267th Meeting - Tuesday, October 11th 2005
"Politics and professionalism in community development:
intervention in the highlands of northern
A talk and LCD presentation by Dr. Katharine McKinnon
Present: Dirk Heidersbach, Daniela Koslik,
Cardinal, Thomas Ohlson, Paul Barber-Riley, Jeanette Pembroke, Adrian
William and Warin Holder, Simone Buys, Reinhard Hohler, Klaus
Askey, Matthew Oddie, Roxanne Oddie, Laura Robbins, Ashley Hapak,
Kaschko, Annelisa Tornberg, Deborah Eraker, Sunday Htoo, Sharreh,
Evrard, John Butt, Louis Gabaude, Martha Butt, Annelie Hendriks, Manus
Brinkman, Carl Samuals, Keiko Samauls, Peter Hoare, Richard
Kramer, Oliver Hargreave, Ron Renard, John Cadet, Jeff Petry, Bodil
audience of 38.
About Dr. McKinnon
Katharine was recently
her PhD in Human Geography at the
Here is the full text of Katharine’s talk
It has been suggested
practice of international development assistance is so deeply
the only moral choice is to abandon the work altogether. The practice
community development in the
This talk explores the history of development in the hills and will – very briefly – suggest some approaches through which development practitioners can, and do, take on board recent critiques of development while continuing to work for the betterment of highland lives and livelihoods.
My talk today is based
research undertaken for my PhD, in human geography at the
My interest is not
– also part of my family history. My father was one of the first farang
researchers to be employed at the Tribal Research Centre, and my family
in Chiang Mai on and off during 70s and 80s. I grew up around the
work I ended up examining in my dissertation, and in a household where
around the dinner table was often focused on the political situation in
When I returned to Chiang Mai in 1998, after an absence of 12 years, to volunteer for an Akha NGO, I had the chance to see for myself that after three decades of development intervention – interventions that were supposed to be making life better for highland communities – there were still a lot of highlanders in a fairly precarious position: no citizenship rights, no land title even where they had been settled for hundreds of years (such as Karen communities in Doi Inthanon), subject to constant racism, many struggling to make a living, and many turning to opium and heroin, and even in the late 90s to ya ba (metamphetamine), as a quick and cheap way to forget their worries. There seemed to be a serious deficit of happiness in the highland communities I got to know and I started to get really curious: after so many decades of so many development programs and researchers, so many NGOs and missionaries all doing their best in their different ways to ‘improve’ life in mountain villages – how could so many people be in a situation of such utter despair and hopelessness that they rely on narcotics for some sense of happiness? What was happening here? Who were all these people trying to do good? And why was it not working? ...
These questions were
point for the research. When I came back to
I would like to make a note here that I am using “development professionals” as a broad term – meant to denote researchers, extension officers, NGO staff, foreigners, Thai and highlanders, who are involved in planning, doing and researching development in the highlands in a professional capacity.
I am not the only one who’s been questioning development processes of course – and my research was also informed by a body of critical debate in development studies, geography and anthropology.
So just to give you a brief idea of some of the critiques that my work responds to: my work is situated in an emerging literature on post-development. The use of ‘post’ indicates a certain rejection of key aspects of mainstream development thinking. At the same time the continued use of ‘development’ indicates that although we are critical of the idea of development, we still think it is something that has merit.
Since the 1950s development has been represented as this altruistic endeavour, of wealthy nations helping poor nations, or developed nations lending a hand to underdeveloped nations so that they could ‘catch up’ to the standards of living enjoyed in the West. A classic example of this kind of rhetoric is a famous quote by President Truman in his inaugural speech in 1949:
We must embark [President Truman said] on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas.
The old imperialism – exploitation for foreign profit – has no place in our plans. What we envisage is a program of development based on the concepts of democratic fair dealing (Esteva 1992: 6, parenthesis in the original).
argue that in fact development has been simply a new kind of
exploitation for foreign profit has played a huge part – although
has not always been financial. These critics argue that international
as an instrument of power and control; that understanding the world as
into ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ grants
economic, cultural, moral,
political and intellectual superiority to the First World, and
Third World only in terms of the ways in which it is deficient and
act of imagining the world in this way creates the rationale for the
industry to exist; the rationale that charges largely
critics, development is simply a conduit for such First World agencies
assert their dominance over the
How are these debates
to highland development programs in northern
For at least four
highland communities in the mountainous northern borderlands of
All of this activity was focused on highland communities. These communities were constructed as a problematic population that needed to be understood at the same time as they were in need of development assistance.
In 1997, the highland
that was the focus of all this attention was estimated to be
Tribe Welfare Division of the Department of Public Welfare, cited by
and Nipatvej 2001) out of a total population in
Since the mid-1960s, the highland population has been defined as problematic for a range of reasons: opium, national security during the Cold War, illegal immigration, destruction of forests, erosion, etc. Such representations will be familiar to anyone who reads the Bangkok Post or keeps up with the current debate around community forestry or hill tribe citizenship. The idea of a problematic hill tribe population brought significant resources into Chiang Mai, through development programs, research projects etc. But the story of the ‘hill tribe problem’ is not so simple and it’s important to understand how the ‘problem’ emerged in order to understand what has been happening in the hills over these past decades.
First, I’d like
to take you back
to well before the era of development, to pre-colonial Lanna. Histories
In the pre-colonial
were much less clearly delineated, and the state structures followed a
very different from a contemporary vision of the nation in which a
people and a particular territory is something defined by birth. Prior to the colonial period, the state
system that predominated in
In between these governed and protected spaces lay forests and mountains which were subject to more local modes of rule within individual villages and communities. These were ostensibly non-state spaces (Scott 2000) that were a refuge for bandits and refugees and the domain of autonomous self-governing societies of highlanders.
Within this system there were state subjects who were tied into a system of allegiance with the ruling powers. Alongside, there were non-state subjects who had, at best, only fleeting loyalties to valley kingdoms. People were able to move between state spaces and non-state spaces, from highland to lowland, from forest to city, and vice versa.
a very different system to what was to come with the colonial
era. Following British and French incursions into
a sudden, when the British and French arrived, it was no longer
adequate to have a fuzzy non-state buffer between one kingdom and
neighbours – the land had to be mapped and clear lines drawn that
exactly what was and was not Thai territory. Through a long process of
negotiation between the Siamese, British and French authorities, the
And so it went until
the rise of
the Cold War –
central tool through which the international community, and
concerns with the region’s vulnerability to communist takeover
concerns about the prospect of communist forces forging alliances with
highlanders. Highlanders were recognised
for their intimate knowledge of the borderlands and exceptional
channels between scattered mountain settlements across state borders.
lecturer in Social Anthropology at
given adequate support and encouragement from outside, the hill tribes in a particular country may easily engage themselves in subversive activities to further their own ends or to put up resistance to the national authority which seeks to impose some control contrary to their interests (Saihoo 1963: 16-17).
The concerns that the
could be a conduit for communist aggression against the Thai government
certainly seemed justified in
of the underlying causes the Thai government responded as if
it was a communist inspired uprising. Hmong and
same time that the issue of national security came to prominence
as a ‘problem’ in the highlands, the issue of opium
production also began to be
discussed as part of a discourse of the ‘hill tribe
problem.’ Opium has been grown in
the region for
centuries for its medicinal qualities. Following the 1839-1842
Opium Wars between
A final component to
become a three pronged ‘hill tribe problem’ hinged on the
rotational farming methods were causing environmental damage and
Rotational, or swidden farming systems are commonly used in upland
irrigation systems cannot be built due to unreliable water supply or
particularly difficult terrain. Fields cleared in the forest and
rice and vegetables. When yields start to decrease the fields are
fallow or are abandoned altogether, leaving the forest to entirely
research shows that this system is one of the most ecologically sound
highland environment (up to a maximum population density that will
to be left fallow for 10-12 years) as it maintains bio-diversity,
forest cover, and sustains soil fertility without the use of
However, it was assumed very early on that swidden agriculture was
harmful, as well as being a wasteful use of resources. This was an idea
likely introduced to
The Thai Royal Forestry Department was established in 1876 under the leadership of Mr. Slade, an Englishman trained in German forestry. The German forestry model is based on carefully managed single species plantation forests, clearly separated from agricultural endeavours whose proper place was in the lowland valleys. The existence of agricultural lands scattered through the forests was an affront to the German forestry system of clearly delineated and carefully managed forest land, as distinct from settled agricultural land. The regular clearing of forest by swidden farmers was also widely considered to be an extremely wasteful use of resources (Saihoo 1963 Pendleton 1945; and Blofield 1955).
It was not long before this ‘wasteful’ method of agriculture was to be considered a serious problem. Despite the lack of “accurate data” the Department of Public Welfare estimated in 1964 that hill tribe activity had destroyed 67% of forest in Chiang Mai and Lamphun provinces. By 1960, when the first highland Land Settlement Projects were established, so-called “slash-and-burn” agriculture had been made illegal (Manndorff 1967: 533).
Although there was not yet any “complete data or results of specific studies” (Saihoo 1963: 15), by 1963 the three interrelated issues of swidden, national security, and opium were well entrenched as a ‘hill tribe problem’ that needed to be urgently addressed. Saihoo characterised these three issues (quoted verbatim) as follows:
is by now generally agreed among persons interested in
1. Their shifting cultivation which involves the destruction of extensive areas of the forests on the mountains and moving the villages in search of new fields with possible consequences of soil erosion and damage to watersheds which would affect the supply of water for the lowland Thai cultivators.
2. Their little recognition of international boundaries and national authority and control with possible consequences of border insecurity, especially in the present world political situations, for the country in which they reside.
3. The production of raw opium of some tribes which supplies the country and the world with an illegal and harmful product in various forms (Saihoo 1963: 15).
In the absence of hard data, trust was placed in the “reliable observations of those who are in well-qualified positions” (Saihoo 1963: 15). On this tenuous basis the three-point ‘hill tribe problem’ would form the cornerstone of development and research policy from the 1960s to 2000.
When development began to get underway in the highlands it was driven by these three interrelated concerns. For example, the objectives of the Hill Tribe Development and Welfare Program as stated in 1964 were:
1. To promote and develop the socio-economic standard of the hill tribes by ways of promoting their occupation, education and health as well as helping develop their own communities.
2. To prevent forest and watershed destruction by way of introducing stabilized farming.
3. To abolish opium production by way of introducing other occupations to replace opium raising.
4. To guarantee the public safety in border provinces by way of promoting mutual understanding and loyalty (Department of Public Welfare 1964).
The three core
which aid was required, happened, conveniently, to coincide with
geo-political concerns of the day. The Thai Ministry for the Interior
take interest in the highlands around the height of the Cold War and in
The issue of opium eradication was to become a core focus of many of the interventions in the highlands. It was a focus which would allow projects to simultaneously address issues of national security, the threat of communism and deforestation.
involvement in the
drug eradication process in
The process of
development assistance was always more than simply identifying an
way to deal with real problems. Sole charge of the opium eradication
could also mean unique access on the ground for the
Unlike the accusation
post-development authors that development is about the First World
it’s power over the
Although it was underpinned by regional geopolitical concerns of the Cold War, the ‘hill tribe problem’ articulated broader international concerns. The ‘problem’ itself called for a remedy which could be provided by international development donors.
The very process of defining a ‘hill tribe problem’ identified both a problem which development projects could be established to address, and defined a new ‘hill tribe’ subject which could become the focus of a range of interventions. The ‘hill tribes’ became defined by the ‘problems’ they represented. Official definitions of ‘hill tribes’ are exemplified by this following extract from a Department of Public Welfare (DPW) brief on the Hill Tribe Development and Welfare Programme, 1964. It is an example that has not dated at all:
is estimated that there are between 200,000 -- 300,000 hill peoples
interspersedly [sic] in the densely forested hill ranges of
In this picture the ‘hill tribes’ are identified by their primitiveness, their illiteracy, ill health and economic deprivation, and by their destructive agricultural practices, for which they must “always keep on moving.” This representation of dirty and problematic ‘hill tribes’ attributed a single identity to diverse and widespread communities on the basis of a shared ‘problem’ they presented to the Thai state.
The act of problematisation was an important step in the process of establishing state rule in the highlands. By identifying a problem that needed to be fixed, the Thai state created a rationale for getting more involved in the highlands, and a reason for exercising greater control over the border regions. Rendering the hill tribes ‘problematic’ made it possible to subject them to the tools of government: registration, policing, survey and ultimately development. These measures would succeed in transforming the highlands from ungoverned to governed spaces, bringing them into Thai-land.
In 1955, the Border Patrol Police was the first agency charged with working in the mountains. Their work involved patrolling remote areas; forging contacts; establishing schools; and sometimes, intimidating the population. The establishment of the BPP was the first step towards bringing the northern borderlands under state control, and thus actualising the vision of a nation-state as a contiguous territory, uniformly part of Thai-land, and uniformly under the governing gaze of the state. It involved an odd blend of policing, establishing links between state institutions and highland villages, and introducing Thai schools and health services.
As the beginnings of a process of bringing highlanders into the embrace of the state, BPP interventions began to establish highlanders as inside the state. As insiders, highlanders could be distinguished from and used as a defence against a new threatening outside – the communist insurgent. Bringing villagers under the ‘care’ and ‘protection’ of the Thai kingdom was a step towards ensuring their loyalty to the Kingdom, and lessening the likelihood that they might be recruited by communist insurgents.
The responsibilities first taken on by the BPP were soon taken up by the Hill Tribe Development and Welfare Program, which introduced resettlement projects that sought to bring highlanders within the circle of government surveillance and control:
The primary purpose was to settle hill tribes in locations suited for them, by means of establishing ‘settlement areas’ (Nikhom) on the ridges and high plateaus which are the most favoured sites of the hill peoples, and by encouraging the tribes to migrate to the settlement areas (Manndorff 1967: 531-532).
In this way it was hoped the projects could address the most urgent concerns of government authorities with ‘the hill tribe problem’: dangerous and destructive agricultural practices of slash and burn, opium cultivation, and the national security risk that was posed by an un-governed and mobile population.
experienced some “setbacks” during the initial period
operation, in part because “the Thai were not at all experienced
agriculture. In the 900 years of their history in
Mobile Development Teams were established in the late 1960s. The idea behind the mobile teams was that,
since it would be unrealistic to expect that those tribesmen scattered over the hills would migrate into the sphere of the settlements (or even visit and study their demonstration plots), the hill tribes should be approached in their own villages... in their own world, in their own physical and social environment (Manndorff 1967: 537).
The teams were made up of Public Welfare Department recruits, all lowland Thais who had been employed straight out of tertiary education. The three member teams consisted of one leader, who had usually completed an undergraduate degree in social science; an agricultural extension worker who had studied at an agriculture college; and a sanitary worker with at least three years of high school and hospital training (Chupinit, pers. com. 2001).
To these young team
mountains was indeed another world. Ajarn Chupinit Kesmanee, a
team leader and now a lecturer at
The BPP and the Mobile
Development Teams were only the first step in what would become a much
extensive process involving internationally funded multi-lateral
programs and teams of international researchers. A discourse of a
problem’ created a space of development in the highlands in which
were reconfigured as problematic ‘hill tribe’ subjects and
to which development
‘experts’ could be called in for remedial action. Over the
next two decades the
United Nations, and the governments of the
The Tribal Research
was also established in 1964. The TRC received foreign support in the
anthropological advisors from
The social scientists at the Tribal Research Centre were to provide research results which would help to shape government policy and provide the knowledge which would help to resolve the problems of the highlands.
Foreign expertise was also called in to help address the ‘hill tribe problem’ through community development projects on the ground. The first international development project got underway in 1972. This project, the Joint Thai-United Nations Programme for Drug Abuse Control, was the first of many multi-lateral opium crop replacement programs.
While opium crop replacement was often the central focus of these projects, the process of finding alternative cash crops was expected to simultaneously address issues of national security and deforestation through the increased contact between highland communities and state officials, and the introduction of permanent cropping systems which would entail permanent settlement.
There was broad consensus across the DPW, UNDCP, and international partners in multi-lateral highland development programs that these ‘hill tribe problems’ could be addressed by improving farming methods and replacing opium with alternative cash crops. ‘Improvement’ meant moving to permanent fields of paddy rice, fruit orchards or cabbages, simultaneously preventing the destruction of more forests due to practices of clearing the fields in rotational farming methods, reducing erosion by moving to more intensive cropping on less steep land, and eliminating opium production in the move to ‘harmless’ crops such as coffee, kidney beans and cabbages. These cash crops did not fit in with the rotations of the swidden agricultural system, and thus, it was expected that the process of taking up such permanent crops would mean that highland settlements would also become permanent, and people would cease to regularly migrate to new village sites and new fields in the mountains (Geddes 1967; Manndorff 1965, 1967; Wanat 1989). As well as ensuring that no more virgin forest was cleared for fields, permanent settlements would be much easier for state institutions to access, and thus to regulate and administer.
But, despite the fact that many of the multi-lateral projects (like the TGHDP) had as part of their brief to facilitate the “integration of highland populations into the mainstream of the Thai nation” (Dirksen 1993: 4), none of them succeeded in obtaining the citizenship papers or land title that would signal formal recognition of the legitimacy of highlanders as part of Thailand. The only project that came close was the Mae Chaem Integrated Watershed Development Project run by USAID. The USAID project introduced coffee as an opium replacement crop. In order to give villagers the confidence to invest in the new crop, USAID had negotiated with the Thai authorities to have land certificates issued. When RFD officials objected, the project went so far as to withhold funding for a year until the Thai Cabinet passed special legislation to exempt the area from Royal Forestry Department regulations. Over 4,000 permits were issued, only to be revoked after the project ended and the village fields had long been converted to coffee production (Kampe, pers. com. 2001)
This was as close as any project got to obtaining for highlanders the rights accorded to the Thais of Thai-land. While development projects were helping to make the highlands governable, they did not (and could not) make highlanders national subjects.
Overall, after years of development programs where are we now? The 3-fold hill tribe problem is slightly different, but the same scapegoating is happening. This is evidenced for example, in hill tribes being blamed for recent flooding in Chiang Mai, for polluting waterways, for AIDs, and in the fact that highlanders are still seen as illegal immigrants. The situation has changed somewhat, especially through the emergence of many local NGOs focused on advocacy work, who are succeeding in lobbying at the national political level for highland rights, especially highlanders rights to citizenship and land title.
A rough view of what development programs have achieved over the decades reveals mixed results. The opium crop has been largely eradicated – and although this was more due to action taken to burn opium fields, at least the development programs had been working to ensure that growers had alternative cash crops to fall back on. All highland villages are now permanent settlements, and have been incorporated in a national state administration and the national Thai education system (at the primary school level). At the same time, however, the interventions of development programs haven’t necessarily meant that highlanders are able to enjoy more stable livelihoods, and despite the emphasis that was placed on the aim to foster national loyalty, key components of this – such as issuing citizenship papers or land title – have been missing. Furthermore, some observers argue that the process of development has led to a decline of traditional cultural practices and point to escalating rates of drug addiction in highland communities as a clear sign that life is not better than it used to be, but worse.
So far this brief review of highland development seems to support the contention that I began with: that development is an instrument of power and control; that it is about obtaining power over populations and territory, rather than being a project of social justice. But this isn’t quite a fair picture – not once we start to look at what development professionals in this community, in Chiang Mai, have been striving towards for all these years.
The professionals I worked most closely with during my research maintain a strong ethic of working for the people, and see their role as facilitating a process through which highlanders can make a better life for themselves. And even the most cynical, and those who present the least optimistic view of what development has managed to achieve, continue to see their role in that way and continue to strive towards some sense of social justice.
hard over the years, often working against the prevailing climate
and in the organisation they have been part of. Through persistence and
development professionals have made significant contributions in
This list of achievements is perhaps not what most professionals hoped to achieve through their work. But it is a testament to the positive impacts professionals can have –a far cry from the post-development critics assertion that it would be best to just not do development work for fear of the harm that it can bring.
Development processes in the highlands, like development processes everywhere, are always political: the problems to be solved are defined by actors working on a particular political scene; any development effort has to contend with the way the problem was imagined, as well as the contemporary political context at local, national and international levels. If development professionals are going to continue to try and head out into the work and do something to help people – then what they can do, and what they are doing, is to work with a strong awareness of what they are really hoping to achieve – that is a vision of a fairer, more egalitarian world, where disenfranchised people like the highlanders get a good shot at a happy, secure life. Professionals also have to try and achieve this vision with a full awareness that development is a game of politics, embedded in specific political situations and bureaucratic setting. Development professionals must themselves be political creatures, working to formulate strategies based in an alert engagement with the politics of development.
After an engaging question and answer session, the meeting adjourned to the Alliance Cafeteria where members of the audience engaged Katharine in less formal conversation while imbibing copious quantities of alcoholic beverages and snacks.
 This figure is for the groups classified by the Ministry
Interior as ‘hill tribes’: Karen, Hmong,
 It is important to recognise that a significant proportion of those living in highland areas, if not the majority, are in fact ‘lowland’ Thais (see Hinton 1969; McKinnon and Wanat 1983).
 This is a widely accepted characteristic of Thai modernity, see for example Osborne (2002), Tarling (1998), Wyatt (1984).
 Thongchai (1994) explores the shifting territoriality of the Thai state, and more recently (2000a, 2000b) has considered shifting concepts of ethnicity in Thai statehood.
 In fact, the
 Sturgeon (1997) discusses the ways in which state exclusions of ‘hill tribes’ are articulated through policies of environmental management, and have subsequently shaped the environmental management practices of highlanders.
 On swidden farming in the north see Grandstaff (1980) Keen (1972) Kunstadter et al. (1978) McKinnon (1989).
 The dominance of the three pronged ‘hill tribe’ problem is widely recognised. For specific discussion see Kammerer (1989), Kampe (1992).