Twenty years ago, remote region of Doi Tung was the most active place for the drug trade within the Burma/Thailand/Laos triangle.  Along with drug trade, regular violence, widespread prostitution, drug addiction of the population  and diseases were daily burdens people had to face, and this against their will… Last but not least, non education and poverty lead people to over-exploit their natural resources.  Over logging in order to sustain their livelihood led to deforestation. They did not know it was not sustainable.

How could a group of external people change what seemed to be an everlasting dark fate for the local people living in these remote areas of Thailand ?

Today, Doi Tung is a place where drug, diseases, and prostitution have fully disappeared. Coffee and macademia nuts plantation have blossomed, and there is also an industry which is constituted of weaving and paper producing factories, which provide ample working opportunity for the adults. Mothers can take their infants to health and day-care centers, and children have school programs to attend where innovative approaches have been implemented, such as the Montesori curriculum. The average family income in the area has increased ten times over the period and is now US$ 8,500 USD a year. How did this happen?
This YGL two days learning expedition was an inspiring and delightful journey, where we were exposed to the 20-year history of a social development project run by the Mae Fah Luang Foundation’s Disnadda Diskul, Dispanadda “Duke” Diskul (what bond is stronger than father / son) and their strong team which made the above transition possible. This project’s motto is simple, yet impactful — “help others by giving them the means to help themselves”. The Foundation’s principles are now being reproduced with success in other parts of the world, including Burma and Afghanistan.

Through our frank and honest interactions with the villagers and the people from the Mae Fah Luang Foundation, I absorbed a wealth of knowledge and insights on “lessons” and “keys” for life, such as how to break the cycle of poverty and despair in a given place. The visit also unexpectedly prompted me to reflect about a world with a more balanced growth.

Two key messages from Disnadda Diskul are buzzing in my head:

1) Growth is good but benefits and ownership needs to be shared and given back to the people. We should also be mindful that excessive greed can kill those benefits generated.

2) Leadership is about being compassionate, and it is crucial to give, give, give – without expecting anything in return!

Raphael Schoentgen is Chief Representative Officer, GDF Suez China and a 2011 Young Global Leader.