite generously to philanthropic and social causes, but the lion’s share goes to charitable organizations and elite-based CSOs and not to development NGOs.

How well have NGOs communicated their vision, activities and achievements to the public? Some have done quite well. Many have been too internally focused. Most have not yet addressed or created a local constituency. NGOs working with children appear to have less problem in raising funds simply because the plight of children is easily understood and empathized with.

The success of some CBOs notwithstanding, most are struggling for sustainability. Many were helped initially with ‘seed money’ from external sources, including government agencies. External interventions from NGOs, development workers and others help contribute to CBOs’ success. There are currently a number of PhD dissertations being carried out on CBOs, and these should shed more light on this very under-studied topic.

Human resources issues

Human resources is another issue that CSOs need to address. Although there is some stability and continuity at the leadership level, the sector faces a problem of sustaining capable younger staff members. Younger recruits often move on to other jobs, preferring more mainstream jobs with more clearly defined career paths, so the sector finds itself constantly needing to train new staff members. The still prevailing view that non-profits should be staffed with volunteers, with paid staff kept to a minimum, also contributes to the less than ideal state of pay and career advancement in the sector.

A widespread lack of management and financial skills means that CSOs are often not as effective as they could be, particularly the smaller ones. Some CSOs are beginning to address this problem. One partial solution to this skill gap could be to recruit volunteers from the business sector.

This is an area in which companies could make a real contribution to social development. Just as Thai corporations were beginning to address issues of corporate social responsibility, the economic crisis of 1997 hit. As expected, companies retreated to address core business and survival issues. Their readiness to engage in big social development projects reduced significantly. Although the corporate sector still contributes to social causes, it is unlikely that it will be a very strong and active partner in the foreseeable future.

Government and CSOs

Although partnership between government and non-profits CSOs is much talked of, in reality nothing much has happened yet. Government may outsource activities to some service delivery CSOs or give funding support to others. However, the current government’s campaign promises on pro-poor programmes, and the speed with which it is trying to implement them after coming into office, do bode well for CSOs. Some CSO leaders have come out in open support of the government, and of the Prime Minister in particular. To many CSOs, the prospect of becoming ‘mainstream’ and of having a real role in policy-making is a welcome one.

The current administrative reforms spell out clearly the intention to downsize state agencies and to outsource activities to CSOs if possible. The administrative decentralization process already under way also points to the need for local administrations to work with citizens’ groups. The legal frameworks and political processes are creating a more open environment in which CSOs could assert themselves.

Whether or not CSOs will be able to seize these opportunities is still uncertain. Can they achieve the right balance in working with other sectors? Can they make the necessary compromises in partnering with others? Will government agencies and officials be able to adjust to a new role as partners with CSOs? Shifts in mindset, values and behaviour are needed on both sides.

Prospects for development NGOs

Development NGOs will continue to be a strong force in the development landscape of Thai society. More will be expected of them as the state retrenches. Given their understanding of problems on the ground, strong service orientation and commitment to reduce poverty and injustice, they could take on the role of leaders and trainers for social development actors in other sectors. If they can communicate their experiences and values clearly and powerfully, they could have a very positive impact on Thai society.

If they are to fulfil this role, there are many challenges they must meet. One is achieving financial sustainability. Developing business activities to help support their development activities, seeking government funding, and support from foreign funders are all options. Local fundraising remains a source to be tapped. A healthy mix of funding from different sources will ultimately serve development NGOs well into the future. Over-reliance on state financial support could be as problematic as over-reliance on foreign funding.

Dr Juree Vichit-Vadakan is Chairperson, Centre for Philanthropy and Civil Society, National Institute of Development Administration, Bangkok, Thailand. She can be contacted by email at vicharat@loxinfo.co.th

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