People know best how to solve own issues: Ban Pang Lao community shifting away from donor funding

In the Ban Pang Lao community, a shift is taking place. This shift from reliance on donor funding and NGO support towards greater self-sufficiency is promoting greater sustainability and the power of a community, through dialogue, to determine their own short- and long-term solutions to problems within.

"Most of our problems are external, or coming from outside our community," says a soft-spoken A-jarn (teacher) named Sumalee Wanarat. "The only thing we can do is manage and strengthen ourselves from the inside. Sometimes we have to shift our way of thinking within the community," she continues with a gentle smile.

Sumalee has lived in Ban Pang Lao, located in Maekaotom sub-district, Muang district, about 25 kms from Chiang Rai city, northern Thailand, for over 14 years. She is a relative newcomer to this community of approximately 1,500 members originally from the Isaan province to the northeast. The community is about 30 years old and comprised of mostly farmers who migrated to this predominantly Lanna area during a massive drought in Isaan.

The exposure to this new area and the increase in movement of the community itself brought new issues in focus, including HIV and AIDS, drug use, and a "brain drain" of the community’s youth seeking work in larger city centres like Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, and Bangkok. According to a 2006 report on the global AIDS epidemic by UNAIDS and WHO, the prevalence rate of HIV and AIDS was 1.4 per cent in 2005, down from nearly 18 per cent in 1991 in the northern Thailand area.

Sumalee brought a unique perspective as a relative outsider to the community. She was able to see the problems that the community was facing from a more objective standpoint and help the community to start a model of community-based care and prevention for people living with HIV and AIDS (PLHIV/PHA) in 1994, especially focusing on the youth of the community in her education and information provision efforts.

The KC Team

"In the beginning, the other community members didn’t realise AIDS, migration and drugs were such serious issues," Sumalee says of the early community-wide discussions sessions that she helped organise and coordinate. "This changed when they were all encouraged to come together to discuss."

She and others in the community worked voluntarily and tirelessly to start the various projects they collectively imagined.

At that time, according to Sumalee, the biggest issue was AIDS. The message that the government was promoting was "You will die for sure from this." Stigma against PLHIV and PHA resulted in the community and Sumalee saw her goal of creating more understanding in the community. "This is a more difficult task than just providing information," she says.

The activities implemented in this community-based care and prevention model include a Youth United to Prevent AIDS project, a Network to Help the PHAs project, counselling services, a Community Fights Against Drug Use Problem project, and many other projects aimed at strengthening the community’s response to HIV and AIDS. The initiative was originally funded by various donors and government organisations, including Save the Children’s Fund-UK, Thailand’s National Council for Youth Development (NCYD), amongst others. This funding led to an expansion of the projects to a broader area that included an additional 20 neighbouring villages.

The community now has a three-year-old Organic Fertilizer Group that was started with no funding, a Housewives Group that does much of the community’s weaving and sewing, as well as a Savings Group that is also run and capitally funded by the Housewives Group.

After the community gained some notoriety for their successes in implementing these and many other projects, more donor and NGO support was offered. However Sumalee contends that the short-term contracts offered by these organisations and donors leads to discontinuity. She points out that this structure makes it hard to gather a body of knowledge based in the community and that funding can steer a community or group towards mandates that are not internally determined by the community itself.

To move towards self-funding, the community began doing their own fundraising. This was due to wanting to be independent and be able to create sustainable changes in the community. "It’s also so much easier to see the capacity much better within the community without donor or NGO involvement," says Sumalee.

Where Sumalee and the community see the real value in NGO, donor, and government involvement is within the regular discussions taking place at the community level. "The body of knowledge comes from when people come together from neighbouring areas," Sumalee says of the monthly meetings in which all community members and neighbours are invited to contribute equally. She continues to say that these discussions are mainly to talk and exchange information about what is happening in the area. NGOs are also often invited to participate. "NGOs present will ask for more info – to learn lessons together as a bigger community," she says. "Sharing and learning together is more important than hardcopy paper and project reports."

When the discussion forum began, it was an organised event requiring planning and coordination but now the regular meeting is formalised. Once a month the groups come together to discuss immediate issues but also work together to seek long-term solutions to these. This is done by identifying the core of the issues and by using their community-based networks to deal with these.

Sumalee and the community groups see many new opportunities in working with NGOs and funders, and by the inclusion of these organisations in the discussions.

"It is better for policy people to come to the community and have these community experiences inform policies," says Sumalee. "There is a change in the way NGOs, communities and governments can work together. Five years ago NGOs and communities spoke different languages. Once they get together they can link and work together."

With these discussion forums, the Ban Pang Lao community feels that people have space to express their experiences to the government level. "The community can speak to those at the policy level," Sumalee states. She points to a recent interaction between the community groups and a harm reduction-focused NGO. The NGO was invited to take part in the discussions and actually learned more from the community in terms of moving forward on policy engagement and advocacy efforts.

"The hardest part in all of this was to change my own way of thinking," Sumalee admits. "I had to listen to the community." As a teacher she says that she was trained to tell people what to do, or "educate" them. "On many issues, people in the community know best how to solve their own issues and problems."

With this learning and continued efforts and dialogue with and between the community members, NGOs, donors, and government organisations, the community now continues to move towards, and take pride in, their own self-sufficiency and self-reliance – the main ingredients for effective and sustainable community development.

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