Train of Thought

The picture you just clicked from shows me with a group of students from Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) visiting the Bangkok area’s most unlikely market. The market is set on railroad tracks used by a commuter rail service. Every time a train approaches, stalls are dismantled, tarpaulins hauled out of the way, and vendors and customers secure themselves away from the train’s path.

The train gone, the market resumes. Most remarkably the whole operation is natural, automatic, part of the rhythm of life.

A number of authors have challenged the view that Western style large-scale planning is appropraite for international development in countries such as Thailand. William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden sees the big plans of well-meaning development agencies as damaging to prospects for meaningful development in the absence of incentives for their implementation.

A read of Naga by architect Sumet Jumsai takes the argument against Western planning further by suggesting that the very flow of life in his native Thailand has a special conception with which Western notions are quite out of tune. Water, Kuhn Sumet argues, is the key to understanding how Thai people go about their daily business. A series of natural events — the rising of tides, the onset of monsoons — bring about natural adjustments by communities. Life is not planned, but responds to the changing signals of the natural environment.

The students saw this in action at this market place where the seemingly-impossible passage of a train right through an active commercial area took place faultlessly, and its complexity was handled as naturally as running to shelter from rain.

The lesson for those that wish to make progress in international development is to understand, respect, and respond to developing country ways of living that may run counter to Western cultural assumptions. By immersing ourselves in cultures where we wish to work, we can come to look for solutions natural rather than foreign to the client culture, and therefore far more likely to be successful in implementation.

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