Helping rural communities advance

Geoffrey Longfellow of the Thailand Sustainable Development Foundation has a few ideas for letting all Thais prosper

Geoffrey Longfellow, director of special projects for the Thailand Sustainable Development Foundation (TSDF), knows a thing or two about the mindset of the rural folks he works closely with to promote the philosophy of sustainability as taught by King Rama IX.

His coming from a small town in the state of Maryland, and then spending over a decade working in rural Thailand, has given him ample experience to understand that sustainable development can succinctly be defined as moderation, reasonableness and resilience.

TSDF's diverse projects include everything from a royal agricultural station to occupational promotion projects.

Longfellow, who has lived in Thailand for approximately four decades, started as a volunteer in 1977 for the US Peace Corps, which brought him to teach English in Southern Thailand. He has also spent enormous amount of time in the Northeast.

After working for a diversified range of sectors, including the National Economic and Social Development Board in Bangkok, he was invited to teach at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Political Sciences and International Relations in 1992. Three years later, he was offered the auspicious opportunity to work for a handful of royal projects under Her Majesty Queen Sirikit, informing foreigners about Her Majesty's work.

What impressed him most was how these projects were able to supplement the income of hundreds of thousands while simultaneously preserving indigenous culture and instilling pride in people for their communities, region and country.

Working for TSDF was a dream because of his desire to do something specific for sustainable development that would take him out in the country and abroad, giving these projects a higher profile through his personal observation of how these projects were tangibly benefiting the masses. The focus was on creating closer foreign ties using Thailand's sustainable-development initiatives.

He started his visits by travelling upcountry twice a month, gauging the objectives of sustainability development. Each village's projects came with their own set of obstacles, which were his job to identify. Doing this turned out to be an uphill task. While he found that there were different levels of development in each region, the obstacles were the same.

"Lack of fiscal responsibility, not able to manage one's personal finances was among the biggest problems I found," he remarked. "They get in very unnecessary debt. I don't mean debt to purchase fertiliser for their farms, but debt from buying personal things. People seem to have a ubiquitous inability to say no to their children.

"I met a grandmother who told me that she was under a lot of debt. She looked like a simple woman. When I asked why she was under debt, she said her granddaughter in university, who was studying in the next province, phoned her screaming, crying and yelling that she needed an iPhone. The question is how to get people out of that. There is also a lot of antisocial behaviour, a lot of gambling still all over Thailand that has become an issue."

Longfellow says he has observed a mixed bag of progress and regression taking place in rural areas. While income has increased, people don't use it properly for the benefit of their lives. He sees this as a major obstacle to establishing a middle class.

"A middle class has to responsible," he reiterated. "It is my observation that people who are under a lot of debt are too burdened mentally and emotionally to have much time for anything else. So this is a huge impediment to sustainability which I am trying to promote."

Luckily he has been getting a lot of help. Longfellow said the aforementioned issues have been getting discussed in the open, through social media in particular. There is also a great deal of enthusiasm and support in society for sustainability.

The next phase of his project is to engage the members of this new middle class or the millennials. "Most of these people have healthy disposable incomes, but rampant consumerism and discretionary debt preclude them from truly becoming middle class. A great challenge lies ahead for both me and them."

Longfellow's job has taken him to the US on several occasions. The reception there has been quite positive and engendered much interest in Thailand's royal projects.

"I have met with countless organisations that are quite taken with the Thai model of sustainable development, a notable exception being the academic community, which is uncertain if our efforts are intended to keep poor rural people in their place."

Longfellow has also gotten Thai-Americans involved, saying: "I have created an ongoing dialogue with the significant Thai community in the US. I had overlooked this relationship at the beginning of my project, but this has now progressed far beyond my expectations. As a result, the TSDF has hosted for two years a talented group of young Thai-Americans, who have come to Thailand to better understand SD [sustainable development].

"The participants in the Thai-American Youth Leadership program quickly identified obstacles in the path of SD. They largely come from Washington, Boston and, especially, Los Angeles. These people want to understand and contribute to the motherland."

This year Longfellow visited Chile, Argentina, Peru and Mexico in order to share the work of TSDF. In 2017, Longfellow will continue with his travels to promote TSDF's achievements across the globe. He will use King Rama IX's sustainable-development model as the showcase for Thai exhibits at the Asian Cultural Fair in Miami next March.

"People from universities, boards of trade, chambers of commerce and local government organisations received me warmly. Many of these people were aware that Thailand has enjoyed considerable success with sustainable development. I presented the downside to the picture and shared the obstacles, and the formidable tasks ahead. It was striking that many of our problems plague these countries as well. The Thai government has several projects of co-operation in Latin America, and the relationship prospers through our foundation."

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