Albion Monitor /News

Poor Suffering Most as Crisis Deepens

by Prangtip Daorueng

(IPS) BANGKOK -- Supin, a 14-year-old village girl in north-eastern Thailand, considers herself luckier than many of her classmates. She still goes to school everyday, unlike most of her friends who have already dropped out of school.

But staying in school has become a struggle for Supin, who lives in Buriram province, in the wake of Thailand's worst economic crisis. Now, the lunch she packs for school consists of some rice and half a boiled egg -- the other half she shares with her younger sister.

Since the crisis took its toll on Thailand's big businesses and cramped the lifestyles of the urban middle classes, a number of social analysts have said the poor were luckier because they were used to difficult times.

Unemployed migrant workers and their families, they said, can return to the villages, where there is supposed to be abundant food products. Indeed, Thai policymakers are saying the rural economy may help the country ride out its economic storm.

Among the groups pushed to the most difficult situations are children
But social critics now say this theory may be wishful thinking. A group of 11 non-government organizations with the Foundation for Child Development, whose work involves 4,500 poor children throughout the country, recently issued a report saying the poor are in for even harder times.

The foundation's survey report says the poor in both the villages and cities are feeling the pinch from the economic slowdown that began with the devaluation of the Thai baht in July last year and the crisis of confidence it sparked. Among the groups pushed to the most difficult situations are children.

For instance, most parents of the 1,600 students in a village high school in Prangku district, Sisaket province in the north-east, are either farmers or migrant workers who left home to work in Bangkok and whose income allowed them to support their children's education.

Though families are trying to keep their children in school, many students are unable to concentrate on their studies because of hunger pangs. "Teachers told us recently that the school had to add another drinking water tank in school, after finding out that many students skip lunch and drink water instead," related Kemporn Viroonrapun, director of the Foundation.

When asked why they were skipping lunch, the children were too embarrassed to give the real reason and simply said they were "not hungry." But "the true story is many of their parents have lost their jobs, while food in the market is getting more expensive," Kemporn added.

The foundation's survey, based on studies involving 263 street children, children in Bangkok's slums, and poor children in villages, shows that the painful effects on poor people when they were in the cities have followed them to the villages.

There, evidence of livelihood woes can be seen in the collapse of small community businesses and increases in families' debts. Life is also affected by rising prices and poor demand for products and services in the cities.

"Because of the increasing price of animal food, people have stopped raising pigs, which have always been their resource of income and food," said the foundation's report.

It added that dressmaking orders that used to come from Bangkok have been canceled, because the products were not selling. Owners of many small businesses in villages have been forced to sell their equipment because of declining clientele.

Likewise, migrant workers in the cities have lost their jobs, and many taxi drivers in Bangkok have left their cars to come home because they could not cope with rising oil prices, the report explained.

As families' income shrink and jobs are shed, money for sending children to school and feeding them have likewise become more scarce.

"Ten years ago we worked hard on campaign against malnutrition in children. It looks like the problem is coming back now"
The majority of village students are getting less money from their parents for food in school, even as the cost of living has risen sharply. At the same time, the government has cut the school lunch budget, which had helped subsidize 40 to 50 percent of lunch fees for poor students in a number of schools.

As a result, more students are having to spend more time outside schools working for money. Some have had to leave school altogether in order to work.

Like their rural counterparts, the poor in towns and cities are also struggling hard to survive. In the past months, the owner of a small grocery shop in a Bangkok slum said instant noodles and eggs have become popular among his clients because they are cheaper than other food.

"We are getting less money, but kids always demand to eat. They can't understand what's going on right now," said 64-year-old Ladda, whose daughter has left her 10-year-old son with his grandmother in order to find a job somewhere else.

Ladda says she has had to reduce money for the boy's daily lunches from 10 baht (20 U.S. cents) to five baht (10 cents) because his mother does not have enough money.

Far from having alternatives in the villages, Kemporn said "in fact the poor are the group of people who have to pay more for their cost of living because they don't have much choice."

Kemporn says NGOs working with children are bracing for possible reversals in health and education campaigns, especially since Thailand's crisis looks like it will persist given continuing financial instability in Asia. "Ten years ago we worked hard on campaign against malnutrition in children. It looks like the problem is coming back now," he said.

Saying the crisis could last at least three years, the 11 NGOs that conducted the study on children urged the government to pay more attention to the poor now.

"The government shouldn't think only in terms of solving macroeconomic problems, but also focus on the micro economy which will be more helpful to the poor," the report argued. "While the government pays much attention to big businesses' liquidity, it must also give enough attention to the liquidity problem among the poor."

The group suggested the government help community businesses grow, as an alternative to bigger-scale investments which are collapsing at the moment. Safety nets to help the poor cope must already be started. It also called on the government to set up places where poor people can get free food or needed assistance.

Meantime, however, Thailand's poor have little choice but to continue trying to find ways to cope.

For 15-year-old Keaw, who lives in Kukan district of Sisaket, that means selling the sweets that his mother makes, during his free time. He gets on a motorcycle daily and hawks them for four U.S. cents apiece. Keaw says he needs more new books for the next school semester, so his selling business will have to continue for some time.


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Albion Monitor January 19, 1998 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor)

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