Inequality Beckons!

 |  June 29, 2011

Pana Janviroj, a native of Chiang Mai, is the President of The Nation

Congratulations to Citylife on your anniversary. You amplify what a niche location-based unit could do in a wider world – using knowledge, technology and creative endeavour to add value to Chiang Mai.

But you are in a ‘small’ minority in a society dominated by a one-track national development mindset. It is a particular area, a district, a city – rather than a region, national or global.

The last time that a regional development strategy topped Thailand’s national development agenda was in the 1970s, when the Eastern Seaboard took shape. It was an industrial cluster idea that was not only limited to the growth of the eastern part of Thailand but also to the mobility of labour of different parts of the country and the accommodation of foreign investments. We have since taken its success at regional et al, and global contribution for granted.

Since then we have not evolved, but rather, back-tracked by concentrating wealth and development activities in big cities or micro district units. Bangkok leads the way and so too does Chiang Mai and the various or bor tor/or bor jor. But there are a growing number of people who are starting to see that such a strategy is a gigantic mistake.

You can look at cases around the world and it will be hard to find an all-time win-win example or situation. Growth, development and equality moved on a curve where unfortunately, wealth could not be shared by everyone.
For example, Singapore has generated enormous state wealth but many old people still have to work. Taiwan is another Asian Tiger success where the state is strong with a lot of resources allocated to defence, but its people’s wealth is typically modest. Japan has a thriving export sector but its broad-based

Since then we have not evolved, but rather, back-tracked by concentrating wealth and development activities in big cities or micro district units. Bangkok leads the way and so too does Chiang Mai and the various or bor tor/or bor jor. But there are a growing number of people who are starting to see that such a strategy is a gigantic mistake.

In this era of talks of inequality and the fact that the poorest portion of the population has not benefited in a sustained manner from the national economic growth of the past 30-40 years, few have a grand vision of what has to be done to rein in the mainstream national development misnomer.

You can look at cases around the world and it will be hard to find an all-time win-win example or situation. Growth, development and equality moved on a curve where unfortunately, wealth could not be shared by everyone.

For example, Singapore has generated enormous state wealth but many old people still have to work. Taiwan is another Asian Tiger success where the state is strong with a lot of resources allocated to defence, but its people’s wealth is typically modest. Japan has a thriving export sector but its broad-based middle classes are far from what we would call rich, but they are more equal.

What this tells us is that some kinds of sacrifices are necessary in the allocation of resources. If social cohesion is considered the top national priority – and likewise environment or whatever is selected at a particular time in history – some agenda in national development has to give. We can’t have all the cakes and eat them, as examples below are evident:

A huge portion of the national budget is spent on free education but there is not enough to go around ensuring quality education.

Resources are allocated to make Bangkok a livable and business-like city but this depleted potential in the provinces, including the best minds from the rural areas who continue to come to live and work in Bangkok.

What is good for Chiang Mai, for example, is seen as good for the North. Not quite so – it should be what is good for the north is good for Chiang Mai. In this case, different parts of the north should draw resources from Chiang Mai to realise their sustained development. Chiang Mai has just received a state budget to set up an international convention centre. It will consolidate itself and further grow. This sounds good but then would Lamphun be better off if it had such a financial resource with which it could do something to contribute to Chiang Mai and the region?

But what are some examples of the regional or equitable development strategies of late:

The decision to pick Ayutthaya as the possible International Expo site in 2020 (if Thailand wins) instead of Pattaya or Chiang Mai. If Pattaya was picked, wealth would have remained concentrated in the eastern seaboard but Ayutthaya will now be able to share in this even if it may not have as readied facilities as Pattaya.

But such strategies are visibly few and far in between.

And equality is also not all about economics. This is the hardest part of mainstream thinking in which the hurdles are the toughest to cross. For example:

Infrastructure development is biggest and biased towards cars rather than people. Highways and roads in Thailand are great but they often do not serve pedestrians and children, who are treated as secondary. Equality beckons a consideration of not just the quality of life of motorists, but of people affected by the pro-car policy. Can motorists do with less?

Prime-time soap operas are hailed as part of a non-intervention liberal broadcasting policy and enjoyed by the audience. But could prime-time TV schedules be better used to promote ethical and social cohesion among the youth with interesting education programmes? Can the mass adult audience sacrifice itself to watch soap operas a bit later in the night, or less of it for the sake of creating quality future generations?

Equality management is quite a down-to-earth matter, requiring the weighing of resource allocations without destroying national financial stability and support for common sense rather than political populism. It is not quite but should be the agenda for the July 3rd election campaigns. Anything else is a diversion.