Archive for ‘Strategic Environmental Assessmen’

February 27, 2014

Little help for UXO victims in Laos

Little help for UXO victims in Laos

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VIENTIANE, 27 February 2014 (IRIN) – Around 25 percent of villages in Laos are contaminated by unexploded ordnance (UXOs), mainly from US bombing missions between 1964 and 1973, according to the Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme, and while UXO casualties have fallen sharply in recent years there is little support for UXO victims, whose injuries can drastically affect their families.

“There are currently insufficient resources to meet the many needs of UXO survivors,” Earl Turcotte, the UN Development Programme’s chief technical adviser to the National Regulatory Authority for UXO/Mine Action (NRA), told IRIN.

There is a lack of disability aid and access to quality medical care, poor coordination between the government’s UXO and disability sectors, and a lack of equal rights and opportunities, UN officials say.

Furthermore, emergency medical care is lacking in this mountainous country – one of the poorest in Asia – where about 70 percent of the population live in rural areas, many with no accessible roads.
“If we want to help in a comprehensive way, it will require further strengthening health, education and related infrastructure, which will take time,” Turcotte said.

UXO casualties dropped from a yearly average of 300 to 56 in 2012 and 41 in 2013, according to the NRA.

In 2012, the Lao government began a three-build pilot project to consolidate remote villages into development units, and help districts and provinces better serve their people, including with basic medical services.

The NRA is expected soon to finalize its first UXO victims’ assistance strategic plan to enhance medical and rehabilitation services for casualties, after the government collected data on the needs of more than 15,000 survivors.

However, the plan is only a guideline: It is not mandatory for ministries to include UXO victims and affected families in their limited budgets, campaigners say.

Weak disability sector

With no state-run disability benefits system, UXO victims rely on NGOs and foreign donors to fund their transportation, medical costs, rehabilitation, prosthetics and micro-grants to jumpstart new livelihoods.

“There’s no safety net in Laos that other countries have,” said Colette McInerney, country director for World Education, an international NGO that helps survivors.“It puts more of a burden on their families to support them financially and emotionally.”

Even if victims arrive at one of the country’s five rehab centres, professional health workers in physical therapy, occupational therapy and psychological support are almost nonexistent, experts say.
“There are very big gaps,” Anne Rouve-Khiev, country director for Handicap International, said.

To improve assistance, campaigners say it is crucial to build up the state’s disability system and local civil society; the latter has only been allowed to exist since 2009.

“The sector is still very young,” Rouve-Khiev said. “[UXO victims] can find themselves in difficult situations where there are no answers in this country.”

The government’s UXO efforts are largely focused on land clearance and UXO risk education. More than 20,000 people, many of them children, have been injured or killed by UXOs since 1973, NRA says.


October 23, 2013

Hollande meets Laos president to talk business, not rights

Hollande meets Laos president to talk business, not rights

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French President François Hollande (L) with Laotian President Choummaly Sayasone at the Elysée Palace. AFP/Bertrand Guay

French President François Hollande met Laos’s leader Choummaly Sayasone in Paris on Tuesday in the first visit by a Loatian president since the country’s independence from France some 60 years ago. The visit is distinctly low-profile as several NGOs demand news of disappeared Laotian activist Sombath Somphone.

The Laotian president was due to meet business leaders at the headquarters of bosses’ union Medef on Wednesday and business was the central theme of the Elysée Palace’s statement after the two presidents met.

It called for an increase in French companies’ investments in Laos and announced the signing of a feasibility study into the extension of a hydroelectricty project on the Nam Theun river, a tributary of the Mekong.

Some of Laos’s hydroelectric projects on the Mekong have caused rows with neighbouring countries because of their possible effects downstream but an experts’ report says that measures have been taken to mitigate the enviromental effects of the Nam Theun project.

No press conference was organised for either Tuesday’s or Wednesday’s meetings, leading to speculation that the authorities wished to spare Sayasone the embarrassment of questions over the whereabouts of anti-corruption campaigner Somphone.

Human rights groups have called on France to press the Laotian leader for information about the activist, the 63-year-old head of the Participatory Development Center who disappeared in December 2012 and was last caught on CCTV cameras near a police station in the company of two unidentified individuals.

Europe and France should be concerned about his whereabouts, Debby Stothard of the International Federation of Human Rights told RFI as the two presidents met.

In February the European parliament expressed concern over his fate and the slow progress of the investigation into his disappearance.

A French Foreign Affairs Ministry statement on Monday called on the Laotian authorities to do everythgin possible to investigate the case but there was no indication that Hollande raised the subject with Sayasone in the presidential statement.

The two presidents paid tribute to the victims of the plane crash that cost 49 lives earlier this month.

May 23, 2013

burning issue: Fresh ideas needed in ties with Laos


Fresh ideas needed in ties with Laos

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Supalak Ganjanakhundee
The Nation May 22, 2013 1:00 am

Relations between Thailand and Laos in the 21st century have already moved toward a new era, which requires not only trust and cooperation, but also a new vision to make the links mutually beneficial to people of both countries.

The joint cabinet meeting between the two governments jointly chaired by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Laotian Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong over the weekend in Chiang Mai reflected no clear vision for their ties in a new era. It simply followed up work which previous governments had initiated.

Many visionary and capable Thai leaders in the past were able to open new chapters in relations with Laos. Former Prime Minister Kriangsak Chamanant, together with Laotian leader Kraisone Pomvihan, managed to end mistrust in 1979 and brought the two brotherly countries into close relations, despite their different political ideologies.

Conservative forces in Bangkok halted the good ties with two military clashes in 1984 and 1987 due to boundary conflicts during Prem Tinsulanonda’s years – but such sour relations lasted for only a short time.

Visionary leader Chatichai Choonhavan dramatically led relations between Thailand and Laos into a genuine new era as he declared the policy to transform Indochina’s battle zone into a market zone at the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s. Such a policy has been fundamental for the relationship until now.

Anand Panyarachun and Chuan Leekpai during their time guided relations with Laos to regionalism and regional integration when they introduced economic liberalisation, connection and integration with Asean to the two countries.

Thaksin Shinawatra might have his problems domestically but he was famous in many neighbouring countries for his brainchild projects linking them in the Mekong basin. His initiative, the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS), is still active in developing infrastructure as well as providing assistance to Laos. The latest summit of ACMECS took place with participation by Yingluck in Vientiane in March this year.

However, there has been no new policy initiative in relation to Laos since the 2006 military coup, as many governments over the years since then have been busy with domestic conflicts.

This government under Yingluck is no exception. Although the current government is relatively free from domestic political tension, it offers no policy initiative for ties with Laos. The joint statement signed by foreign ministers of the two countries reflected no new vision for future relations.

One part of the statement is even locked into relations of the 1980s. It stated that Thailand would not allow any dissidents to use Thailand as their shelter or as a launching PAD against the government in Vientiane. The anti-communist movement in Thailand has not been active since the beginning of this century, but Laos continued to worry over dissidents and mistrusted Thailand.

This government was supposed to have a policy initiative on economic relations with Laos, but it was not to be. Projects on economic and transportation links were mostly created after Chatichai, Chuan and Thaksin’s administrations.

The two countries have learned already that many road links and bridges were under-utilised due to fewer economic activities in the area. Border-crossing transportation was obstructed by bureaucracy, but ideas to liberate it have never been translated into tangible projects. The schedule to implement single-stop inspection services has been repeatedly delayed.

November 17, 2012

Laos’ “Different Face” of Poverty

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By Johannes Loh

November 17, 2012

While Laos has been the beneficiary of rapid economic growth, not all are seeing its benefits.

Laos is a country in transition that is enjoying robust economic growth as a result of its exposure to global markets, increased foreign investment in the country’s abundant natural resources, and a blossoming tourism industry. At the same time, more than a third of Laos’s population continues to live below the global poverty line of U.S. $1.25 PPP a day in a society where most of the population remains dependent on subsistence agriculture. Farming still accounts for 67.6% of total employment, compared with 16.9% of the population who is self-employed and only 15.5% who are wage-earners, according to the World Development Report 2013. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimatesthat 93% of women who participate in the labor force in Laos are employed in agriculture. Agriculture also still accounts for 29% of Laos’ GDP, compared with 19% for industry and 51% for services.

The official Vientiane Capital Region extends over 3,920 km2of which only 6% are occupied by developed areas while 68% are forest areas and 16% paddy fields. With a total population of just over 800,000 people, many settlements in the capital region are still villages. Even within the city of Vientiane itself, good roads are a privilege and residents often times must use dirt roads to access essential services like schools or hospitals.

As this suggests, booming economic development does not automatically translate into improved access to services for the poor. Without a system of social protection, the poor have to rely on friends and relatives in times of economic hardship. This reflects the fact that unskilled farmers working small plots of land face immense difficulties in trying to find a non-agricultural job to supplement their meager incomes.

In Phonethong Village, located on the outskirts of Vientiane, the capital city, I encountered a woman named Kaum – a mother, farmer, laborer, and factory worker – living at the far end of the village. She and her husband own a small plot of land barely capable of producing a subsidence level output. In order to feed their family, they are forced to spend their nights laboring on other villagers’ farms. In addition, Kaum works a number of shifts at a nearby garment factory, earning U.S. $50 every two weeks, or approximately U.S. $3.57 a day. Despite these extra income sources, Kaum and her husband struggle just to feed their family of four, let alone to put their children through school or make capital investments in their farm to increase output.

“I would like to open a small shop to earn more money” says Kaum, “but nobody wants to give me a loan.” She informs me that her home does not qualify as collateral, which prevents her from securing loans to improve productivity or expand her farm.

Government programs for skills training or small business development do not exist, and the few non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Vientiane only have enough resources to reach a small proportion of the people who would benefit from their work. As Oxfam country director Dominique van der Borght points out, the country’s education system falls well short of delivering the services needed in a country that has a rapidly growing economy. Consequently, foreign firms operating in Laos often bring their own staff and laborers because local workers lack the necessary skills and linguistic training. Only the lowest level jobs are given to local residents.

Micro-entrepreneurs who want to take advantage of new opportunities in the emerging non-agricultural economy face a different kind of obstacle. Up until 2004, Laos had no laws governing microfinance institutions (MFI) and formal financial services were inaccessible to the poor. Eight years later a number of MFIs are offering savings and loan products, but they largely deal exclusively with clients who have collateral. Moreover, their branch network is focused on Vientiane where they a serve small, but established entrepreneurial class in the city.

In a way, the risk-averse business model of any financial organization favors individuals and companies who already have established their business model. For those without collateral, the MFIs are starting to offer group loans, but the reach of these initiatives is still limited. The MFI capacity to provide free business training and actively support aspiring entrepreneurs is even more limited. The MFIs themselves are still struggling to build reliable client bases to secure their long-term survival in an increasingly competitive market.

Founder and executive director of Laos’ first MFI, Ekphattana Microfinance Institution (EMI), Somphone Sisenglath, states that MFIs also try to emphasize to clients the importance of saving part of their incomes. “Savings are part of our mission,” Sisenglath tells me. “Access to credit is one thing, but if there is nothing left [at the end of repayment], they are still poor.” Accordingly, EMI requires that all its clients save 10% of their initial loan in order to instill in them the importance of building wealth.

Access to microloans coupled with educational opportunities to learn about small business management would go a long way towards building an additional stream of income for families like Kaum’s. Unfortunately, as members of the bottom echelon of society, Kaum’s family and countless others like them do not have access to these kinds of services.

Mr. van der Borght describes the situation in Laos as having a “different face of poverty.” He explains that importing solutions from places of scarcity may not work in a country like Laos, which has an abundance of natural resources but suffers from a chronic lack of infrastructure and a grossly underfunded social service system. Expanding access to education and financial services to families like Kaum’s, as well as integrating them more fully into supply chains, are crucial if Laos is to boost household income for the vast majority of its citizens working in agriculture and non-agriculture industries.

Johannes Loh is a research associate at the Asian Trends Monitoring Bulletin at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, University of Singapore.

Photo Credit: ATM Photo of Subsistence farmer, Kaum, with her children in Phonethong Village.

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