Chaiwat Yaowapongsiri is showing how ingenious, inexpensive appropriate technology can work to solve problems, improve living conditions, and create economic opportunities for Thailand's rural poor. By applying domestic know-how to both age old tasks and new low-tech industries, he is changing the perception among villagers that they can progress and prosper only with the aid of expensive imported technology.
The New Idea
During Thailand's technological revolution of the past 30 years, gaining knowledge and capability in technical areas has been as sure a route to an improved way of life. To the extent that they cannot afford expensive, and largely imported, "modern" technology, Thailand's rural majority missed out on the revolution. Instead of processing the food and other resources they produce to increase the value and potential profits, they sell them as low-priced commodities.This process is dispiriting. It builds the sense of helplessness that is such a core component of poverty. The rural majority have come to see themselves as technologically inept, backward, and unable to take charge of their fates.Chaiwat is bringing technology to these forgotten Thais. Working in significant part through the country's growing number of citizen organizations and NGOs, he has set himself the ambitious task of disseminating technology to the people, of helping them to look to themselves and to the resources within their reach to create opportunities. They can then begin to raise their standard of living through a variety of means such as building their own improved water systems and processing their agricultural products so as to sell them at higher prices.
Public, social, and economic policy in Thailand has consistently favored industry and business over agriculture in the last 30 years. Unlike other Asian countries such as Japan, Taiwan, and Korea which developed rapidly earlier, Thailand has not designated significant resources for public education. Rural people fall further and further behind in the social order while the middle class which dwells mainly in urban areas benefit from the technological revolution. Poverty, ignorance, environmental degradation, and in some cases forced relocation, have all contributed to rural people's lack of social and technical advancement.In Thailand, those with technical skills tend to work with advantaged groups earning high incomes and developing expensive, sophisticated technology that is not affordable or appropriate to villagers. Very few of the technocrats have devoted attention to the simple machinery or techniques that could improve rural life or provide income-generating activities for the poor.
Chaiwat has focused his efforts on improving health and economics and diversifying employment opportunities in rural areas through the introduction and application of small-scale technologies. He established the Center of Technology for Villagers (CTV) to house this effort. It functions as a center of data, research, study, experimentation, training and dissemination of information for all of rural Thailand. The Center is the only private organization that offers experienced technicians and engineers who work alongside the poor to improve their economic capabilities.Working through the NGO network, Chaiwat and his colleagues at CTV provide the technical aspect of development planning that other groups do not offer. The CTV consults free of charge with villages on a range of technical projects and offers field services and training. Typical activities include advising on small-scale water projects to improve domestic and agricultural water supplies, building much needed machines like food processors and instructing people how to use the new technology.The resources of CTV include a staff of six (including two engineers), a machine shop, a reference library, and a mobile service unit. Chaiwat places great emphasis on ensuring that villagers understand the technologies that are introduced to them. All villagers are centrally involved in all problem solving and are taught how to apply technical and analytic techniques that help them to address their problems as they arise.In the future, Chaiwat plans to develop turn-key food processing operations, such as rice cake production, mushroom farming and noodle manufacturing as income-generating activities for rural people. He is demonstrating to villagers the possibility of maximizing their profits by processing the agricultural materials they produce, instead of selling them cheaply to a middleman. To make the Center self-sustaining, Chaiwat is expanding its services to include mid-level rural producers who desire more efficient technology and who can afford to pay for technical assistance. In Nakorn Ratchasima, the Center is already helping area nut producers develop a nut shredder. Chaiwat is also developing a strategy to sell some of the goods and machinery produced at the center, and will examine the possibility of more domestic funding sources.
Chaiwat Yaowapongsiri, 38, graduated from Chulalongkorn University with a degree in engineering. He was active in student politics, and as a senior edited the Student Center of Thailand newspaper. Before establishing the Center of Technology for Villagers, he was a human rights worker who set up campaigns for the Religious Coordinating Group for Society. During this period, he worked to involve Thailand's religious institutions with social problems and was instrumental in initiating fund-raising by these groups.