Informing the ‘New Normal’: What We Have Learned From Listening to Southern Thai Communities

by Stan van der Leemputte, Social Innovation Consultant at UNDP in Asia and the Pacific and Itziar Moreno, Programs Lead at Agirre Lehendakaria Center (ALC)

If the COVID-19 pandemic has shown one thing, it is that we are all vulnerable, yet not equally fragile. This is well illustrated in the case of Southern Thailand — a region that has been particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 and its devastating ramifications. For the approximately 2.4 million residents of this culturally dynamic, but largely impoverished region, the pandemic is still inducing new hardships and exacerbating existing ones every day. At the same time, COVID-19 has also proven to be an opportunity for the region to create a better, stronger, more sustainable, resilient and inclusive future.

What is clear, is that business as usual just won’t cut it. As a complex, wicked issue, COVID-19 cannot be addressed by specific technological innovations or single-point solutions. What is necessary is a deeper understanding of the social, economic and cultural dynamics that are conditioning the evolution of this crisis.

One group that is particularly exposed to the pandemic are young entrepreneurs. In March 2020, Youth Co:Lab, a project co-led by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and Citi Foundation, surveyed 410 young entrepreneurs across the Asia-Pacific. The results showed that 90% of youth-led businesses were negatively impacted by the current crisis. Among these, 1 in 3 reported a major slowdown, and 1 in 4 have stopped entirely. This paints an alarming picture of how already vulnerable youth-led businesses are struggling to survive in the face of an unprecedented economic shock.

To tackle this and other challenges, the UNDP Regional Hub in collaboration with ALC, a Basque Innovation Lab supports the UNDP Thailand Social Innovation Platform to experiment with an alternative approach that captures perceptions and behavioral changes in real-time, to forecast emerging changes in a COVID-19 context and contribute to co-designing public policies. In the context of Southern Thailand, UNDP and ALC started an active listening process to gather narratives through ethnographic interviews with a diverse set of key stakeholders in the local food system.

A whole set of complex narratives emerged from the listening. These narratives revealed perceptions, behavioral and thinking patterns on different levels and in different thematic areas. Put simply, they are the untold stories of the region; stories that represent key challenges and opportunities of Southern Thai regions and communities — for instance of young entrepreneurs in the food industry facing difficulties in managing their businesses in times of crisis. To validate these narratives, ‘personas’ were drafted — visual profiles consisting of people’s unified perceptions, behavioral and thinking patterns that represent specific segments of society. A key advantage of this extensive ethnographic work is that it allows the mapping of an area or community in a highly segmented way — for instance by gathering opposing ideas and collectively making sense of their associated values and beliefs.

COVID OUTBREAK: Using Digital Listening tools for a new normal

To capture and analyze the emerging narratives from the crisis, a wide variety of digital listening tools and AI-powered language processing techniques were put into place. From this, it became clear that each region, community and group was experiencing the pandemic quite differently. For instance, a group of Thai workers — approximately 200,000, mostly young migrants, many of them small-business owners, chefs and line-cooks — affected by the crisis and returning from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — faced very specific challenges.

Examples of digital sources being used in Thailand

What did we discover? Attitudes towards migrant workers were generally not positive even before the pandemic, and now it seemed to only worsen. In Southern Thailand, many held strong views on this returning group as they were seen as potential disease-carriers. Also, there was a religious link to draw. Most of the returning migrants are a part of the local Malay-Muslim group and their religious practices were viewed by some as a potential source of infection. Dangers of stigmatization and discrimination emerged: “I feel stigmatized back home. I live in a village, and perceive that people from the cities tend to think that because of religious gatherings, or vaccination we are more likely to spread the virus. Besides, I’ve come from Malaysia, where the virus started spreading earlier. Prior to the border lock between Malaysia and Thailand, about 50,000 were already home”.

Digital listening in Southern Thailand in combination with traditional ethnographic work helped assess the impact of the crisis and found changing power dynamics — the pandemic further weakened already vulnerable communities and local businesses, yet also provided unexpected business opportunities to some. One of the discovered stories was of Tirmizi, a young and energetic entrepreneur from Narathiwat who encountered an unexpected business opportunity during the crisis. Tirmizi is the owner of a meat-producing business and specializes in the production of burger patties. When he opened his business, he was the only producer of this popular snack in the region. “Three years ago there weren’t any local meat manufacturers here. That’s why I started this business. I arranged all the certifications very quickly, I wanted this process done fast so I focused on achieving that”, he explained.

Power dynamics: the influence of COVID-19

Fast forward three years and Tirmizi is still the only meat producer in the region. For him, this illustrates the region’s challenging business climate — a sector that is structurally underdeveloped and often considered uninviting in the region. In particular, Tirmizi constantly struggles with challenges related to the local supply chain and the region’s lack of diversification. “80 percent of the people’s income in here depends on the agricultural economy, agricultural prices, agricultural product from the rubber price. But we lack a proper upstream supply chain for livestock, machinery and standardized slaughtering houses”.

When COVID-19 hit the region, just like many other business-owners, Tirmizi suffered. His sales dropped, forcing him to cut his own salary for months. However, when the government issued containment measures and the nearby borders to Malaysia closed, restricting travel to prevent the virus from spreading, things started to change for Tirmizi. His competitors, mostly from Malaysia, suddenly couldn’t export their products to Thailand, which created a vacuum and a huge opportunity for him. He jumped on it. Using his entrepreneurial skills and attitude, he took bold and decisive action to introduce several new products to the market and consequentially increase his sales dramatically. Tirmizi: “It seems that my business is among the very few that are actually growing in the time of the pandemic”.

Tirmizi’s story is an example of an entrepreneur who sees a challenge and imagines an opportunity, someone who takes initiative rather than waiting for others to deal with an issue. Many young people, similar to Tirmizi, possess the key traits to become a successful entrepreneur but still fail because of the region’s underdeveloped entrepreneurial ecosystem. Young entrepreneurs in Southern Thailand face significant barriers in creating start-ups, as they lack mentors in business and management skills, as well as financial constraints, funding, and access to markets.

These stories’ collected using ethnographic fieldwork and digital listening have illustrated how people, groups and communities are experiencing the impacts of COVID-19 differently. Gaining real-time insight into these differences and their social, economic and cultural implications is crucial to co-create new and better solutions tailored to each segment of the population.

This bottom-up approach is part of a NextGen Governance learning trajectory that will allow decision-makers to make choices, manage complexity and identify a more impactful response that looks beyond recovery, towards 2030.

In the coming months the goal is to establish Digital Observatories of Citizen Narratives that can provide valuable data to local authorities and cities, private sector and community organizations that are in search of innovative solutions through co-creation:

1. Bring together existing data on COVID, segmented by field and geography.

2. Visualize systems mapping in each geography.

3. Visualize key stakeholder networks.

4. Generate new listening channels to understand perceptions and how cultural differences are conditioning COVID impact.

5. Provide a digital sensemaking protocol to interpret data collectively.

6. Facilitate digital co-creation processes.

7. Design and manage a portfolio of options and prototypes.

8. Manage and evaluate the platform collaboratively.

9. Communicate this process

10. Attract transformational capital.

Currently, in Southern Thailand, this process has led to a series of co-created solutions that kickstart socio-economic transformation by responding to the local situations and interests and values of the communities involved, including many initiatives to help young entrepreneurs in the food-industry rebuild their businesses after COVID-19 and adjust to the ‘new normal’

This blog was co-written by Stan van der Leemputte, Social Innovation Consultant at UNDP in Asia and the Pacific and Itziar Moreno, Programs Lead at Agirre Lehendakaria Center (ALC). Both are working on a regional initiative that supports UNDP country offices to develop Social Innovation Platforms to tackle complex challenges, realize socio-economic transformation and help to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.