The COVID-19 pandemic is another unprecedented situation that has caused a tremendous suffering and loss of life, severe social and economic disruption, and a dramatic change in one’s way of living. It has also slowed down the global effort to drive forward sustainable development and achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As a dedicated advocate for global sustainability, Thailand believes that its homegrown development approach of “Sufficiency Economy Philosophy” (SEP) can serve as an alternative approach to achieving the SDGs and building back better without leaving no one behind amid the ongoing spread of COVID-19.
What is Sufficiency Economy Philosophy (SEP)?
After the Asian financial crisis in 1997, His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej introduced SEP, which has become Thailand’s universally applicable development concept at all levels in the society. His Majesty’s reflections from decades of extensive tours and conversations with villagers across the country is culminated in this philosophy.
SEP serves as a foundation, and compass for sustainability, based on three principles and two pillars. The first is moderation, which entails producing and consuming within one’s capacity and avoiding overindulgence. The second principle is reasonableness, which is using one’s mental faculties to examine the causes and consequences of actions on one’s well-being, household and community. The third is prudence, which refers to risk management in order to be prepared for impacts from any disruptions. The two pillars are knowledge and ethics and values. While the former enables effective planning and execution of developmental activities, the latter enhances human development by emphasizing honesty, altruism, and perseverance, with creating active, engaged citizens, and promoting good governance as the ultimate goal.
SEP is a philosophy that guides one’s inner thinking to immunize oneself from external shocks and can be applied in any settings and at any levels. Sufficiency economy, nevertheless, does not imply that one has been complacent in life. One can consider going beyond one basic need as long as one’s existing means and capacity are not exceeded. Indeed, the essence of SEP is to encourage oneself to be sensible and realistic. Most importantly, SEP can be further applied to any sectors and any areas of operations and at all levels, i.e. family, local community, business and public organizations.
To concretise development efforts based on SEP, in the rural areas where most people are farmers, the “New Theory Agriculture” has been introduced. The initiative is to divide the land into sections for multiple purposes such as crops cultivation, livestock farming, fisheries, and water resources. This approach has greatly helped in ensuring sufficient resources for household consumption and reducing reliance on food imports. It has increased agricultural productivity, income generation, and living standards. The model’s success has since been replicated around the kingdom and has improved the livelihoods of communities nationwide.
Application of SEP in times of COVID-19
SEP has succeeded in alleviating Thailand to overcome many crisis in the past, and once again has guided the way forward for Thai people and business in facing the impacts of COVID-19. Many people, particularly in the rural areas, were able to continue their way of lives in unprecedented times, illustrating the golden attribute of “self-immunity” that SEP has to offer.
A case in point is the owner of the Baan Suan Iyara Hotel in Chanthaburi Province who was forced to halt his business due to the pandemic. He has turned his 6,400 square-meter area of the hotel into a chemical-free vegetables garden and set aside an area for livestock farming and making fertilizer. This has provided him with enough produce for the consumption of his family and hotel employees during the hotel shutdown without having to buy from others. When the hotel re-opened, this chemical-free and safe-to-eat food has become the hotel’s strong selling point.
At an individual level, Mr. Aphiwat Sukphoang, a new generation who had fallen ill from the 2009 new influenza strain and later been affected by severe flood in 2011, returned home in Ratchaburi Province and started running Sukphoang farm by applying SEP. By ensuring food security and achieving self-dependency, Mr. Aphiwat, his family, and the Sukphong farm members are able to live through the COVID-19 crisis which has been ongoing for more than a year now.
Thailand’s International Partnership in SEP
SEP has also inspired numerous projects around the world. The Thailand International Cooperation Agency (TICA) is Thailand’s coordinator in forging development cooperation with international partners worldwide. TICA’s SEP-based development models are designed to assist developing countries to tackle the issue of excessive dependence on foreign aid. The objective is to build resilient communities, beginning at the individual level by enhancing productivity within the limitations of existing income and resources.
The concept of SEP is, of course, not without skepticism, yet Thailand has tried and tested the applicability of SEP before sharing with other countries. Since 2003, TICA has carried out 36 SEP projects in 21 countries across Asia Pacific and Africa. There are currently 29 projects in 19 countries, testifying that SEP can be put into action anywhere.
There are two main types of SEP projects overseas: 1) SEP Learning Centres, which serve as a comprehensive database, and community learning centre with a designated expert to provide guidance and 2) the development of SEP Sustainable Communities, which serve as role models on development.
For example, in Lao PDR, Thai and Lao officials, have established Learning Centres for Sustainable Development in Agriculture at Dongkhamxang Agricultural Technical School and Khammouane Technical – Vocational College. These centres maximise the potential of human resources by providing capacity building courses that cover the entire supply chain, such as farm and productivity management, and market analysis. Since agriculture is a vital sector in landlocked Lao PDR, strengthening its capacity in this sector will safeguard domestic food security and enable farmers to sustain their livelihoods.
In Bhutan, SEP practitioners assisted in the development of community products by localising Thailand’s One Tambon (Sub-district) One Product (OTOP) scheme as One Gewog One Product (OGOP) in Haa and Tsirang Districts. Under the OGOP Model, a community learning centre on community-based tourism and a centre on sustainable community development were established, with an aim to empowering local authorities and communities. Similar projects are in progress in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
To overcome the effects of COVID-19 pandemic, likewise the effort to achieve the SDGs, requires joint effort and concerted action, and SEP is Thailand’s contribution to such goal. Through accumulating experiences for decades, Thailand has discovered its answer on how to pass on a sustainable world to our future generations through local empowerment. SEP could therefore be another practical and worthy development path that other nations can adapt to their specific contexts. To that end, Thailand stands ready to work closely with partners worldwide on cooperation for development and share the benefits of the application of the SEP as Thailand’s gift to the world.
“The e-version of “SEP & New Theory” in Hindi is available here”