“...In the past, I was too shy to contact government officials….I didn’t realize that I and my community had the right to access budget of local government agencies….I didn’t know what were the channels of access to that funding.”
A-ju Ner Mera, a volunteer in Pong Khom Village
A-ju is an ethnic volunteer from the Akha hill tribe. He completed three years of high school by studying at the Mae Jan Non-formal Education Center. A-ju moved to Pong Khom Village when he was a teenager. He is now serving as a peer leader in nature and the environment, and he is very dedicated. Whenever people talk to A-ju, they are likely to hear the following: “I am most pleased to participate in these activities…I don’t do it for any material compensation. I just want the community to thrive. That is enough reward.”
This is confirmed by conversations with community residents. Before A-ju became a volunteer, he did not have the same level of self-confidence, and he felt ignorant about many topics – especially about accessing grants from the local government office. In those days it seemed that the ethnic communities were quite remote from any government assistance. Any decisions about funding for the village would surely come from high above. A-ju and his fellow villagers did not understand about public forums as a basis for joint planning and as a mechanism for expressing their needs to the development planners in local government. A-ju felt very uncomfortable about approaching officials in the Tambon or district administrative offices. He felt very inferior.
But today he is a changed man because of his role as a project extension volunteer. A-ju has been a volunteer for three years. In his words: “First I was trained by the project about decentralization of authority and community development planning….I also met others like me from many communities who would also become project volunteers. I met the leaders from local communities and at other levels.”
When you meet A-ju today he seems very confident and skillful in coordinating with individuals in a variety of positions and at different levels in the hierarchy. Again, in the words of A-ju:
“…Now I know the channels for accessing grants from the Tambon administrative organization (TAO) and other government offices in this locality…I can now function like a representative of my community to coordinate on funding issues.”
On this day, the team took student trainees from Ubon Ratchathani University to visit A-ju. We did not make an appointment in advance. We went to A-ju’s house and found out that he was waiting for a visit by staff of the TAO to discuss funding for an extension of a weir irrigation system to the Pong Khom Village. A-ju’s role was to indicate the preferred location of the weirs, and mobilize the community to help with construction. We asked if we could come along, and he said ‘yes’. Despite heavy rain, A-ju marched ahead to indicate the designated location of the weirs. This was a perfect example of A-ju’s dedication to the task, despite the difficult conditions. Budget was approved for the weirs and, because of the large community participation, construction of the weirs took only one-half day.
We returned for the opening ceremony of the weirs and saw A-ju organize a banquet for the community and visiting officials of the TAO and district. A-ju observed that “Now I have friends who are leaders at all levels. If I encounter any problems, I know who to go to for fast action.”
Recruiting and training community volunteers are an important feature of the project since that is an effective and sustainable way to build local capacity. Villagers learn how to exercise their right to access budget from the TAO and other funding sources to support development for disadvantaged ethnic communities. The positive change that occurred in A-ju’s life is not limited to him alone. Indeed his empowerment helped empower the entire home community. When you ask villagers how many and what types of development projects have occurred with grants like this, they may not be able to itemize them all. But they can show you which improvements in the community occurred because of the action of A-ju.
Background of the project:
ActionAid (Thailand) collaborated with the Hill Areas and Community Development Foundation to implement a project to address problems of the Upper Basin of the Ping River. The Rural Thai Association implemented a project called “Ethnic Volunteers for Community Development and the Environment” with the objective to empower villagers to use their rights and their voice in managing local development to address local problems – for and by themselves. This grassroots ethnic volunteer effort coincided with national decentralization policy and administration, community empowerment, and Civil Society involvement (Empowerment is a Process: De-marginalization of Hill Communities in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai Provinces). That effort is a four-year project which was launched on July 1, 2013 and is scheduled to end in June 30, 2017.
This project is funded by the European Union