Written when I was a Bangkok-based correspondent for Agency-France Press (AFP)
Published in The Age, Australia, 30/01/2006
JUST how many chickens is a fighter jet worth?
Thai economists are trying to work out the answer as the Government is hoping to barter chickens and rice to pay for everything from military aircraft to subway trains.
When Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra opened the bidding on Thursday for Thailand’s Bt1.7 trillion ($A58.63 billion) public works program, he said his Government was interested in alternative “financing mechanisms” — namely, bartering.
The highlight of the new projects is an expansion of Bangkok’s public transport system, expected to cost Bt550 billion. The Defence Ministry also wants to barter for fighter jets it is considering buying from Russia, Sweden or the US.
Mr Thaksin’s Government believes that bartering for such big-ticket items would help keep the country’s foreign debt ratio below 50 per cent of gross domestic product.
The scheme envisions trading farm goods already in government stocks, such as surplus rice, instead of using cash for at least part of the payment to foreign companies.
A barter trade committee has been created in the Commerce Ministry to assess the bids for the public works projects and negotiate how much chicken, rice or tapioca could be used to finance the deal.
Final regulations on bartering are expected in mid-February, but foreign companies are sceptical.
Nazir Rizk, who heads the Thai subsidiary of French engineering conglomerate Alstom, doubted whether barter was the best payment option. “A company like us, we don’t do barter, we sell trains. We cannot sell chickens,” he said.