Thailand goes to the polls this Sunday. For weeks, the streets of Bangkok have been lined with colourful political posters: posters with pictures of bland-faced politicians and their pork-barrel promises of fiscal payouts to just about every demographic; posters of “everywoman” in her tennis whites and “everyman” in his golf gear; posters depicting the candidates as animals (a grievous insult) and exhorting people not to vote at all; pictures of a massage-parlour operator campaigning “against corruption”; and my personal favourite: a poster in official Thai flag colours promising WiFi and a free PC to every schoolchild.
Now, call me cynical, but having just recently returned from another trip to visit schools in “The Hills” of Thailand, I can think of many things that these children need more than their own individual PCs! Like: dorms with enough space for all the pupils who want to study but live too far from school; some proper bunks and some new bedding; somewhere to do their laundry; a spare uniform; a pair of new shoes; a canteen with a clean floor and enough tables and chairs; more teachers and auxiliary staff to help in over-crowded classrooms; the list goes on.
Historically, successive Thai governments have provided the barest of essentials for public schooling. True, Thailand is a “developing country”, but even so, it is well down the international ranks in terms of percentage GDP allocated to education (just 4.1% in 2009). The current government increased educational access to 15 years: three years of pre-school and grades 1 through 12, and it is true that 18% of government expenditure is on education, but this is in the context of low tax revenues and weak spending overall. In remote and marginalised Hilltribe communities, many of the auxiliary buildings in and around the local schools are funded, not by the government, but by charitable organisations.
At the end of May, just as the new school year was about to start, I was able to visit some schools in Mae Hong Son province in northern Thailand, with Susan Race, founder and manager of THEP – Thailand Hilltribe Education Projects, one of these charitable organisations. I’ve been on these trips before (see: Budding Potentials, Building Futures, and Schools), and what always impresses me – other than the beauty of the countryside – is the cheerful resilience of the local people.
The highlight of this particular trip was our stay at the school at Mae Lit and visiting the local community where the predominantly Karen people eke out a living growing cabbages and rice. We arrived on a Sunday, the last day of school holidays and stayed for the ‘official’ school opening.
On Monday morning the dormitory children got up early to dress, cook themselves breakfast, eat, wash the dishes and do housekeeping chores before the school bell rang.
These are some of the poorest villages in the country, where life changes slowly. The days in the fields are long and hard, so it is tempting to keep older children home to help. Many families have virtually no income, making it impossible to pay for uniforms, books, travel, and all the other things the government doesn’t provide for school-aged children. But, traditions are strong, communities are bonded and food is plentiful. The children at these schools are helpful, polite and wonderfully self-reliant. I have nothing against them having ready access to PCs – there is just so much else that they need more!
Regardless of who wins the next election, I have little faith that it will result in any major improvements in these communities. For these children to participate fully in the education that is theoretically available, but practically just out of reach, they will continue to need the help of “outsiders”. Susan will be visiting the students and the projects she manages again in November. If you are prepared to eat local (fresh and delicious!), travel rough on roads that sometimes disappear,and sleep on the odd floor (with mats and bedding), I know she’d love to have you along to see what is needed for yourself.
In the meantime, happy travels.