In Thailand, Does Wealth Help or Hinder the Work of NGOs?

By Valerie Halim A HNGR report from Chiang Mai.

Thai Village Group Photo: Annual Thai Village retreat at Mok Fa. Photo Credit: Valerie Halim.

It is impossible to be a Human Needs & Global Resources (HNGR) intern and not talk about wealth. During my 6-month internship in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I had the opportunity to intern at Thai Village Inc. and Urban Light, two nongovernmental organizations (NGO) with different missions and funding models. While Urban Light’s main source of funding is grants, Thai Village’s main source of funding is the profit they gain from selling handmade crafts, although the organization also accepts donations. Interning at these two NGOs during the COVID-19 pandemic taught me about how the amount and source of an NGO’s money dictates what the organization can do for a community. 


Thai Village trains and employs low-income people and supports Christian outreach and education. The office, located in a 4-story shophouse at the corner of an intersection, is about a 10-minute drive from the Chiang Mai airport. I spent two hours every Tuesday teaching English to six Thai Village artisans at the office and helping them make or pack handmade crafts on Friday. Thai Village trains and employs people to work as sewing, woodwork, tin-smithing and jewelry artisans. Some of the revenue from the products goes to the artisans, and some goes to Thai Village’s operations. Artisans can work either at the office or from home. Because of this flexibility, many Thai Village artisans who are single mothers can still look after their children at home.


While working at Thai Village, I made friends with some of the artisans and had the opportunity to hear their stories. One of the artisans I was closest with was Pi Nat. She was one of the students in my beginner-level English class. In 2018, Pi Nat’s husband passed away, and she could no longer work as a farmer in her village in Tak province because the work was too arduous to do alone. She tried doing contract work at her village but only received $6 per day. Pi Nat told me that sometimes her income was not enough to take care of her household since she has two children to feed. One day, she contacted one of her friends from vocational college who had been working at Thai Village for several years. Through her friend’s connection, Pi Nat moved from her village to the city of Chiang Mai to work at Thai Village. Pi Nat then joined Thai Village’s vocational training program, becoming a sewing intern before eventually becoming a full-time seamstress at Thai Village


Thai Village relies on sales to keep their project running. Their products are considered expensive for local handmade craft products in Thailand, so most of their patrons are expatriates in Thailand or people living in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. Thai Village can use the revenue — about $100,000 to $150,000 in gross profits each year, though this has fluctuated due to COVID-19 — however they see fit to meet the needs of the community and their organization.

Valerie and her supervisor at Urban Light. Photo Credit: Valerie Halim.
Valerie with some of her students at Thai Village during their last day of English class. Photo Credit: Valerie Halim.

If you drive 10 minutes north from Thai Village, you will arrive at Urban Light, the other NGO I worked with during my HNGR internship. Urban Light, which does protection and prevention work to end the sexual exploitation of boys in Chiang Mai, has less freedom in its spending even though it takes in about $250,000 per year. Unlike Thai Village, Urban Light is donor-based, relying on grants from foundations and on the generosity of individual donors. Unfortunately, this model requires Urban Light to juggle what the donor wants them to do and what they actually need to do. My supervisor once said in a meeting that a challenge when finding suitable grants for the organization is that many funders do not want to fund basic needs, like housing or scholarships, that do not look flashy or unique. Sometimes, even if funders want to fund organizations fighting human trafficking and child exploitation, they do not want to fund protection programs, which include providing health care, legal support and housing services to survivors. Many donors are only interested in funding prevention programs, such as education and community outreach, because they assume prevention is better than protection. In reality, we must do both at the same time. Even with effective prevention efforts, trafficking and exploitation are not likely to be eradicated soon, and survivors need support. 


During my internship, I was asked to help find relevant grants for Urban Light’s work. As I read through different grant requirements, I found that funders are often interested in funding organizations that do something innovative. In response to these findings, my supervisor expressed frustration at having to reinvent the wheel when Urban Light is already the only organization that works with exploited boys in Thailand. A common dilemma for donor-based NGOs is that organizations must satisfy the wants and needs of funding foundations. As a result, organizations end up running projects that are not actually what the community needs. 


Regardless of their intentions, wealthy funders who are far removed from the community they are funding often place constraints on NGOs that inhibit the organizations’ effectiveness. From the two organizations I worked with, I saw that wealth can be a good thing but can also be easily exploited. In some situations, wealth can be used to help other people. However, there are also cases where wealth — in the case of conditional donations that are not compatible with the community’s needs — limit what an organization can do for their community. My 6-month experience working for two NGOs echoes what theology professor and author Steven J. Friesen concluded: Wealth plays an ambiguous role in society: sometimes alleviating suffering, sometimes creating misery. As a person with wealth, I have learned to consider the power involved in a simple donation because of my HNGR experience. When I have the opportunity to give, I want to focus not on how the donation feels for me but instead on its actual effects on the receiving community.

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