Addressing the need for integrated approaches in development to contribute to improved quality of life for rural people is an important dimension of the assistance provided by FAO. In Thailand, hill tribes are among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of society. Most hill-tribe people engage in agriculture as their main economic activity and in household-based handicraft production as well as wage employment as their secondary sources of income. Their production inputs are limited; they lack access to basic social services, including education and health; and they also lack opportunities for systematic skill development, income and employment. Furthermore, closely knit hill tribe communities holding traditional values and beliefs are breaking apart and losing their identity. It is partly due to factors as the changing pattern of economic activities, growing acceptance of Thai language instruction in schools, exposure to modern knowledge and other religions like Buddhism and Christianity. Communication between the Thai-speaking younger generations and the "illiterate" older generations is sometimes hindered.
Given this recent trend, in addition to long-standing problems such as citizenship and land settlement, a wide range of issues related to hill tribe people are being addressed. Particular emphasis is on the promotion of quality of life and welfare through human resource development. Accordingly, the role of education in improving socio-economic conditions is further recognized.
Education, for FAO, is a prerequisite to building a food-secure world, reducing poverty and conserving and enhancing natural resources. This research is as an attempt to analyse the impact of support activities by the Royal Thai Government in promoting education opportunities for hill tribe people. Government initiatives on hill tribe development date back to 1951, with the objective to provide general welfare services in remote, relatively inaccessible communities affected by poverty. In 1959 the government established the National Committee for the Hill Tribes as the first national-level organization in charge of formulating policies focusing on hill tribe development. To date, the government policy towards the hill tribes is based on the Cabinet resolution of 6 July 1976. The resolution states the government's intention to integrate hill tribe people into the Thai state as self-reliant Thai citizens. In addition, the Master Plan on Community Development, Environment and Narcotic Crop Control in Highland Areas provides the basis for the government's support of hill tribe people, with emphasis on natural resource conservation in highland development. Furthermore, the national economic and social development plans are the key plans underpinning government assistance to hill tribe communities.
Assistance to hill tribe communities has been facing a number of challenges, including geographical isolation (due partly to the hill tribe people's tradition of living in small communities), land settlement (delayed due also to continuous migration of hill tribe people) and communication barriers. Nevertheless, through the wide range of support provided by various governmental and non-governmental organizations, there have been tangible improvements in the socio-economic conditions of hill tribe people. Among these organizations, in order to examine how enhanced education opportunities would help improve agricultural production, employment and income generation, thus contributing to sustainable rural development, this research will look at the activities of the Department of Non-formal Education (DNFE) of the Ministry of Education, the Department of Agricultural Extension (DOAE) of the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, and the Department of Public Welfare (DPW) of the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare. DNFE, under the theme of "Education for all", set a policy in 1998-99 to develop highland non-formal education based on the community learning centre model. The department provides educational services to promote literacy among the hill tribes through such programmes as the Hill Area Education project, the Somdet Ya project, and distance education. DOAE has been carrying out highland agriculture development since 1979. The highland agricultural policy of the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives reflects the principles of the Eighth National Economic and Social Development Plan. With the objective of supporting appropriate farmer occupational development for sustainable quality community life and environment, DOAE activities include, in addition to general extension services, Community Agricultural Services and Technology Transfer Centres and the Volunteer Hill Tribe Farmer project. Under the Cabinet resolution of 6 July 1976, DPW was designated as the main coordination agency for issues related to hill tribes. The development activities of DPW focus on human development, permanent settlement and sufficient food production, stressing coexistence between people and forest resources, participatory and grass-roots development, as well as promotion of indigenous knowledge. The department's wide range of support activities are carried out through the Hill Tribe Welfare and Development Centre, DPW mobile units and the Tribal Research Institute.
In the meantime, hill area development, while being considered increasingly important, has not been integrated into the mainstream development policies. Further, assistance to hill tribe people has faced insufficiencies in many respects, due largely to difficulties in physical access to, communication with and frequent migration by hill tribe people, delayed land settlement, and legal problems. In addition to lingering problems deriving from poverty, lack of infrastructure, delayed land settlement, legal status of hill tribe people in Thailand and illegal immigration, new concerns are recently emerging. One problem is the out-migration of the hill tribe labour force (influx of young people into lowlands and cities). Most of these people are unskilled and unprepared for a new environment, and thus susceptible to exploitation and unlawful conduct. HIV/AIDS, prostitution, drug addiction as well as degradation in agriculture and income are other serious problems.
To respond more effectively to the lingering and newly emerging problems, it would be important to improve the efficiency and complementarities of support programmes to supplement the limited budget and personnel. Issues that merit further attention would include participation of and communication with hill tribe communities in planning and implementing support activities; local curriculum development in formal and non-formal education corresponding to the community needs and realities; capacity-building of those engaged in the field-level implementation of support activities; and collaboration among governmental and non-governmental organizations concerned. In enhancing assistance to hill tribe people, integrated approaches to highland development would need to be emphasized as a means to address a wide range of problems. Particularly, quality of life issues that include education and health care would need to be given higher prominence, as they would contribute to the human potential and self-reliance of highland communities. Enhancement of education opportunities in such a way as to contribute to improved agricultural production, employment and income generation should be based on efforts to harmonize modern knowledge and technologies with local wisdom and practices. In supporting such efforts in Thailand, international development agencies would need to strengthen partnership in advocating sustainable highland development. FAO has the potential to promote such areas as sustainable highland agriculture, local curriculum development, capacity building of decentralized organizations, community resource management and small enterprise development.
Education, along with infrastructure, communication and health care, is an indispensable enabling factor for enhancing rural livelihood. It enables hill tribe people to take fuller advantage of employment and training opportunities, whether they choose to stay in their communities or decide to earn income in urban areas. Consequently, hill tribe people, based on the skills they acquired, would be in a position to reinforce their income-generating capacities and socio-economic potential, which will be the foundation of sustainable rural development.