“We have to focus on what is working- from the local perspective, rather than that of foreigners who think they know what is better than the local people. This is an essential part of development that is often overlooked- local ideas and processes should be in charge, supported by assistance. Usually, it is the other way around,” says Kristine from Mercy Center, a facility in the slums of Klong Toey, Bangkok, Thailand. Mercy Center primarily provides services for children; they run 23 preschools, orphanages, provide HIV/AIDS assistance to families, and aid local communities before, during, and after slum fires. Their primary focus is in educating children not just about reading and writing, but also everyday skills that they are never taught at home, such as communicating with others and taking care of their hygiene.
Mercy Center was born when its founder Father Joseph Maier first started forming community aid for and around the Slaughterhouse Slum, which was formed about 40 years ago when low-skilled, under-paid labor forces were brought from northern Thailand to slaughter pigs in new slaughterhouses outside of Bangkok. This slum has since grown to form a very dense population with people living on top of each other. There are many mini-communities that each have leaders, forming hundreds of communities within just a few miles. Given this crowding, many of the children in this area are exposed to abuse, neglect, and lucrative night life with prostitution and drugs as career options that are often more appealing than school because of its quick turn-around.
Mercy owes much of its success to its individualistic, local outlook. Rather than having a one-size-fits-all policy, it allows freedom of choice. “We offer services, and kids can utilize them if they want. All kids are welcome, and street kids can come when they like. Kids are only made to stay here when it is dictated by social services, in danger of abuse/have been abused. For many of them, coming here can mean they then have the means to get a decent job like 7-11 or a Tesco Lotus. This is normal, everyday work for most people, but for them it is an immense step up in the world. In Thailand, children must take a test in first grade that determines if they will be in an accelerated level of education or not. For many of these kids, this makes it very hard because they are already so behind, and have many learning and developmental problems. Thus, when they do not do well on this test, they do not have good chances of succeeding, but we help them.” The center is almost all locally staffed, which Kristine argues allows the children to feel understood because the staff knows where they are coming from, and the challenges that they have faced. It is important to be able to connect with people on the local level, but having little higher educated staff also comes with struggles. Even though there are many valid sustainable development elements at play here, they are not framed in a way to fit specific criteria for big sponsorship from other countries, proving difficult to find consistent funding.
It is a balance of personal and professional, local and international perspectives, which helps us to better understand each other and how we can better help each other through varying degrees of what community is; looking through the lens of others helps us do just that, and we gain empathy and find similarities in each other instead of differences. These elements and perspectives must be considered when thinking about how to best interact and connect with the people we meet in our everyday lives, and those far away whose different experiences of sorrow and joy we still feel.