The Maeramit Development Group or MDG (yes, it is a subtle reference to the UN Millennium Development Goals) is a CAS group where the aim is to sustainably develop Baan Maermait village located in Omgoi District, Chiang Mai province of northern Thailand. Omgoi district is one of the 10 poorest districts in Thailand.
The only way into the village is hike. It was not a short walk along a country road, but in fact a 4 hour long hike through mountainous terrain. It might seem unpleasant but in fact it was very enjoyable and the scenery was beautiful.
After reaching the village, I was a little shocked as it was not what I had expected. The conditions were not bad at all but it was all very rustic. All houses were made out of either bamboo or wood that the villagers get from the forest around them. There were pigs and chicken running around freely on the roads, eating what ever they could find. It was truly a very different feeling. As the village is located inside a valley, there was no phone signal and electricity. I went off the grid, I was cut off from the outside world.
I have been up to Maermait village three times and each time I have looked at the village in a different way. My first trip was in August 2013. This was the first ever organized trip to Maermait village and nobody knew what to expect. As a foreigner stepping foot into the traditional Karen village, I felt very welcomed. The villagers were all very friendly and made me, and everyone else, feel at home. The goal of this initial trip was to conduct a needs analysis for the village which could then lead to developmental works to happen. By the end of the trip, the group was able to identify 5 basic needs of the village: Water, Sanitation, Education, Trash Disposal and Improved Agriculture. Once we got back to school, we split into groups and started to work on each goal. I was placed in charge of the sanitation group. Everyone takes the bathroom for granted. There is always one within walking distance from where you live. This is a huge contrast to the village. Sanitation was quite a large issue in the village, more than 80% of villagers do not have access to a bathroom! Although people might think bathrooms are not a very important thing to build but the truth is that proper sanitation is a very vital for villagers as good sanitation increases health and would have an effect on the yield, which, as a result, would increase their income.
The second trip to the village was during December 2013. The goal of this trip was to research more into our individual projects and to create a stronger bond with the villagers. My group conducted further investigation on how to make bathrooms and we were lucky enough to talk to the local hospital staff on their sanitation project. This gave us a very good idea of how to proceed with our project and was were able to estimated the amount of money needed to set up the bathrooms.
To raise funds for our project, my group explored a variety of options. However, the fastest way to obtain a large amount of funding was through the NIST Development Bank (a school bank that gives out loans and grants to various service projects at NIST in order for these projects to skip the fundraising step and move onto conducting much more meaningful action). We needed 66,000 baht to build 8 bathrooms for the village and after presenting our proposal to the Bank, we obtained a grant for that amount. This is a great accomplishment for our small group of 5 people.
The third trip in June 2014 was the action phase. With the funding, all materials for the bathrooms were all brought locally and shipped into the village by a 4×4 jeep with the help of the local government and Buffalo Tours, who has been aiding us in the project since the beginning. This was done before our arrival to the village and all of this made me very excited as it is the time that we would make a change to the village. In the three short days that I spent at the village, the whole group manage to build all 8 bathrooms for 8 families, so people from these families will have their own bathrooms and no longer need to share or go into the forest to go to the bathroom. On the last night, we had a party with the villagers and witnessed how happy they were with their new bathrooms. It was a happy night for me as all of my hard work had paid off.
When I came back from this trip, I reflected on the project and made improvements to my plan. This would aid what might be my final trip to the village in January 2015 where the plan is to build better bathrooms for the villagers.
Omgoi is a very different place to anywhere I have been on earth. It maybe be one of the few places left in Thailand where you can not call on your mobile phone! Although without the resources, the villagers at Omgoi live a very happy life. However, as someone coming from a much more a world with greater technology it would be hard to get detached from them. Also, this project got me to realize the dangers of development. As the village is much more connected to the world, it can become harder for them to compete with others which could instead drive them into even more poverty. But the real danger is the threat that development poses to their culture. If they accept the life of the real world it would mean that part of their culture and heritage would be lost, something that the village treasures so dearly.
During this project, I have learnt a lot of different skills. First I learnt how to conduct needs analysis. This is a very important skill as it would determine in which direction the development project would go. This process would allow me to identify the village’s true needs instead of my idea of what the village needs. Secondly, I develop skills for program management. From identifying the need to developing a project proposal, fund raising and finally implementing i was able to experience the whole management cycle. Lastly, I also got skills in goals setting. I learnt that we must set S.M.A.R.T.T goals. This skill would come in handy for my future endeavors.
I would like to continue with this project even after I graduate from NIST. I might be able to visit the village as a chaperon for the school. It has been a great experience working with a lot of different people and learning about the true meaning for sustainable development. There were a lot of skills and ideas that I have not been able to learn inside the classroom and I think it is these skills that is very valuable for my future learning and development in this field.