One of the causes of the May 2014 military coup in Thailand was the persistent rhetoric about corrupt governments that had tried to favor the Rural Thai people. Few commentators noted the fabled peacefulness of the Rural Thai society that Phillips (1965) had so effectively described, nor did they appear to pay much attention to more recent scholarship describing the complex issues that rural Thailand has faced, and that it continues to deal with.

Jonathan RiggA current journal article by Rigg, Promphaking, and Le Mare addresses one of the fundamental issues facing the rural villages: migration to find work. It analyzes the fundamental economic concerns of the countryside in terms that are important to rural residents—the availability of jobs, prosperity, and security.

The authors base their analysis on an important economic question. Why did Thailand so successfully enter the ranks of middle income countries about 35 years ago, but it has not been able to rise since then into the first rank of economically successful nations? Rigg et al. refer to this as the “middle income trap,” and they explain why much of the problem appears to lie in the social and economic habits and attitudes at the individual and household levels among the nation’s rural population.

By way of background, the authors explain that “middle income trap” simply refers to countries which, while they have achieved a fair amount of growth, seem to be trapped between really poor countries on the one hand and high income nations on the other. The reason that middle-income countries remain stagnant is that there is a substantial proportion of mostly rural people who, while not living in poverty any longer, remain mostly unskilled or semi-skilled. The article explores this issue by studying three villages in rural Northeast Thailand, investigating why migrants move, temporarily, to other parts of the nation for work and education, but then return to the home villages.

Rigg and his colleagues do a good job of explaining the complexities that their research has revealed. Despite differences among the three villages, agriculture remains the essence of their existence, the basic livelihood of each, notwithstanding the fact that many immigrants have returned home after years of training and work in the cities.

When the authors did their surveys in late 2012, they found that 81 percent of the households in the three villages still owned land and grew rice, at least for household consumption. The same percentage of households had members who had temporarily migrated outside the villages in search of work. Rigg et al. sent questionnaires to 105 households, 28 percent of the three villages, seeking information on social structure, land uses, assets, debts, livelihoods, and migration patterns. They followed up this survey with interviews with a sub-sample of the households. They note that they have done research in these three villages for over 20 years.

Their results are interesting. They found that only about 15 percent of the migrants from the villages were believed by the remaining family members to have left permanently, and were not expected to return. However, Rigg and his colleagues acknowledge that it may be problematic to insist on a clear distinction between permanent and temporary migrants. But this situation of temporary migration explains, to the authors, at least one reason for the “middle income trap” at the local level.

In rural Northeast Thailand, people in the early 1980s started migrating away to get jobs, earn money, and buy things they wanted, such as new houses for themselves and their families—back in the villages. Those migrants, whom the authors term first generation, were not seeking to transform their lives in the long term. Rather, they left because farm work was not returning much income and they wanted more, yet their expectation was that they would return to the home village at some point to resume farming.

The authors describe these first generation migrants most effectively: “They did in the main enjoy the challenge of working away from home, the buzz of the city and the satisfaction of making new friends from distant places, and of having ‘got by’ in a new environment (p.192).” The returned migrants were proud of their accomplishments—they had learned such skills as carpentry, machine work, welding, sewing, and so on. But in reality, they had not actually achieved skills that would lead them to better employment back in the villages.

They returned with considerable savings and went back to farm work. About 60 percent admitted they had not acquired skills that would be useful at home. More to the point, they did not aspire to any transformations of their lives. They did not expect to escape the “middle income trap.” Migration was a way of staying in the village, not a way of permanently leaving it.

Oddly, the sons and daughters of those first generation migrants, the second generation, did not have much higher aspirations. While they have achieved higher levels of education and skills, in part due to advancing state requirements for schooling, the people in this second generation themselves remain in the same fix as their parents—or even more stuck in it.

While the second generation has achieved higher skill levels, they continue to find that they are even less employable in the home villages. The authors describe what may seem surprising: that three-quarters of those second generation people who have migrated realize that their skills are quite useless in the home village. The first generation returned with at least manual skills, while the knowledge economy education and training of the second generation so far have relatively little utility back home.

These country people, like their parents before them, are not rural romantics. They don’t idealize village life. But they do realize that non-farm work in rural Thailand has become more precarious rather than less so. On the other hand, they are also aware that there is security and resilience from maintaining a presence in their former home area. The village has social and cultural attractions that the city can’t match. That said, however, there is some evidence that at least a few of the members of this second generation are showing some interest in life-long learning.

But the authors argue that, as long as the village remains a place of refuge, of return, of retirement, it will continue to form a barrier in some ways to highly skilled, high income employment for people who are so committed to Rural Thailand.

Rigg, Jonathan, Buapun Promphaking and Ann Le Mare. 2014. “Personalizing the Middle-Income Trap: An Inter-Generational Migrant View from Rural Thailand.” World Development 59 (July): 184-198