UPLift--Poverty Alleviation For The Ultra-Poor

UPLift is a program designed to empower communities on the Thai/Burmese border that lack food security, opportunities for income, and education. Through the use of small grants and skills trainings, these families receive the opportunity to pull themselves out of poverty without having to rely on external aid indefinitely.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Being Creative to Survive

On previous posts we have discussed the definition of the “ultra-poor” in Thailand to consist of those lacking food security, Thai nationality, land ownership, or social/physical capability. The following is a tangible example of such a community that we have met on the Thai/Myanmar border.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind
On the outskirts of a Thai border town there is a landfill. It consists of a few old buildings, a water reservoir and a towering heap of trash, much as one would envision when thinking about a landfill. The heap is as wide as it is long, meaning it covers several dozen acres, and is easily 50 feet tall at its' highest. We had a chance to visit here for the first time in November.

Over eighty families live on this landfill. Living in handmade roofed structures (calling them “houses” would be quite the exaggeration) on and around the trash heap, these people make a living by sorting through waste from the nearby city for goods to resell—cardboard, plastic, glass, metal scraps, and other things with remaining market value.

Why would someone voluntarily choose to live on a landfill? I understand the idea of migrant workers, and I have seen the Thai side of the border. There are many short-term “jobs” that a Burmese illegal migrant could find—construction, factory work, street cleaning, and even begging. How could living in trash possibly be better than any of these?

The reasoning for this makes sense once you hear it. These families had come to Thailand looking for work and a future, ran into difficulties with those normal veins of work, and needed somewhere to go. Somewhere to hide. Somewhere to be left alone. If a family has been threatened or feel that they are in danger, do not have a security net of other Burmese people to live together with, or simply have disabilities and cannot have a physically taxing job, then places such as this provide some isolation from the outside world.

Upon our first visit there, I wasn’t sure how to act.  The community members here do not like pictures being taken of them, especially by foreigners.  Because of this, we refrained from taking pictures of their faces (only ours), and asked permission before taking any other types of photographs.

There were several fires burning along the main path where most of the huts were located.  The smell that we all know from a wet trash can was strong, but not overbearing.  Dogs barking, children running around, adults rummaging through smaller orderly piles of specific recyclables that they had already collected.  I wonder who purchases the recyclables, and for what prices?  Do they come here to purchase, or do the families travel somewhere else?  How much income can a family of four that is good at collecting garbage make, on a good day?  What about a bad day?  And families with a single parent?  How much food can these families afford, what kind of food, and where can they purchase it?  Does the local government have an opinion on these families, and is it one of annoyance or tolerance?  How long have the families been living here?  There are many questions to ask when thinking about this area.
The funniest thing about our visits has been the attitudes of the children there. Most of them attend a nearby migrant school, but some are kept at home to help with work.  Outgoing, happy, not shy to say hello or ask our names. One boy had a laugh so contagious, so happy, that I wanted to move in there as well just so that the pre-emptive Thumb War he declared on me could continue on a regular basis.

Being Creative To Survive

Having our Burmese field officer with us, we decided to speak with a few of the families about food sources and if they were interested in growing vegetables.  The most vocal man in the group explained that he already grows some veggies and motioned for us to follow him.  Upon following we found a secluded area behind his families' hut, where he had been growing chilies, rosella and also had long beans climbing up an electricity line.  He had a small amount of space to use, but was using it in a very creative and effective way!  He also had a patch of land behind his house in mind for expanding the garden.  However, he lacked the tools to do so.  The following is video of when we visited him:

We purchased four sets of gardening tools and seeds for him to use, some concrete rings for a well, and also asked him to encourage other families in the area to begin farming with him.  Within a month he has cleared the small area behind his home, dug a ten foot-deep well, used old tattered netting from the landfill to construct a fence and has begun planting long beans, pumpkins, kale, mustard greens, more chilies, and morning glory.  The more work he does, the more interest his neighbors are showing to begin growing as well!

Check out the updates of his garden, from Day 1 to Day 45.   

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Mae Sot Pilots Up and Running!

December is here, which means the school year in Thailand is in full swing.  After coming back from semester break and having the first few weeks of readjusting to class life, Burmese migrant students have plenty to learn about...math, science, history, language, and now managing a personal garden!

After two months of careful planning and land preparation with the school staff and agricultural experts, UPLift and Room To Grow Foundation have successfully launched two veggie garden pilots in the Mae Sot area.  The main goal of these pilots is for the schools involved to provide their students not only with a source of inexpensive and nutritious food, but also with agricultural experience and skills that they can use anywhere in the future. Take a look!


Both trainings took place over the course of a weekend and the presentations/materials were given in Burmese by Nobel, our ag field officer.  These trainings covered the following:

-Soil Quality
-Plant Selection
-Plant Nutrition
-Garden Management
-Organic Fertilizer recipe and production
-Organic Insecticide recipe and production
-Seasonal Calendars (Creation and Uses)

With the soil and plants already prepared, teachers and selected students can now begin applying the skills covered and share this information with their peers.  Both schools have excellent principals who are very active and eager to improve the lives of their students, so there is little left for us to do!  The next step for us is visiting occasionally and evaluating what "stuck", and then improving our training materials for future trainings and troubleshooting with the schools.  Enjoy the pics!

Working on a water diagram for the garden


Elbow-deep in microorganisms!

Suitable Crops, listed by season

Job Well Done!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Day After the Elections...

This past Monday brought along with it new things, both good and bad.  As you can see above, the good news is that we had our first trial run of the school garden training that we plan to use with migrant schools in Mae Sot.  We were linked with a local Karen migrant school that had interest in starting a new garden as well as an existing budget to do so, so we were excited to try out what we had.

The training lasted the entire morning and into the early afternoon.  Some lessons learned:
-The content of the training was useful and captured the participants' attention
-However useful the information was, the training did not provide the students and teachers a chance to practice the skills touched upon.  For the next training we need to integrate planning sessions into the training itself, so that the students can bride the new knowledge directly to their school, rather than waiting until a later time.
-A full day would be much more suitable than a half day for this training.

Upon finishing around 2:00 we packed up, said our goodbyes and headed back to the office in Mae Sot.  I had to catch a minibus out of town by 3:00 in order to get to Chiang Mai for other work errands, and was in a hurry to leave.  This was November 8, the day after the elections in Burma.

As I was leaving, the bad news of the day reared its head:  a Karen friend mentioned that there was a battle raging in Myawaddy (just across the border from Mae Sot) and that many Burmese and Karen people had crossed the river and were heading down the main Thai highway for help, and that her mother was one of them. Slightly worried, I had a five hour bus ride to guess about what had happened during the daytime while we were at the training and oblivious to the events of the day.

It wasn't until nearly ten o'clock in the evening when I finally had a chance to check the news:  20,000 to 30,000 refugees (estimated) had crossed the river, shells and mortar rounds from the fighting bewteen the Burmese military and a Karen army brigade had landed on the Thai side and wounded several people, and personal friends of mine had family members that they had not yet been able to find across the border.

It may be a while before things return to normal over there, just across that shallow river.  In the meantime all we can do is help where we can and within our own means.  Education and nutrition are ways to fight back, after all.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Agriculture Projects Underway in Mae Sot

After one month of preparation, our two garden sites in Mae Sot are nearly ready to begin!

Together with Room To Grow Foundation, Mark and Paul were able to survey five Burmese migrant schools in the area.  In addition, we are thankful to have had Boon from the Mekong Minority Foundation (MMF) visiting to assist with surveying and agricultural expertise.  Boon is Sgaw Karen, which allowed him to communicate with teachers and students much more efficiently than the rest of us.

Hway Ka Loke is a migrant school roughly ten kilometers outside of Mae Sot city, and about three kilometers away from the Burmese-Thai border.  The students and teachers are mostly Pho Karen, and originate from western Karen State in Burma.  There are over 370 students in attendance at the school, of which 220 stay in the boarding houses adjacent to the school.

Site #2 is also near Mae Sot, and comprises of ethnic Burmese students and teachers.  Due to concerns for security and confidentiality of the students and their families, we've been recommended not to mention the name or location.

By the end of November we have trainings planned at each school.  Our goals from these trainings are:

-Share knowledge, skills and abilities with the teachers and students so that they can have a productive, inexpensive source of food year round
-Improve the problem-solving skills of the teachers and students
-Use methods for more efficient water storage during the dry season, and learn from what goes right/what goes wrong
-Give migrant students a base of knowledge that they can take (and use) anywhere they go in the future, so that they and their families benefit

Over the past month ground has been plowed, equipment has been purchased, plans have been made, and fun has been had!  Check out some photo updates for both Hway Ka Loke and Site #2 .

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Rain, Rain, Don't Go Away

It has become clear after four months that dry season farming will be an important constraint for UPLift to focus on to help poor families in Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, and Mae Sot.

After reading that sentence, you probably have some questions in your head.  What does 'dry season farming' mean, exactly?  If it is a good source of income for people in impoverished areas, why isn't it practiced on a regular basis already?  And how does it apply to people on the other side of the world?  Why should we even know about it, for that matter?

Dry season farming is a term more easily understood when thinking about countries that have a rainy season.  This part of Thailand has three seasons--rainy season (July to October), cool season (November to February), and hot season (March to June).

Rainy season is the busiest time period for families in rural areas because they depend on the rainwater for their annual crops.  Planting and harvesting rice, corn or vegetables is usually started in June and completed by December.  For the remaining part of the year (January to May), sources of water are limited and most rural families have to stop farming.

Those that have low levels of education or lack Thai nationality usually travel to the nearest town and find day labor. Some common examples are construction work, street cleaning, and housekeeping.  The worst case scenarios are jobs like prostitution or drug smuggling, but the vast majority are simply jobs that don't provide minimum wage, and don't provide income on a daily basis.  All of this can be traced back to a limited water supply that causes experienced farmers to stop farming for five months. 

Things like irrigation systems and underground wells can provide farmers with the ability to grow another crop.  However, there is a problem with this mode of thinking--irrigation, wells, and water tanks are all expensive.  Families or schools with small amounts of land and small cash-on-hand cannot possibly afford these costs themselves, and must rely on the government or external sources for assistance.  Government and development organizations, on the other hand, don't like spending lots of money on technologies like these unless they benefit a large number of people.

Therefore, one challenge for UPLift is to find effective, inexpensive ways of storing and using water during dry season, so that individual families can increase or even double their annual income without going into debt.  For the past few months we have been experimenting with small water storage ideas for small plots of land (one acre or less).  Take a look at pictures of one such experiment, our rainwater reservoir in Ban Huay Lue, Chiang Rai Province.

We are designing a cheap water system with supplies that are easy to find in the area, so that families can maintain keep the water system for themselves.  Beyond the initial UPLift investment (we usually shoot for US$200-300 per family) and skills trainings, the target group can then be self-reliant, farm throughout the entire year, and not have to rely on local government or NGOs to provide budget.

Pictures of the process of building the reservoir can be found here and here.

Microfinance beyond credit: the human side of borrowing and lending

Microfinance Beyond Credit -- BRAC

The link above is an excellent description of why microfinance for ultra-poor families is helpful for families without exisiting options for having regular income. We here at UPLift use ideas such as these as inspiration, not only in locating the poorest families and communities here in Northern Thailand, but making lasting relationships with them as well.

As recently published on the BRAC blog.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Project Focus--Mae Sot, Tak Province

Mae Sot, a bustling frontier town nestled on the western Thai border with Burma, has an extremely diverse population.  It is also a relatively new home to thousands of Karen refugees fleeing from their homes in Burma.  Some of these families have just arrived in the past few months, while others have been living in one of the many officially recognized refugee camps on the Thai border for over a decade.

In addition to those with refugee status, there are many more without status of any kind.  This group is comprised of migrant workers who cross the border in search off a safe home, or sometimes enough income for their children to prosper in the future.  Without even legal refugee status, migrant workers and their families do not have access to basic health, education, or property rights.  In many cases these people find work at large factories or plantations, where labor is intensive and pay is low.

Beginning in October, the UPlift Project is initiating a school garden initiative in and around the Mae Sot area, including the Mae La refugee camp, the Umphium refugee camp, and numerous boarding houses and schools for migrant children throughout the area.  This school garden project will focus on providing food security to the students and youth of these areas.  In addition, we will be testing inexpensive methods and devices for water storage and usage during the dry season here in Thailand.

We are excited to be collaborating with Room To Grow Foundation, an organization in Mae Sot that has helped us identify the need for food security in these informal schools.  This year has witnessed a large amount of budget cuts by foreign donors due to the poor world economy at large and the neccessity to trim down operations by foreign aid and development organizations.  However, we are enthusiastic to have this opportunity to find ways to improve the quality of life for those who don't possess the means to find opportunities for themselves.

Click here for more photos of UPlift's initial visit to Mae Sot

Monday, September 20, 2010

Three Month Review

To give readers a better idea of the areas UPlift has been reviewing we've compiled this list of communities visited, as well as places we are planning on visiting soon!

Mae Yao Region, Chiang Rai Province
Huay Chompu--Akha Community. Surveyed, did not find suitable match for project.
Song Kwae Pattana--Akha Community. Surveyed, did not find suitable match for project.
Ja Dte--Lahu Community. Surveyed, did not find suitable match for project.
Doi Baw 1--Akha Community. Surveyed, currently under assessment.
Doi Baw 2--Akha Community.  Surveyed,currently under assessment.
Ban Ja Le--Akha Community.  Survey set for October.
Thoed Thai Region, Chiang Rai Province
Huay Yuak--Akha Community.  Survey set for late September.
Ja Dti--Lahu Community.  Survey set for October.
Huay Mae Kham--Shan Community.  Survey set for October.
Mae Salong Nai--Thai Government School.  Survey set for October.
A Hai--Akha Community.  Surveyed, did not find suitable match for project.
Thoeng Region, Chiang Rai Province
Pracha Pak Dee--Hmong Community.  Currently under assessment.
Mae Sot Region, Tak Province
Informal education schools and boarding houses for migrant students in the Mae Sot area  have been identified as areas for expanding vegetable garden pilot projects.
Fang Region, Chiang Mai Province
"Community 1"--Shan Community. Garden project underway, close to 2 months in .
"Community 2"--Shan IDP Camp.  Garden project underway, 2 weeks in. 
Daylight School--Informal Education School.  Garden project underway, 1 month in.
Suan Cha School--Thai Government School.  Garden project underway, 1 month in.
Ban Pha Kha--Lahu Community.  Surveyed, did not find suitable match for project.
Chiang Dao Region, Chiang Mai Province
Palaung communities have been identified as a target group, surveying set for October.

Monday, September 6, 2010

UPlift Journal Update--Pracha Pak Dee

Pracha Pak Dee is a Hmong community located in the high hills separating Laos from Thailand.  Beyond raising corn and mountain rice, farmers in this area raise pigs and grow cauliflower to sell at Thai markets on the plains of Chiang Rai below.

However, most of the poorer farmers only have enough liquidity to grow one crop of corn/rice per year.  Any farming beyond that would involve taking out a loan or finding a new source of water.

(Click here for more photos of our first visit to this Hmong village)

2 Weeks Makes a Huge Difference

Great news from Chiang Mai!  We went to visit our garden project at Suan Cha School to see how everything was progressing.  Two weeks after the planting and fertilizer trainings the garden looks fantastic.  The soil must be good, because the vegetables here are thicker and healthier than vegetables in other areas.

Nineteen students in the 3rd grade tend this particular garden.  Each student has their own row of vegetables complete with a sign showing their name and village.  This has seemed to give them some pride in trying to have the best row of vegetables.

What a difference two weeks can make...from before the project:

...to the day of the training...

...to now!

This school is important to us at UPlift because it is a perfect example of what can be done at a small school that lacks budget but has a small amount of land.  We hope to duplicate this system many times in other schools throughout Thailand, most notably in the Mae Sot area.

Full Photo Update of Suan Cha School

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Survey Areas Expanded

We have added Thoeng District (Chiang Rai Province) and the Muang/Tha Song Yang Districts (Tak Province) to our survey areas.  Take a closer look at our interactive map:

View UPLift Survey Areas in a larger map

After nearly two months of working on UPLift, our criteria for locating households in need has changed accordingly from those used by BRAC in Bangladesh to the environment here in Thailand.  We usually look for two or more of the following:
a) Landless households
b) Migrants without full nationality
c) Households with social constraints that prevent them from having normal stability (eg, HIV/AIDS, physical disability, single mothers in communities with cultural stigma)
d) Households that have trouble finding enough food for all of its members.

If you have any questions about UPLift or have comments on how to improve this journal, don't hesitate to send us an email at uplift.khomloy@gmail.com.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Garden Project Expansion in Chiang Mai

We are happy to announce that two more sites in Fang district, Chiang Mai province are being started! Some more info on Suan Cha School and the Daylight School:
More pictures of Suan Cha School
More pictures of Daylight School
Suan Cha Primary School has 50+ students that are of Palaung ethnicity, which is a small hill tribe originally located in the Shan State, Burma. The village nearest to the school is a group of Palaung who have recently migrated to Thailand.

Daylight School, our next site for expansion, is located on an orange plantation in the hills of Fang. It is on plantations such as this one where thousands of Shan migrants come to work and live. Lan Mao, also a Shan, is currently serving as sole teacher there for around 20 children aged 5-15 years.
Daylight was founded by Blood Foundation, a local NGO in Fang focusing on education projects for ethnic minorities, most notably the Shan. Blood Foundation also has worked closely with Suan Cha School for the past year and was very helpful in helping locate these communities.

Our Garden Project addresses the issue of food security for the ultra-poor, gives them the opportunity to reduce their food expenses and in the process improves their chances of supporting their children’s futures.

On another front, Paul and Mark just finished an initial survey of areas in and around Mae Sot, including the Mae La and Umphium refugee camps. Keep your eyes open for some interesting news in the next week or so…

Monday, August 9, 2010

Families on the Thai/Myanmar Border Have Little To Choose From

Tachilek is a hectic Burmese market town on the border across from Mai Sai, Thailand. In addition to being the home of numerous vendors, restaurant owners, taxi drivers and tourist guides it also has a large number of ultra-poor residents. These families, new arrivals from other portions of Myanmar and unable to support their means through normal work, are driven towards another option—street begging in Thailand.
Mae Doo is such an example. Single mother of five, she spends three weeks a month on the streets of Chiang Rai city begging with her children. It is enough to keep her family going, she says, and garners far more income than her previous job, being a fresh produce vendor. However, her children don’t have the luxury of attending school and they rarely even have enough money to treat medical problems. Her second son has had an infection on his right foot for a while now, and she might not be able to afford the costs of sending him to a Thai hospital.

We are trying to come up with innovative ways for women like Mae Doo to maintain a steady income without having her children on the streets as well. If successful, her children can then have access to formal education which provides a path out of the cyclical rut of ultra-poor families.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Beginnings of a Garden--UPLift Project Journal

Spending time listening to communities in Chiang Mai Province, Thailand has given us the opportunity to understand the daily lives of recent arrivals to the area, most notably refugees and migrant workers. Through working with Blood Foundation, a Fang-based organization, UPLift has been interacting with Shan and other ethnic minority communities in the area for the last month.

(Related: See progress of UPLift's Garden Project in Fang)

This time has also taught us an important lesson that is usually daunting when beginning a development project: Sometimes the hardest barriers to overcome for marginalized groups are the most immediate.  Whatever this initial barrier may be, ways can be found to bypass it.  Through listening to stories and interviewing workers, simple challenges (and creative solutions) are found.

Finding a sustainable source of food is a serious issue for many Shan families in Fang district. The meager income of most Shan working on orange plantations is further reduced after having to purchase food; as much as 70% of daily income is spent on rice, vegetables, proteins and cooking supplies. One answer would be to begin a vegetable garden so that families can lower the amount they spend on food purchases. However, this simple answer comes with an equally simple challenge—having the capital to start a garden, although small in our eyes, is inaccessible to workers who are barely surviving day-to-day.

UPLift is helping overcome this challenge by working with plantation owners to provide a small plot of land and supplying startup supplies and training with the ultimate goal of Shan migrant workers being able to maintain their own crops, produce their own organic fertilizer/insect deterrents, harvest their own vegetables and reduce their food costs in the process. These savings can then be put towards their children’s future in education and legal status in Thailand.

Our first project underway involves three families that work for an ethnic Shan who owns an orange plantation in Fang district. Through his generosity to support others in need, UPLift arranged trainings in crop selection, organic fertilizer production and organic insecticide production. We are excited to share the progress of their garden as it unfolds, from its inception to the training to the weekly post-visits. Please continue visiting our journal for updates!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Reaching Out To an IDP Camp

We had the opportunity to visit a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) located in the Shan State, Myanmar, just near the Thai border. Home to approximately 300 people, the camp serves as transition point for those fleeing their homes to find protection in Thailand.

There is a small school there with around 60 students, of which 30 are war orphans. A leading teacher at the school mentioned that because of the high altitude and the cold weather, plants normally grown in warmer temperatures have not yielded much results. However, several types (tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants) have the potential to expand and thrive.
Due to a natural abundance of dok-yaa, a type of straw material, some villagers have previously gained income by harvesting the straw and selling it wholesale to broom-making groups on the Thai side of the border. There are, however, a few barriers to consistent income with this activity:

a) the grass can only be harvested during January and February, which leaves the villagers a small window to collect and sell for any given year.

b) The selling price for one kilogram of grass is THB 20. The selling price of one finished broom, on the other hand, is THB 25.

Reducing their food dependence on outside sources can be a great chance for UPLift to interact with the community at this IDP camp. In addition, if the villagers there were to adopt the entire production process of broom making, find sufficient market demand, and sell brooms instead of the grass, then they could not only improve their income but also sustain cash flows for longer than two months.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Local Community Members Wanting To Help Those In Need

During UPLift's initial surveying period in Fang we were delighted to find a variety of people motivated to assist the less fortunate.  One such example is Kru Nong, a teacher at a Thai government school run by border police in the hills surrounding Fang proper.

Nong is responsible for the school's experimental agriculture project.  This project is run as an informative example for members of the local Lahu hilltribe village to learn about organic vegetable gardening, pig rearing, and chicken rearing.  The following is a short video of Kru Nong explaining the school's project:

Being of ethnic Shan descent, Nong is enthusiastic about helping UPLift with training Shan migrant workers on maintaining their own gardens in order to manage their food costs more effectively. Click here to see more of Kru Nong's school and breathtaking views of the connecting Lahu village.

Reality for Shan Migrant Workers in Thailand

The Shan people, part of the Tai Yai ethnic group spanning from southern China across parts of Southeast Asia, call a northern portion of Myanmar their home.  Their once-independent region having the namesake "Shan State", however, does not ensure their rights and autonomy.  Currently being pushed from their homes by the ruling military junta in Myanmar, many Shan have fled to Thailand in order to seek safety and opportunities for their families.

Being stateless and lacking national identity cards, life in Thailand is difficult for Shan migrants.  Stateless families do not have access to public services and infrastructure, and the children of stateless families cannot attend public school.  Most Shan migrant workers resort to day labor such as building construction and working the fields of fruit plantations.

Fang District, Chiang Mai Province was chosen as an area of emphasis for the UPLift Project due to the large number of Shan migrants (one local estimate was placed at 80,000 people) and the obstacles of acquiring basic health services, schooling, and opportunities for gaining income.

Project Areas for UPLift

UPLift is currently surveying in four areas of Northern Thailand.  Use this interactive map to find out more.

View UPLift Project Areas in a larger map

UPLift Introduction

Welcome and thanks for visiting UPLift's Project Journal!  We will update readers on current activities and project initiatives on a regular basis.

So what is the background of UPLift?  It began in July 2010 in Thailand by Khom Loy Development Foundation, being inspired by a similar project run by BRAC, a Bangladeshi organization with a track record of reaching impoverished families and improving their quality of life.

It was BRAC that coined the term "ultra-poor" to refer to the bottom 20% of impoverished households that do not reap the benefits of normal microfinance activities.  This is due to several reasons--lack of exisiting skills, lack of education, social constraints, and most importantly, inadequate food security.

UPLift is directed towards marginalized communities on the Thai/Myanmar border that have the above-mentioned characteristics of the ultra-poor. Through small grants and skills trainings, these families receive the opportunity to pull themselves out of poverty without having to rely on external aid indefinitely.