University embraces ancient wisdom in its SDG programmes

A higher education institution in Bangkok has adopted a uniquely Thai approach to teaching development economics and environmental management based on concepts derived from Buddhist philosophy and introduced by the late King Bhumibhol Adulyadej.

Often known as the ‘development king’ during his 70-year reign, which ended with his death in 2016, King Bhumibhol presided over some 4,000 development projects initiated by the monarchy throughout the kingdom. As the 21st century dawned, his development strategy known as Sufficiency Economy Philosophy (SEP) became the hallmark of sustainable development efforts in the country.

SEP uses knowledge drawn mainly from Buddhist teachings but is applicable in a secular setting. Under this philosophy, sustainable development can be achieved only when there is economic, social, environmental and cultural balance.

A pathway to sustainability

“SEP is a pathway to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals,” said Priyanut Dharmapiya, former executive director of the Sustainable Development and Sufficiency Economy Studies Center at the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) in Bangkok.

“At NIDA it is normal that SEP is integrated into our thinking,” Dharmapiya told University World News. “NIDA was established by King Rama IX [King Bhumibol] so we have established the Sufficiency Economy Studies Centre from the time the king started talking about it.

“For all our students, during the prep programme, one of the subjects they have to take is Sufficiency Economy Philosophy,” she said, referring to the preparatory phase for postgraduate studies.

According to NIDA’s definition, SEP has three guiding principles: moderation, logical thinking and prudence.

A vision of local education

Now a state-funded graduate school with university status, NIDA was established in 1966 as part of the then king’s vision to advance Thailand’s development through the establishment of an advanced educational institution to prepare people to become agents of change. The king did not want students to study abroad, because he believed their development education needed to be relevant to national needs.

The king felt that “if we send people to study overseas, it will take too much time to graduate [and] it may not fit the requirements of the country as well. So it was thought best to establish a graduate school here,” explained Amornrat Apinunmahakul, NIDA’s vice-president for planning and community engagement, in an interview with University World News.

“From the beginning we saw ourselves as producing people to go out for development administration [work], managing development projects,” she said.

The limitations of economic growth

“With the economic crisis around the world, we see that a focus on economic growth only is not enough,” Apinunmahakul said. “In order to solve inequality, we should not leave anyone behind. We have to ensure that development is sustainable not only for economic goals. That’s why we changed to ‘wisdom for sustainable development’ [as our focus].”

NIDA faculty engage with policy-makers at different levels, with many NIDA professors serving on advisory boards in various government departments and playing a significant role in public policy formulation, including, for example, assisting the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment in drawing up their five-year plan.

“Many professors served as the chair or members of the National Reform Committee for various issues,” she said, referring to the committee led by Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, which works on planning and national reform. The committee’s members are appointed by the cabinet. “Some of our retired professors are senators as well,” Apinunmahakul said.

“We have a project called ‘NIDA’s impact’ in which we synthesise our research findings into policy recommendations [which are] submitted to related public offices and to the government,” she said.

Sharing ideas with the community

Such development ideas are not only used to inform policy-makers, but also the community through seminars and workshops, said Prasopchoke Mongsawad, associate professor of economics at NIDA’s School of Development Economics.

In one project, people are taught how to save money as a way to develop a sufficiency economy. For example, NIDA runs a programme for primary and secondary school teachers, who tend to have huge debts. Without actually calling it sufficiency economics, they teach its financial concepts to teachers.

“We have workshops on financial management [of their income] … We want teachers to teach children about saving money, but the problem is that teachers don’t save, they accumulate debts … first, we have to help them manage their debts. Once they are able to master that, hopefully, they will transfer this knowledge and experience to their students.”

NIDA’s community engagement programme has compiled the training materials into a Thai-language e-learning platform known as ‘Wisdom for Change’ where the public can log in and learn by themselves.

NIDA has 12 schools, 11 departments and an international college, offering 53 graduate programmes. Its international programme, taught in English, attracts fee-paying students from overseas, including from other ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries, India and China.

The graduate schools offer programmes in business administration, public administration, development economics, human resource development, law, language and communication, tourism management, social development and management strategy, and environmental development administration.

“All students have to initially take a course on development and sustainability,” explained Mongsawad. “We make sure all students are familiar with concepts of sustainable development and sufficiency economics.”

Sufficiency and sustainability elements are also strongly emphasised in environmental development management courses, for example, in NIDA’s masters programme in sustainability, science and management.

The importance of research

Mongsawad believes research is important to identify deficiencies in the current economic development approach, not only in Thailand but globally. “We should be able to point out that if we followed sufficiency economics principles, if we had better growth management, you wouldn’t have this crisis,” she said, “not only for economy, [but] also in environmental management.

“In writing papers, we employ SEP [concepts] and sustainable development a lot … other professors apply the concepts and work in the field. There are a lot of research projects related to the SDGs,” Mongsawad said.

NIDA has just launched a ‘Wisdom for Sustainable Development’ page on their website to showcase their research work. Over 75 research studies are featured.

The site includes a research paper on early childhood education and child development outcomes in developing countries with empirical evidence from Thailand, which addresses SDG 4 on education, as well as papers on organic farming for sustainable environmental management for Thai farmers.