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VIENTIANE ― Korea’s aid program in Laos focuses on building social infrastructure to support the country’s drive to overcome poverty, establish a sound market economy and nurture development.
The inland state on the Indochina Peninsula is one of the world’s poorest, according to the United Nations. However, the communist regime has introduced capitalist reforms since the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago.
“Laos has become one of our primary concerns in Asia in recent years,” said Kwon Young-eui, resident representative of the Korea International Cooperation Agency in Vientiane.
“Being one of the least developed states, it has much room for improvement and is willing to accept the changes.”
The agency has selected health, education and agriculture as its top three tasks and pushed related projects through its partnership with the Lao government.
Its most conspicuous achievement is the construction of the Lao National Children’s Hospital, the first of its kind in the country.
The $3.5 million-project was designed to lower the country’s infant mortality rate, which is the highest in Southeast Asia.
“The center, with its ideal location and focus on fundamental hygiene campaigns, has become the model healthcare example in the entire Xiengkhouang Province,” said Bouasone, director of the provincial Health Department.
The Phukut center provides medical services seven days a week, which is an unusual practice in the country.
“We take turns to be available for patients at all times,” said Oudomphone Nanthavong, one of the nurses.
“We also make visits to individual villages at least six times a year, to provide people with vaccines and to lead hygiene campaigns.”
It is difficult to educate and communicate with minority ethnic groups who do not speak the Lao language, the nurses explained.
“This is a rare case. Many other centers tend to fall apart once the KOICA volunteers complete their project and leave the area,” said Kwon.
“It showed us how we may offer the initiative and motivate the local community to build a better future on their own.”
Education is a crucial part of various development programs as it is a fundamental means to change the people’s way of thinking, according to the agency.
The KOICA and the country’s Ministry of Education and Sports worked to distribute textbooks to 359 schools in 2010-12.
“The initial goal was to provide each student with his or her own textbook, especially in underdeveloped regions,” said Lee Yu-ri, vice representative of the KOICA office.
“This ongoing project is also one of the most effective ways to back the country’s long-term development and promote Korea’s reputation as well.”
Other key projects underway are the construction of an irrigation dam and canal, and agricultural training for local farmers in Vientiane Province’s Hinheup District.
“During my training sessions in Korea, I was deeply impressed with the Saemaeul movement which motivated the country’s development in the past,” said Khamsay Soumounthong, local provincial official.
“Though details may be different in Laos, I believe that we have much to learn from Korea’s history and the Saemaeul campaign.”
The KOICA also supplied cultivators and water pumps, as well as cows, with an aim to promote the local community’s economic independence.
“Laos has favorable agricultural conditions, with its rich water resources and high temperature, but has so far failed to produce satisfactory results due to the lack of a precipitation management system,” said Jo Young-jun.
Jo was dispatched by the Korea Rural Community Corporation, the KOICA’s project manager company for the dam construction plan.
“Once the dam and canal are completed, the local farmers will be able to raise two crops per year and thus double their income,” he said.
The system is to irrigate five of the surrounding villages but its influence is expected to expand to other parts of the province as well.
“In a common aim to maximize the effects of the dam, the provincial government office also cooperated in paving the surrounding roads, building bridges and cultivating the wasteland in the region,” Jo said.
“Such moves do not only facilitate our construction process but also promote the mutual relationship between the donor state and the recipient state.”
KOICA officials, however, stressed that the agency’s true driving force is not its huge governmental projects but its numerous overseas volunteers who move into the local society and accommodate their needs.
A total of 1,673 volunteers are currently serving two years at offices in 50 countries all over the world, among which 821 are in Asia and 68 in Laos, according to the KOICA.
“I do not know much about construction or agriculture, but realize that however little knowledge I have may be of great help to people here,” said Kim Sang-beom, a volunteer member working in the Vientiane provincial office.
By Bae Hyun-jung, Korea Herald correspondent