COVID-19 Op-ed

Thailand’s Community Pantries: Cooking up a future for the Thai Civil Society?

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Suthida ChangSuthida is
currently pursuing an MPA in Innovation, Public Policy and Public Value at
University College London, UK, where she volunteers as a Project Access International
Mentor, a member of the Student Union Volunteering Think Tank and actively
contributes to UCL Asiatic Affairs as an Events Executive. She is a World
Youth Alliance certified member who leads the WYA UCL Chapter to advocate for
human dignity and Cultural Intelligence.

Looking back at 2020, it is undeniable that COVID-19 has
evolved from a global health crisis to a political-security debate and now a
socioeconomic emergency. For tourism-dependent Thailand, COVID-19’s
restrictions on international mobility has caused the Thai economy to plunge,
perhaps to the lowest point since the 1997 Tom Yum Gung financial crisis.
Coupled with political unrest and natural disasters, analysts suggest it
might take at least three years before the Thai economy can return to
pre-COVID levels (Chudasri & Sangwonwanich, 2020) as up to 13,400
business are predicted to close (UCA News, 2020).In the social sphere,
despite government subsidies and rounds of campaigns that encourage domestic
travel, such as the ‘Rao Tiew Duay Gun’ and ‘Khun La Kreung’ initiatives,
poverty and hunger continue to be highlighted as main concerns for Thailand’s
administrators (UCA News, 2020). Millions of Thai people are hungry for
social protection, income, medical access, education and literally, starved
of food.Amidst the bleak future of the COVID-19 recession and government
resource limitations, a rather peculiar actor entered the playing field and became
a beacon of hope for ordinary Thai people. Thailand’s civil society stepped
in to ameliorate the pandemic-triggered hunger crisis. Inspired by similar
projects like the Little Free Pantry Movement and Foodbank that were
successful in America and Australia (Coconuts Bangkok, 2020), Thailand’s
community pantry project — Too Pan Sook or
“Pantries of Sharing” — was launched in early May.Starting from locations in
Bangkok and Rayong, these community-driven initiatives spread to 43 provinces
over one weekend to cover locations across Central Thailand, the Northeastern
region, Northern Thailand, Eastern Thailand and Southern Thailand (Post
Reporters, 2020). These pantries were usually stocked with non-perishable
food or items with a long shelf-life including canned fish, cooking oil,
instant noodles and grains, although fresh products like eggs were also found
on the shelves (Khaosod English, 2020).This initiative born out of ordinary
Thai people proved to be life-saving for many of the country’s vulnerable
groups who have had their economic means cut off because of the COVID-19
restrictions. Beyond the pandemic, the success of Thailand’s community-driven
food solution could serve as a turning point that challenges the country to
rethink its understanding of and perceptions  towards ‘civil society’.A
civil society generally refers to an independent entity between the private
sphere and the public sphere that serves grassroots needs. Civil society
advocates for rights through actions that pursue value-creating
sociopolitical, environmental and/or economic objectives. Civil society also
constitutes part of the system of check and balances that keep the state
accountable, such as through influencing how new policies are enacted and
monitoring implementation.However, civil society tends to be interpreted as
anti-government in the Thai political-cultural context. Contrary to a
tradition of ‘listen and follow’, civil society ‘influences and negotiates’.
Characterized by the ongoing protests, civil society is likened to the ‘dark
side’. On top of that, power dynamics also need to be examined in the Thai
case, whereby concern is reflected in questions like who are or can become
part of civil society? Who are those with the power to influence the agenda?
Who decides what rights and policies to advocate for? How can we ensure
policy-makers will take civil society recommendations seriously? And what can
we do to invite participation from all?Although these are genuine concerns
that determine the success and sustainability of Thai civil society, the
scale and success of Thailand’s community pantries are concrete proof of the
ambitions and capacity of the local civil society. Where politics matter,
Thai civil society is not necessarily anti-establishment but rather a
complementary arm of the government to enhance public value though its own
initiatives.Operating by the principle of ‘by the people, for the people’,
civil society is capable of delivering high impact and contextualized actions
that address grassroots needs. While there isn’t a recipe for Thai civil
society to flourish within the current political climate, community pantries
might cook up an opportunity for civil society — its rational, purpose,
mechanisms — to be re-evaluated and re-introduced into the Thai context. A
potentially brighter, more accepted future for a non-traditional policy actor
to be involved in the policy-making process is exciting, and frankly, much
needed.References:Chudasri, D. &
Sangwonwanich, P. ( 2020, September 30). World Bank sees 10.4%
. Bangkok Post. Coconuts
Bangkok. (2020, May 11). Help the Hungry:
Sharing Pantries
spread across Thailand. Coconuts Bangkok.
English. (2020, May 11). Thais feed hungry neighbors in pandemic
with ‘Sharing
Pantries’. Khaosod.
Reporters. (2020, May 11). Community pantries expand to 43
Bangkok Post.
News Reporter. (2020, September 24). Hunger rife among Thai poor as
Covid-19 batters
economy. UCA News.

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