Development from the Bottom Up

[Sulak Sivaraksa, from The Wisdom of Sustainability, 2009] There is an old Thai saying, “In the fields there is rice; in the water there are fish.” Before colonialism, the fertile lands of Southeast Asia – known as the Rice Bowl of Asia – provided food for all its people. Plants grew everywhere, wildlife was plentiful, jungles produced teak and other hardwoods, and the human population was sparse. Communities farmed their own land, wove their own cloth, and were governed and protected by their own institutions – family, community, and a highly developed system of seniority. Production was cooperative and geared toward self-sufficiency and maintaining the balance of nature.

Today 60 percent of the children in rural Siam suffer from malnutrition, millions of Indonesian peasants migrate to the slums of Jakarta, thousands of Filipino farmers have left their land to find work in the Middle East and elsewhere, and small fishermen on the Malaysian coast are barely surviving. Colonization by Western powers caused an upheaval in formerly self-sustaining village production systems. When foreign companies took over large tracts of land for rubber, sugar cane, coconut, and banana plantations, the cash economy replaced barter, and farming for export shifted control of villagers’ destinies from within their own communities to distant market forces. Small farms were acquired by local elites, and new classes of tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and farmworkers emerged.

For more than half a century, colonialism has been replaced by neo-colonialism. Countries that appear to be independent are, in fact, under such enormous economic pressure from the West, they are as-though still colonized. Rural development policies by aid organizations concentrate on agribusiness, forcing peasants to depend on the marketplace for clothing, electricity, water, fuel, construction materials, fertilizers, pesticides, livestock, and agricultural tools. Modernization has brought about more efficient production and an increase in the average standard of living, but the plight of individual peasants has worsened. Benefits have gone to exporters, landlords, plantation owners, mill owners, large farmers, professionals, and high-ranking government officials. This growth of an elite class has led to an increased demand for consumer goods, which, in turn, requires increased agricultural exports.

With their near-total dependence on market forces, the underclasses are finding it difficult to purchase enough food to eat. They sell their produce at market prices; pay off their debts for fertilizer, pesticides, and the other items they use in production; and often don’t have enough cash or produce for themselves. When there is a drought or flooding, the problems multiply.

It is the wealthy farmers with enough land to produce a surplus – a small minority of the rural population – who qualify for bank loans to modernize their production and benefit from government-support schemes. Agribusinesses are flourishing, extending their operations to more and more remote areas. They run their farms and plantations with the labor of farmworkers, who receive subsistence wages, or tenant farmers, for whom they supply raw materials and technology in exchange for up to half the produce.

Farmworkers and sharecroppers have no bargaining power over market prices, rents, and daily wages. Organizing has not helped. Agricultural cooperatives and farmers’ unions are tightly controlled by governments that serve the interests of wealthy farmers. When governments form organizations like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, they simply share methods of repression. For the tenant farmers, production costs increase more quickly than income and they go to moneylenders, who charge them exorbitant interest. Plagued by mounting debts, they need supplemental sources of income, and millions flock to the cities to do heavy labor for low wages…

Modernized agriculture also brings large-scale depletion of natural resources. Forests are rapidly disappearing, and with them much wildlife. The mudfish and edible frogs that thrived in the rice fields and provided a rich source of food for the peasants are being killed by insecticides. Large-scale trawler fishing is depleting marine life and destroying the livelihoods of small fishermen.


When power is centralized, individuals lose control over their destinies. Community values are rarely honored when remote institutions govern their lives…

In the free-trade model of development, multinational corporations replace the village or community as the matrix for human interaction. The argument for free trade is predicated on the theory of comparative advantage brought forth in the nineteenth century by David Ricardo. According to this theory, free trade encourages each country to pursue the economic activities for which it is best suited, thereby promoting comparative advantage and economic efficiency for all. Significant considerations are, however, overlooked. Free-trade advocates do not concern themselves with which groups in society prosper and which ones fall behind. And the effects of trade on non-economic values are not addressed, because so-called developed societies see everything through the lens of economics, and then they transmit that hyper-materialist view into a global perspective. Governments become like machines to maximize opportunities for capitalist investors.

We need to find ways to make communities stronger – socially, politically, and economically. We need to reestablish the commons – the public sphere. We need to engage community members to participate in making decisions about the things that affect their lives and livelihoods. And we need to address the dilemmas caused by the increased dependence of third-world economies on international trade. Corporations move their production facilities to the country that allows the greatest exploitation of workers and the least protection of the environment. Reduced wages and erosion of workers’ rights are the cornerstones of the economic policies of countries that compete for the comparative advantage of of having cheap labor. We are told that protecting workers’ rights will be self-defeating, as it will cause employers to relocate to less conscientious countries. Nations and corporations, and the recent merger of the two, are often perpetrators of structural violence. Their policies increase disparities in wealth, deplete natural resources, and alienate individuals from their root cultures. Driven by profit, these policies seem indifferent to people’s discontent.

As a Buddhist, I do not consider the exploitation of comparative advantage to be the ultimate objective of society. I am interested in a social organization’s capacity to address human suffering, promote justice, and allow individuals to realize their potential. I have seen the effect of free trade on my country, where farmers have been persuaded to abandon self-sufficiency and instead, grow crops for export. These small farmers are then unable to compete with the large, highly efficient farms and, as a consequence, lose their land, forcing them to seek employment in urban construction or manufacturing for $5 a day or less, while their daughters might be lured into prostitution. Outcomes like these, amazingly, constitute “success” for the economic planners who record only the increase in GDP and ignore social disarray and environmental devastation.

Environmental protection must be regulated by international organizations. When individual countries enforce measures to protect the environment, multinational corporations simply migrate to less restrictive places. Countries need protection from having to sacrifice their environments to attract business. We need economies that promote human values, seek to limit suffering, and are committed to democratic principles, rather than ones dependent on global trade and a blind commitment to neoliberal economic policies. We must stop exploiting the earth and her people and rebuild our economies on the basis of wisdom and compassion. This is what E. F. Schumacher called Buddhist economics – societies where people help each other in difficult times, where power is shared rather than fought over, where nature is respected and wisdom cherished. It took a British Catholic, E. F. Schumacher, to remind us that Buddhist economics could serve as an example for those who regard human beings more highly than money. Buddhist economics must be based on sustainability, not unlimited growth. Today, there are good people everywhere taking concrete steps to manifest this vision, with a strong determination to end oppression and move societies in the direction of sustainability.


The people of my country, although never colonized politically, were colonized intellectually and thus alienated from our Buddhist roots. The Buddhist Kingdom of Siam now has more prostitutes than monks. Peasant farmers have migrated to urban slums or remain laborers on land they used to own. Bangkok, once a beautiful city, is now polluted and ugly.

Capitalism brainwashes us through advertising and the skewing of priorities to think we need to become someone other than ourselves to have value. But we can never become more than ourselves by rejecting who we are. When we are firmly rooted in self-respect, we can make healthy choices. In rural Thai society, the people believe that everything has Buddha nature, the potential to attain deep understanding. From this viewpoint, the poor and marginalized are entitled to the same degree of dignity as you and I. The localization of power and economy can be the basis for spiritual health and well-being.

Grassroots activists in Siam have begun farming in traditional ways, forming cooperatives and creating a self-reliant economy. Many cultivate their crops without chemical fertilizers, and operate rice and buffalo banks, thus avoiding moneylenders. A half-million people organized an Assembly of the Poor and staged nonviolent protests over a period of three months that forced the prime minister to give them rights they’d been denied for decades. Development from the bottom up emphasizes individual freedom and responsibility.

True development must be in harmony with the needs of the people and the rhythms of the natural world. Humans are a part of the universe, not its masters. This awareness of the interrelatedness of all beings, as expressed in Buddhism, is lived in the traditions of indigenous peoples throughout the world. They do not separate the political from the personal or spiritual, but dwell in awareness of the sacredness of all life. This understanding guides their every step and every choice.

Cherokee medicine woman and Tibetan Buddhist teacher Dhyani Twahoo says,

There is a stream of compassionate wisdom of which we are all a part. From that flowing heart comes a great wisdom to which each of us is attuned. Peace is alive in us as a seed, as a song. To call it forth is a practice of clear vision and clear speech. See the beauty and praise the beauty, and wisdom’s stream will flow abundantly in our heart.

For corporations, natural resources are just a source of economic benefit. When one location is exhausted, they move to the next. People are relevant only to the extent that they generate profits as laborers or consumers. The modern structural worldview has brought prosperity, democracy, and mobility to a few, and increased poverty to the world’s majority, while reinforcing cronyism disguised as representative democracy.

Under this model of development, it is not unusual for citizens to be cut off from their roots. When the combine harvester was introduced in the rural, agriculture-based region around Lake Songkla in southern Siam, people’s songs, dances, communal meals, and sense of home were replaced by a quick payment to the stranger for the rent of this machine. Today, it is hard to find a single farmer in the region who does not use this grinding behemoth to harvest his rice. Harvesting is quicker, but when they did it by hand, families relied on one another for help, and the work provided a cohesion to village life. Now, working-age men and women from Lake Songkla take jobs in nearby cities, leaving only the very young and very old at home in the villages. When whole villages migrate to urban areas for low-paying jobs, they tend to live in unhealthy, dangerous places and require government services for basic needs they used to provide for themselves, further deteriorating their spirit and culture. Considerations like these remain outside the World Bank’s lending decisions, leaving isolation and separation in their wake.

The developing world is constantly reminded by donor agencies to reevaluate their economic systems toward greater structural openness. We need to remind these agencies to reevaluate their own openness to re-envisioning the development process. Policy planning and evaluation based purely on quantitative analysis, such as doctors per thousand people or GDP per capita, do not address the wide range of human concerns. We need to find a common language between donor agencies and recipients that respects cultural identity and social diversity. The World Bank sees structural adjustment as the freeing up of markets. Local people experience it as clear-cutting.


The word development is widely used but little understood. It is usually regarded as positive, like the words liberty, freedom and democracy. Dr Puey Ungphakorn, who played a central role in shaping Siam’s economic development, enunciated eight prerequisites for development: liberty, peace, justice, mutual caring, worthy goals, well-planned procedures, efficiency, and the careful use of power properly checked. Dr. Puey cited increased income, improved health standards, economic stability, and distribution of the fruits of production throughout the nation as worthy development goals, as opposed to simply increasing the average per capita GDP. He cautioned against the view that national development is just a matter of economics and public welfare. Development has to do with all branches of knowledge and must be based on ethical principles.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu pointed out that the root meaning of the Thai word for development, patana, is “disorderliness,” and a related Buddhist term, vadhana, can mean either “progress” or “regress.” Ivan Illich pointed out that the Latin word progressio, a root idea in development, can mean “madness.” It is difficult to contradict what Buddhadasa and Illich imply.

Different people use the word development differently. We must ask ourselves, what end result are we aiming toward? If our goal is to produce electricity, a clean public water supply, irrigation, and to aid the fishing and agricultural industries, we might decide to build a dam. But if our goal is the well-being of the citizenry, building a dam becomes questionable. How will the fruits of our development projects contribute toward making people more truly human, enhance relations among people, and encourage self-knowledge and insight into the nature of life?

Development can emphasize quantity or quality. With the former, we can measure results, but it is presumptuous to assume that more factories, schools, hospitals, food, clothing, jobs, or income will necessarily enhance the quality of life. Although these are all necessary, they are not sufficient. People want and need to go further and search out and realize their fullest potential. This addresses the question of who are we, and that has to do with sacredness. Development must also take into account the essence of our humanity.


Looking at Gandhi’s approach to life and his encounters with the West can serve us well here. “Gandhian Development,” as I call it, is based on the same foundations as Buddhist philosophy, for it aims at the reduction of craving, avoidance of violence, and development of the spirit. This kind of true development is in accord with nature and the movements and rhythm of life. For Gandhi, quality of life was both the means and the end of development. He rejected both the production and accumulation of material things as life’s aim, emphasizing instead the importance of spirit. He said the less we are dependent on material goods, the greater our freedom of spirit.

If we emphasize simple satisfactions, the preservation of traditional values, and gradual progress in matters both physical and spiritual, other values will follow. This helps develop independence and interdependence, rather than dependence on outside experts. At the village and national levels, Gandhian Development begins and ends with people who are in a strong position to be moral and courageous in their decision-making.

Some argue that adopting Gandhi’s anti-material bias makes it impossible for development to attain its goals, but they forget that the bigger anything becomes, the more dehumanizing it becomes, especially in the ares of machinery and administrative systems. We would do well to consider the words of E. F. Schumacher, who wrote, “The keynote to Buddhist economics is simplicity and nonviolence. From the economist’s point of view, the marvel of the Buddhist way of life is the utter rationality of its pattern – amazingly small means leading to extraordinarily satisfactory results.” Schumacher may be the first Western economist to emphasize that if the small can be made beautiful, economic can hold people as more important than production.

To economists who judge results by quantity, Gandhi’s methods look counterproductive. When Schumacher began to study Gandhian methods, he pointed out that it was probably a good thing that Gandhi did not understand the intricacies of economics, fir it enabled his own genius and his emphasis on the spirit to shine through.

Gandhi’s method begins at the village level, preserves village culture, and promotes progress in village life by increasing the type of production that does not require machinery. It makes play a part of life and work a part of play. The more self-sufficient villages are, the more village participation will be required in making decisions on the national level. This is true decentralization-of-power economics, both politically and culturally. To be sure, this will mean that industry will develop in the cities more slowly, but it offers no opportunity for cities to take advantage of rural areas, and rural people will be less inclined to stream to the cities if village life is satisfying and sustaining.


Using indigenous models like Buddhism is culturally appropriate for development in Asia. In Buddhist development, inner strength must be cultivated first, then compassion and loving kindness toward others. Work is not to “get ahead,” but to enjoy working in harmony for basic needs, with others. A simple life can be satisfying without being exploitative. The Dharma emphasizes personal development that can heal individuals and, by doing so, help transform society.

What if agencies offered development aid in terms similar to the ways an aspirant follows a spiritual path – balancing head and heart, independence and interdependence, quantity and quality? A spiritual teacher does not solve a student’s problems but empowers her to find answers on her own. When loans are designed to increase material prosperity, they cannot solve a society’s problems.

Making sure that everyone has adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medicine is the starting point. These necessities are the foundation for building a spiritual ecology that emphasizes the simple, direct and affordable satisfaction of needs, not luxuries. When we feel nurtured by society and nature, we can envision a kind of development that focuses on individual and community capacity-building. The non-governmental organization (NGO) movement – particularly the movement of local NGOs, directly accountable to local people rather than to international donors – has had a positive effect in this regard by affirming community values.


The Buddhist symbol of Indra’s Net – a web with a mirror at each node reflecting all the other mirrors – can help us understand this development model. Each node encompasses the whole, and vice versa. Envision a community in which power is not just centralized but also exists in every corner. Individuals and communities determine their own direction and then ask for structural support. World Bank initiatives presently disregard the need for individuals to participate in the development process on their own terms. In this model, connections between groups and individuals are vital, as are cooperation and the democratic and dynamic interplay of all community sectors. This model contains clear, efficient decision-making methods, de-emphasizing the structural hierarchies of the institutions with whom development agencies usually partner.

The World Bank and other lending and donor agencies have expertise in infrastructural development and developing loans. It is unrealistic that suddenly they will take on issues of personal transformation, nor is it in anyone’s interest that they do so. But we do need to cultivate connection and cooperation, and the World Bank could help by fostering just relations among sectors of developing societies.

For poverty to be lessened, space must be created for the poor to articulate their own visions. The notion of expert must be expanded beyond just those with Ph.D.s and abstract specialized knowledge to include those with hands-on experience and an integrated understanding. This participatory model of development is a small, yet positive step, toward creating a world in which interdependence is honored and organizations cultivate within themselves a kind of “social biodiversity.”

We must challenge economic policies that are not accountable to the people they supposedly serve and challenge legal and judicial systems that maintain an unjust status quo. We need alternative economic and political strategies, as E. F. Schumacher said, “as if people mattered.” We need education that encourages the integration of the many aspects of our being, connecting head with heart. Through these processes, we can bring about a more just and peaceful world.


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