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[Diplomatic Circuit] A Philosophy that Empowers from Within

Deputy Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs of Thailand Dusit Manapan (Embassy of Thailand in Seoul)
Deputy Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs of Thailand Dusit Manapan (Embassy of Thailand in Seoul)

Thailand is a dedicated advocate for global sustainable development. The kingdom has been promoting its homegrown Sufficiency Economy Philosophy as an alternative approach to achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. First introduced by King Bhumibol Adulyadej after the Asian financial crisis in 1997, the SEP has become Thailand’s development concept that is universally applicable.

The philosophy is a culmination of the king’s reflections from decades of extensive tours and conversations with villagers around the country. Even the grounds of Chitralada Villa, his royal palace, were used for experimenting in agricultural projects that could be extended to other areas. This royal legacy remains the core of Thailand’s national development efforts to this day.

The SEP provides us with a foundation, and acts as a compass toward sustainability, based on three interrelated principles and two pillars. The first principle is moderation, which means producing and consuming within one’s capacity, and avoiding overindulgence. The second is reasonableness, or the use of our mental faculties to assess the causes and consequences of actions on our well-being, our household and our community. Prudence is the third principle, which refers to risk management so as to be prepared for impacts from any disruptions. Additionally, the two critical pillars needed to implement SEP principles successfully are knowledge, ethics and virtues. The former enables us to effectively plan and execute developmental activities. The latter fosters human development by emphasizing honesty, altruism and perseverance, with the ultimate goal to create active, engaged citizens, and to promote good governance.

The SEP is obviously not a how-to handbook for development. Rather, it is a philosophy that guides our inner thinking to immunize ourselves from external shocks. Likewise, there is flexibility for the concept to be applied in any environment and level. However, a sufficiency economy does not mean we have to be complacent in life. We can consider going beyond our basic needs as long as it does not exceed our existing means and capacity. The essence of the SEP is clear that it encourages us to be sensible and realistic.

The SEP has inspired numerous projects both in Thailand and elsewhere. The Thailand International Cooperation Agency is Thailand’s coordinator in forging development cooperation with international partners worldwide. SEP-based development models implemented by TICA are specifically designed to assist developing countries escape the cycle of excessive dependence on foreign aid. The objective is to create resilient communities starting from the individual level by enhancing productivity within the limitations of existing income and resources.

Since 2003, TICA has carried out 36 SEP projects in 21 countries across the Asia-Pacific region and Africa, from Kyrgyzstan to East Timor and from Mozambique to the Solomon Islands. At present, there are 29 projects in 19 countries, which testify that the SEP can be translated into action anywhere.

There are two main types of overseas SEP projects to institutionalise the self-development process and to conserve local knowledge and wisdom: the establishment of SEP Learning Centers, to serve as a comprehensive database, and community learning centers with a designated expert to provide guidance; and the development of SEP Sustainable Communities to serve as role models on development.

SEP Learning Center projects are being implemented in Laos, Myanmar, East Timor, Brunei, Tonga, Fiji and Lesotho. At the same time, SEP Sustainable Community projects are in progress in Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Benin, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, and Senegal. Thai experts and TICA’s Friends of Thailand Volunteers have been dispatched to work with local stakeholders in several of these countries.

For instance, in Laos, Thai and Lao officials have established Learning Centers for Sustainable Development in Agriculture at Dongkhamxang Agricultural Technical School and Khammouane Technical - Vocational College. These centers maximize the potential of human resources by providing capacity-building courses that cover the whole supply chain, such as farm management, productivity management and market analysis. As agriculture is a vital sector in landlocked Laos, strengthening its agricultural capacity will safeguard domestic food security and enable farmers to sustain their livelihood.

In Bhutan, SEP practitioners assisted in developing community products by localizing Thailand’s One Tambon (Sub-district) One Product scheme as One Gewog One Product in the Haa and Tsirang districts. The OGOP Model includes the establishment of a Community Learning Center on community-based tourism in Haa District, and one on sustainable community development in Tsirang District, with a view to empowering local authorities and communities.

In Tonga, the Chai Pattana Foundation under the royal patronage and the Tonga Royal Palace have jointly overseen an agricultural model project that applies “New Theory Agriculture.” The idea is to divide the land for multiple purposes such as for crops cultivation, livestock farming, fisheries and water resources. This approach has helped to ensure sufficient resources for household consumption and to reduce the reliance on food imports. It has increased agricultural productivity, generated income and elevated living standards. The success of this demonstration model has since been replicated around the kingdom island.

Development is achievable through various paths. In many cases such as in Laos, Bhutan and Tonga, the simple yet practical approach of the SEP has been as beneficial as any other alternative while being even more relatable to the respective local conditions.

The concept is, of course, not free from skepticism. But Thailand has tried and tested the applicability of the SEP well enough before sharing it abroad. Based on its policy of prosper thy neighbor, the SEP is one of Thailand’s tools in helping neighboring countries to attain economic security, food security and self-sufficiency. The success of SEP projects in neighboring countries would not only benefit the local communities there, but also contribute toward peace, prosperity and closer people-to-people ties along the border areas with Thailand. The same principle applies to cooperation with countries beyond the region, which is to assist them to transition from being recipient countries towards becoming Thailand’s partner in a wider array of dimensions. 

Sustainable development is a global agenda that requires collective action, and the SEP is Thailand’s contribution to such an end. Through decades of accumulated experience, Thailand has discovered its answer on how to pass on a sustainable world to our younger generations through local empowerment. Thousands of development projects based on the SEP in Thailand have already improved livelihoods in communities nationwide. As such, the SEP could perhaps be another practical and worthy development track that other countries can adapt to their specific contexts.


Dusit Manapan is a career diplomat, and currently serves as the Deputy Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. -- Ed.

By Korea Herald (