Helping People Help Themselves: Thailand's Doi Tung story and lessons for the ASEAN region


The turning point came deep into the 1980’s when Thailand’s Princess Srinagarinda (2nd from right), known to Thais at the ‘Princess Mother,’ established the Doi Tung Development Project through the Mae Fah Luang Foundation. Courtesy Doi Tung

If you ventured into the golden triangle about 30 years ago, chances are you were putting your life on the line. Well before Afghanistan took the lead in opium production this vast stretch of verdant hills and valleys was one of the world’s leading areas of illicit opium production. At the heart of the golden triangle lay Doi Tung a high mountain area in Chiang Rai, secluded and stunning, but it bristled with drug production, vicious armed groups, and human traffickers that preyed on the poor.

If you venture into Doi Tung today, it is a haven for the arts, bustling with entrepreneurship and innovation. So how did it turn around? The solutions here may serve as a model for transformation in some of the world’s most hardscrabble regions.

The turning point came deep into the 1980’s when Thailand’s Princess Srinagarinda, known to Thais at the ‘Princess Mother,’ established the Doi Tung Development Project through the Mae Fah Luang Foundation.

The small start to create new opportunities to empower people to break free from the shackles of poverty, sickness, drugs and deadly conflict is now an undeniable success.

Touring the Mae Fah Luang projects today is an eyeopener in what good leadership, and how helping people help themselves can transform lives and communities.

In 1988 Doi Tung’s development journey began slow and simply with health education, disease prevention, drug rehabilitation and vocational training. It’s second phase focused on long-term income generation, moving beyond cultivation of agricultural commodities to high-end marketing of social business products under the Doi Tung brand. Phase three from 2003 to today is aimed at making that social business sustainable through education, empowerment, skill building so people here are ready to run things on their own when the project is phased out. The community is there.

Doi Tung’s four social businesses are roaring. The scarf weaving factory hums with the warp and weft of dozens of weavers working the looms to produce among other things high-end scarves, cushion covers and handbags that are sold internationally. Just down the road from that factory is the coffee production unit that harvests, roasts, and packages Doi Tung branded coffee goes from its own plantations to its coffee shops across Thailand and Japan.

Another unit harvests and packages macadamia nuts, and the fourth business a ceramics factory harnesses the skills and art of local artisans to produce exquisite pieces of pottery. Their products now feature in Ikea stores and catalogues, and in shops in Thailand and Japan.

They are now able to add value to products by sending hand-made expert local crafts to higher-end markets to significantly increase the income streams of the artisans.

Today the four businesses generate more US $15 million per year, making them all self-sufficient.

Doi Tung’s story is a model to emulate if we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. The key here is financing because it was the initial seed money and investment over time that led here.

There are lessons here that can carry over, to countries across the region. Doi Tung has used an integrated approach to investment that keeps in mind the social, economic and environmental impacts for people. We, as international organizations alongside governments, civil society and private sector, need to do the same. Across ASEAN, there are opportunities for innovation and partnerships in financing that mirror the principles of Doi Tung’s successful rural development journey. A vision of sustainable development, innovative partnerships and monitoring finances to achieve results.




Blog post Sustainable development Inclusive growth Thailand Jobs and livelihoods

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