ML Dispanadda Diskul On Sustainable Development

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” - Albert Einstein

If Albert Einstein’s principle is anything to go by, investing your time in analyzing outlying issues before embarking on resolution is the way to go. This applies to all kinds of social issues such as environmental degradation, social disparity, racial or gender discrimination, to name a few.

No one has had more experience with sustainable development than the Mae Fah Luang Foundation. It was established by Her Royal Highness Princess Srinagarindra, the Princess Mother, in 1988. Its flagship, the Doi Tung Development Project in Chiang Rai Province, originated as a result of a pledge by the Princess Mother to reforest Doi Tung after witnessing the denuded mountains from the air.

But it wasn’t simply a matter of planting new trees to replace the old ones. As the saying has it, give a man a fish and you feed him for a day but teach that man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. That’s the difference between charity and sustainable development. Problems for the ethnic hill tribes on Doi Tung included opium poppy cultivation, trade and trafficking in order to earn a living. However, drug barons skimmed off the benefits of the trade while the villagers were left in dire straits. Realizing that the problems arose from poverty and a lack of opportunities, the Foundation embarked on addressing these issues first. 

The Futurist talks to ML DispanaddaDiskul, CEO of Mae Fah Luang Foundation under Royal Patronage, to discover more about the organisation’s sustainable development work.

The Mae Fah Luang Foundation was working in the field of sustainable development long before the term became current. How did it start?

We realized we had to transform people, get them to change the way they think, and carry them on this long journey of self-transformation as a facilitator, providing knowledge, information, market and technical know-how and some basic financial investment. We have accumulated a wealth of knowledge on sustainable long-term development in that 30 plus years.

Despite the Foundation’s success, how does Thailand fare as a whole on this front?

We are trying to do something to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals but I think that the effort that we have put in and the achievements that we have made so far are far less than what we could have done if we had been more serious about this. We spend a lot of time talking and we’re not spending a lot of time taking action. If you look at the widening income gap, it shows we are not aggressively addressing the issue effectively. What’s needed is not to push the problem away from us. We should not say that it is the job of the government. Sustainable development is the job of everyone. 

At the end of the day, if we want a better world, everyone needs to take part in it. Sustainable development means a participatory approach from everyone. It’s going to be difficult, it’s going to take a long time and we must share actionable knowledge if we want to improve the world for the next generation.

Is the situation different now than when you started 30 years ago?

Yes completely different. Thirty years ago, if you look at the landscape of Thailand, a lot of the communities in remote areas were very difficult to access. You had to drive for 6-8 hours to get there. Nowadays 3 hours is already considered a long ride. The challenges today are about responsible consumption, about being able to balance uses of resources and preservation of resources. It’s also about getting consumers to understand thatthey don’t only have to over-consume to have a happy lifestyle. We have a widening income gap, larger issues on environmental degradation, and an increase in overall consumption. We are not solving the problems, we are simply pushing them on to our kids and grandchildren. That’s not the right way to go.

Where do you see MFLF going in the next decade?

I would like to see us continue to be relevant in the area of sustainable development. I would like to see us being more active in the area of environmental protection. I think that we could do a lot more to help save the forests and at the same time tryto address the issue of PM2.5. We are now implementing a programmein which the private sector provides funding support through us to supply equipment to rural communities to deal with forest fires. After three years, the companies that supported the initiative can claim carbon credits from those communities so it’s a win-win situation. If we can scale this initiative up, I believe there will be lots of opportunities where communities in the highland areas will not need to rely solely on monocrop cultivation like corn, but still be able to earn equal income by protecting the forest.

When you say establish a business, do you mean a social enterprise? 

Social enterprise has been around for many decades. The easiest way to explain it is to use business as a model to address social or environmental problems. So for social enterprise, impact is typically measured in three ways: economic impact, or being able to sustain itself, and environmental and social impact. 

It is different from normal business which is generally measured one way – economic impact, profit, earning per share. That’s the responsibility of business to its shareholders, to create value for them. Social enterprise is an entity where we are trying to balance the use of resources and the conservation of resources, trying to create a balance between consumers and producers. 

But I don’t believe social enterprise is something that’s going to save the world. I think that there are far too few of us trying it to make a real impact. What we can do, however, is to inspire big businesses to realise that maybe it’s time to change business modelsso as make them more of environmentally and socially inclusive. That there is more to successful successful business that the bottom line.

Unless we change as a global community, the problems are not going to go away. I hope that big businesses will also realise they too have the power, much more power than us small social enterprises, to transform the way we live, to pass on the earth in a little bit better shape to the coming generations.

What is the key to a successful project?

Project planning is half of it. We need to be able to plan an achievable project. Often organizations do not spend enough time on gathering baseline data and analyzing facts. They use secondary research or third-party information and plan the project from that. So when they implement the programme, they face a lot of unforeseen obstacles. That is what we have avoided very well:we spend a lot of time in the community prior to implementing a project. We use that time to identify local leadership potential and map out both the local political and environmental landscape.

The other half is the willingness of the community. Community participation is critical. It’s easy for communities to say yes and be enthusiastic in the first few weeks but when they realize the amount of hard work they have to go through, and the amount of time that they have to invest,many communities pull out or lose interest entirely. In the case of the foundation, we ensure the communities really understand what it is that they are about to be involved in. And we continually assess their willingness. When you put good planning and community willingnesss together, they form a solid foundation for a potentially successful project.

How do you measure the success of your projects?

We measure the impact on the communities in a number of ways: economic impact – you could see how much income has been generated and distributed to the communities, direct and indirect;environmental impact – the changes in the environment, trees planted, carbon offset, pollution reduced; and social impact – community cohesion, the ability to navigate through tough problems and issues by themselves. You can measure the number of jobs created, opportunities provided. Or the new generation of leaders, the skills that they have acquired, ideas that have been created within the community after project implementation.

Where else have you implemented projects other than Thailand?

We have reacted to requests from different governments in the region to provide technical assistance. In Afghanistan we created a sustainable development programme to help people out of opium cultivation through rearing livestock. We provided a business model that drives a number of small successful agri-businesses today. 

In neighbouring Myanmar we were asked by the government to implement development programmes in the border areas with Thailand in order to prevent communities from engaging in illicit activities such as drug trafficking and opium cultivation and deforestation. We were also in Aceh, Indonesia right after the tsunami. We went there to try and boost rural earnings above the poverty line. We implemented an integrated farming model that began with water supplies and moved into crop cultivation and then agro-processing focusing on market access. At the end of all the programmes we’ve always established certain types of business through which local communities can sustain operations. We focus a lot on the participatory approach, transparency and equality. There needs to be a system in place so they can self-govern with a mechanism that ensures everything is done transparently.

We also welcome delegations from as far afield as Colombia and Peru who use the Doi Tung model to learn about integrated development.Recently we were expecting visitors from Africa but because of the pandemic we have had to freeze the programme.