Chronicles from the Field

Chronicles from the Field: The Townsend Thai Project

Robert M. Townsend
Sombat Sakunthasathien
Rob Jordan
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 168
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  • Book Info
    Chronicles from the Field
    Book Description:

    Running since 1997 and continuing today, the Townsend Thai Project has tracked millions of observations about the economic activities of households and institutions in rural and urban Thailand. The project represents one of the most extensive datasets in the developing world. Chronicles from the Field offers an account of the design and implementation of this unique panel data survey. It tells the story not only of the origins and operations of the project but also of the challenges and rewards that come from a search to understand the process of a country's economic development. The book explains the technical details of data collection and survey instruments but emphasizes the human side of the project, describing the culture shock felt by city-dwelling survey enumerators in rural villages, the "surprising, eye-opening, and inspiring" responses to survey questions, and the never-ending resourcefulness of the survey team. The text is supplemented by an epilogue on research findings and policy recommendations and an appendix that contains a list and abstracts of published and working papers, organized by topic, using data from the project. Social and economic policies are too often skewed by political considerations. The Townsend Thai Project offers another basis for policy: accurate measurement based on thoroughly collected data. From this, a clear template emerges for understanding poverty and alleviating it.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-31415-2
    Subjects: Business, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-xii)
    Robert M. Townsend
  4. Introduction: The History of the Townsend Thai Surveys
    (pp. xiii-xxii)

    Running since 1997 and continuing still today, the Townsend Thai Data is arguably one of the most remarkable, unique, and extensive datasets in the world. It represents more than 15 years of annual data for 985 households and monthly data on 680 households running for more than 150 continuous months.¹ It has tracked millions of observations about the financial and entrepreneurial activities of households and institutions in rural and urban settings for this rising developing country. Furthermore, the dataset is remarkable for its integrity: nearly 97 percent of households return to participate in the survey from year to year.


  5. 1 Discovering a Country and a Collaborator
    (pp. 1-14)

    It was 1993, and Khun Sombat Sakunthasathien had been living in the mountain ranges of northern Thailand for almost ten months. He was far from home and missed his daughters, now nine and seven years old. He was headed to the nearest city, Chiang Mai, five hours away. A soft hotel bed, a hot shower, and a beer awaited his arrival.

    As deputy director of the research department at Thailand’s federal Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC), Khun Sombat had been conducting a study on how to create a credit program for the area’s impoverished hill tribes. Most of...

  6. 2 The Baseline Survey: 60,000 Questions in Two Months
    (pp. 15-26)

    In northeastern Thailand, the Mun River valley still retains the aura of the ancient Khmer Kingdom to which it belonged. The ruins of thousand-year-old temples rise up from the landscape, knotted tree trunks and heavy moss framing the weathered stone faces of gods and demons. The people of this remote, rural area still share dialects and beliefs with their cousins in neighboring Cambodia. Some still measure time by the distant drums of serene monasteries.

    In Sisaket Province, paved roads and gas-powered farm tractors did not appear in some parts until the 1990s. It was not long ago that tiger paw...

  7. 3 The Annual Resurveys: The Financial Crisis and Beyond
    (pp. 27-38)

    In July 1997 the lights went out in Thailand.

    It had been two months since the baseline survey. After weeks of combing through answer sheets, Khun Sombat was preparing to mail the final data to Chicago. It was, he thought, the end of TFRP.

    Then, grim headlines began marching across morning papers. Panic spread. The government left intense market speculation and a ballooning foreign debt unchecked, leading to a sudden, massive devaluation of the Thai baht. In the days that followed the devaluation, the Tom Yam Kung Crisis, named for a famous Thai shrimp soup, began in Thailand and spread...

  8. 4 The Monthly Surveys
    (pp. 39-56)

    It was on the radio. It was on county government bulletin boards and the tips of local officials’ tongues. Wanted: local residents with university degrees for part-time work; must have good interpersonal skills, strong work ethic, and sense of adventure. Length of employment: uncertain.

    While managing the first annual resurvey in the spring of 1998, TFRP launched yet another survey, which would come to be the heart of the Thai Project vision. This questionnaire, to be administered monthly, promised a much more detailed, micro-level perspective on village-level family networks, markets, and formal credit and insurance institutions. The monthly survey was...

  9. 5 Developing the Information Systems: Local Knowledge and Global Technologies
    (pp. 57-66)

    The monkhood didn’t exactly suit him.

    In 1999, Pavisanat “Eu” Pathomcharoensukchai was fresh out of college with a computer engineering degree in his hand and visions of entrepreneurial greatness in his head. He foresaw a future running a multinational computer manufacturing corporation. Silent meditation and deep introspection were not high on the 21-year-old’s list of priorities.

    But, Eu’s ambitions would have to be put on hold. His parents made it clear that they expected their eldest son to initially work at the family pet food factory. If he had to defer his plans, Eu figured he would take the opportunity...

  10. 6 Dreams and Reality: Expanding the Project
    (pp. 67-78)

    Far from the nervous electricity of Bangkok, there is a place where night and day trade places, where the dark before dawn is a time for industry, the light of noontime for dream-addled sleep. From Thailand’s capital, set the compass due south. On a map, Satun is almost 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from Bangkok. To reach it, one must wind all the way down the trunk of the elephant head–shaped country (see figure 6.1). On the pockmarked highway, it’s a day and a half of driving. The journey reveals tropical visions: cathedral-like palm tree alleys lining coconut plantations, karstic...

  11. 7 Forging New Ground: Expanding to Urban Areas
    (pp. 79-86)

    In June 2006, Khun Sombat drove to Buriram, near the Cambodia border, for a veteran enumerator’s big day. The 29-year-old bride had been with TFRP almost since its beginning. As with all his longtime staff, Khun Sombat considered her among his friends. He often drove up to eight hours to visit with enumerators and field editors, have dinner together, attend the ceremonies that marked their lives; he would stay in touch after they moved on to new careers.

    Khun Sombat made a lengthy toast at the wedding reception in Buriram. Standing before some 300 guests, he recalled how he had...

  12. 8 Looking Back: Reflections of a Survey Veteran
    (pp. 87-98)

    After more than a decade of running TFRP in Thailand, Khun Sombat is sanguine about the challenges and payoffs of trying to duplicate the organization’s survey work elsewhere. Sitting on the porch of his riverfront home outside Bangkok, he reflects on how the study has survived, how it ensures quality research data, and how it might be recreated outside Thailand.

    “Of course,” Khun Sombat begins, “you must consider the environments surrounding villages, communities, and society.”

    No researcher can afford to ignore details such as land, water, and air quality; education; health; fiscal and monetary policy; social networks; culture; tradition; and...

  13. Epilogue: Research Findings and Policy Recommendations
    (pp. 99-108)

    As highlighted throughout this book, the Townsend Thai Data are extensive and provide a unique snapshot of Thai life and transition over time. The combination of both annual and monthly data provides a comprehensive overview of how families change, adapt, manage adverse events, handle risk, invest, grow, and thrive. Through the data, we can follow the life trajectories of thousands of different households, both rural and urban, both rich and poor.

    These data allow us to track how families deal with the good times and the bad. When families do well, we can see how they save or invest in...

  14. Appendix
    (pp. 109-126)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 127-128)
  16. Index
    (pp. 129-136)
  17. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)