Krisada Boonchai is both professionalizing citizen sector organizations and increasing the academic community's understanding of grassroots issues by bridging the divide that has traditionally separated these two sectors. Through the flexible collaboration of his Social and Academic Activists Forum (SAAF), Krisada seeks to promote a collective strategy toward local community development that allows academics and social activists to benefit from each other's strengths.
The New Idea
Krisada sees an opportunity both to expand academic understanding of rural issues based on field experience and to bolster the capacity of grassroots organizations to analyze their own data. By breaking down the cultural divide that exists between citizen organizations and academia through his proposed Social and Academic Activists Forum (SAAF), Krisada is combining and mobilizing each sector's particular strengths–the analytic and theoretical research capabilities of academics and the activists' practical grassroots experience and recognition of local knowledge. The resulting collaborative research, when wed to Krisada's experience in the media and in organizing dissemination campaigns, will help link and inform the citizen sector, the media, local communities, universities, business, and the government in their attempts to devise and implement community-based solutions to local problems.
Although social activists and academics in Thailand both have valuable insights into rural issues, these groups have yet to effectively integrate their strengths into innovative research or make their knowledge widely available. Social activists have practical work experience on the grassroots level but have not been particularly adept at presenting their concerns and recommendations in a well-documented, analytic, and nonideological manner. In addition, grassroots practitioners rarely find the time and space necessary either for formulating broader social strategies or for building the body of knowledge that suggests community empowerment strategies and best practices, focusing instead on immediate needs. Scholars, on the other hand, have the analytic and research background their community colleagues often lack, but they have remained divorced from grassroots concerns and trends. This distance not due to a lack of interest but rather stems from the absence of linkages to practical projects, the inability to implement theory and produce data regarding the success or failure of these strategies. The theory of social thinkers and the experience of social activists thus remain divorced although both would reap clear benefits from collaboration.
As government decentralization is increasingly giving communities increased rights to manage their own affairs, this division between local movements and policy development institutions has national consequences. The Thai government formulates laws concerning rural Thailand largely based on mainstream analysis. Since this research does not often give voice to grassroots organizations, the absence of collaboration translates into a void on the policy level. Communities have had difficulty gaining acceptance as participants in the process of policy change and the decentralization process. For example, although Thailand's new constitution guarantees local communities the right to protect and manage their own natural resources, few in reality are permitted to do so. While citizen organizations are aware that successful models exist for community-based approaches to environmental protection, such as community forests, government-sponsored research institutes fail to study them, focusing instead on national level solutions, such as preserving national forests. As a result, government policies have continued to discourage or ban outright such grassroots efforts; current forest laws make it illegal to live in or use national forests and some watershed areas, even for communities indigenous to these lands. Because local communities do not have ready access to research on successful community forest strategies, they have difficulty implementing such approaches and advocating effectively for their rights.
Past attempts to form community-focused, citizen sector "think tanks" have been hindered by unsuccessful collaborations and limited impact. Previous cooperative efforts between academics and citizen leaders have failed because the two groups were working exclusively according to their conflicting professional models; while the academics aimed for excellence in original research, the social activists saw the process as one of collecting experiences and lessons learned, not developing new ideas. Furthermore, these organizations have been too structured (preventing the flexibility required to be sustainable), too broad in the number of issues covered (at the expense of depth and continuity), and too narrow in their target audience (focusing only within their own sector). There is a need for an organization that will work to develop a collective strategy for the social sector through fostering collaboration between members of these groups to develop new ideas and build the body of knowledge possessed by both academics and practitioners.
Krisada and a group of colleagues who share his dual background in both academia and the citizen sector have been meeting informally to debate and share ideas. Krisada is beginning to structure these gatherings into the Social and Academic Activists Forum (SAAF), an organization that will mobilize the different stakeholders in joint research and dissemination efforts, while achieving a sustainable and effective collaboration.
The SAAF will consist of an initial core group of seven to eight researchers drawn from social leaders and academics. Because these members will have a solid background in both academics and community work–a requirement made feasible given the increasing number of community leaders returning to universities for advanced degrees–the SAAF will be able to draw on the experience and methodologies of both sectors without the conflict of cultures that has previously crippled attempts to combine them. Equally significant, the SAAF will regularly invite representatives from other sectors–including from local communities and business–to its bimonthly debates and seminars, allowing greater input on the issues the SAAF discusses. Unlike other research institutes, which annually explore a broad range of topics of interest to the government, the SAAF will conduct research on only one to two subjects per year, focusing on those relevant to community-level concerns. By targeting a small number of key issues, Krisada believes the SAAF will be able to provide continuous in-depth analysis and a new set of analytic tools as well as introduce nonmainstream issues into public dialogue.
Krisada will then utilize his experience in the media and in directing public awareness as a communications officer to disseminate the SAAF research through a variety of channels. To reach the academic community, Krisada anticipates that they will publish academic analyse in a quarterly newsletter. SAAF will also conduct public discussion forums in conjunction with existing citizen sector networks (approximately two per year). Because members and participants of SAAF will themselves come from a variety of sectors, Krisada will leverage their networks to spread SAAF's work. To ensure that SAAF research reaches a broad audience, including the mainstream public, Krisada expects to publish articles in leading newspapers (approximately one per month) and to organize and participate in public events.
In addition to its ability to combine academic and social sector methodologies, the strength of the SAAF lies in its stable, but flexible, structure. Since all members will continue working professionally in their current positions (with the exception of Krisada, who will spend the initial years as a full time coordinator), the SAAF will neither need the extensive resources required by formal research centers, nor cause a "brain drain" from existing organizations. Since it will remain small, it will not suffer from the bureaucratic obstacles that have limited the sustainability of larger, more rigidly structured, institutes. By enabling practitioners and academics to experience the value of collaboration, Krisada hopes to empower individuals to become proactive in the advocacy of knowledge development strategies in the social sector, ultimately creating a social sector with greater efficiency and more beneficial impact on the lives of individuals.
Born in Bangkok in 1969, the son of a policeman and a teacher, Krisada developed his interest in politics and the environment at an early age. His family often discussed Thailand's emerging democracy and environmental movements, although he admits that his concern for the country's natural resources originally reflected his middle-class background with its focus on solid waste, pollution, natural parks, and saving animals.
Krisada eventually combined these two interests at Thammasat University where he studied mass communications with the goal of finding new ways to disseminate information on the environment and politics to the public. However, he did not participate in the university's prominent student activist clubs–the usual training ground for civic movement leaders in Thailand–a fact which later allowed him to study citizen organizations with a fresh perspective.
After completing his degree, Krisada pursued a career making environmental documentaries for a national television channel. During the eight years he spent doing research and interviews for these programs, Krisada became knowledgeable about the issues that were to form the basis of his life's interests and work: community-based natural resources management, the civic movement, and the emerging field of political ecology.
Frustrated by the superficiality of the media coverage on the environment and wanting to learn more, Krisada returned to school to study the cultural dynamics of local community rights and natural resource management, graduating with a master's degree in anthropology. It was while working on his graduate degree that a professor first invited him to work for a community organization. However, he soon discovered that the cultures of the two circles of which he was a part–academia and the social movement–were not working together to empower local communities. After completing his degree, Krisada joined the Project for Ecological Recovery, serving as a research and communications officer. In this position, Krisada spearheaded the information campaign concerning community forests, successfully having the issue adopted for widespread debate by both the government and the mainstream, middle-class public. During this process of analyzing both academic research and civic experience, and coordinating its distribution to policymakers and the public, Krisada began to see the need for more innovative thinking–and broader dissemination of such thinking–concerning rural issues. His idea for the social and academic activists' forum originated from these realizations.