Thursday, July 31, 2008

It's All About Trade

As an American Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Thailand, I spend my days sharing life with common villagers in humble surroundings. Harvesting rice patties, biking up and down rocky mountain roads, eating sticky rice with fried pork with neighbors, and navigating cultural and language differences are just a few of my daily tasks.

I am charged with the duty of organizing my community so that they can better empower themselves. So far, I have been pretty successful with my job. I created a community organizing model named Project Hope that allows a team of student leaders to organize their classmates to help develop real projects in the larger community. We’ve done clothing drives for poor families, trainings for villagers, and launched clubs within the school. Other volunteers throughout Thailand have begun replicating this model with success as well. One volunteer was able to raise 10,000 baht through local business, school, and government support in order to do an HIV/AIDS and English training for hill tribe kids.

However, though these efforts to improve civic life, I kept noticing one of the fundamental problems we faced was a lackluster local economy. The production is there. People will constantly create and manufacture various products from purses to furniture to leather belts. The entrepreneurial spirit is there. It seems everyone wants to own their own shop. People are always opening new noodle stands or jewelry shops or small bamboo production plants. The only thing that seemed missing was trade. Local businesses had everything except for a market that could sustain them. As a matter of fact, the local market is oversaturated with locally made products that it drives prices down and squeezes profit margins.

This leads me to openly wonder about how the village can successfully meet the marketplace? The best bet would seem to be to find other markets that would support these products more profitably, but how can one engage these markets? Also, the level of education in the village is alarmingly low. So, even if there is the opportunity, how can they enter and stay in these markets without being in over their heads? Although I yet to come up with answers to these questions, my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer showed me that it’s all about trade if poorer communities are to ever sustain any economic growth that will spill over to other civic benefits.

Quilen Blackwell