40 years in a country of untold stories

Feb 23, 2016

UNDP Lao PDR works for the most vulnerable in the country. Photo: UNDP Lao PDR

She is younger than 25 – as are 60 percent of the population. She lives below the national poverty line – similar to one-third of her fellow upland inhabitants. She was already married at the age of 15 – like ten percent of the women in her country.

Her village lies in an area rife with unexploded bombs, she belongs to one of the 49 official ethnic groups, and eats less than she would need to – similar to one-fifth of her countrymen. On her shoulders rests caring for a typical family of six, including laborious rice farming on upland slopes and foraging for additional food in the forest.

It is people like her we want to reach through our work. If her life becomes a little easier, the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) 40 years of work in Laos will have been successful. 

The UNDP Country Office in Vientiane opened its doors in 1976, soon after Laos shifted from monarchy to a one-party-system and was renamed Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

Our aim, from the beginning, has been to reduce the rampant poverty levels and maintain the precarious newly-won stability in this mountainous, ethnically diverse and sparsely populated nation, after decades of ravaging internal unrest and involvement in international conflicts.

Making policies work for people

Some of our most significant work happens at the policy level. UNDP has helped the government to identify the needs of its people in the poorest regions of the country, and address them in national strategies and plans.

We have been working for the past 15 years to strengthen the government’s capacity to deliver improved public services – including one door service centres across provinces, helping villagers gain access to services and information. With the help of volunteers, we run community radio stations, broadcasting in eight languages and reaching 300,000 people across the country. The programmes spread helpful messages on farming, health, childcare, education, and mine risk awareness.

To free Laos from the unexploded remnants of the 2nd Indochina War, we have engaged with the government in creating two national institutions, the national clearance operator UXO Lao and the National Regulatory Authority, and have provided training and know-how that led to the clearance of contaminated areas in a safe, coordinated and cost-effective manner. This has contributed to more than 1.3 million items of unexploded ordnance being destroyed – freeing the lives of hundreds of thousands of villagers from persistent fear.

Sustainable green growth and integration

80 percent of Lao people are involved in some form of agriculture, or agriculture-related activity.  Thus, seasonal shortfalls induced by extreme weather and climate-related events affect the population immensely. UNDP is helping Laos to adapt to the changing climate - on the one hand  at the grass-roots level, by teaching farmers how to cultivate more resilient species with improved yields, and on the other hand through policy and regulatory improvements. Indeed, Lao PDR has successfully submitted its own climate action plan to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change at the global conference COP21, which was held in Paris last year. Lao PDR is steadily working to integrate climate change adaptation and mitigation into national development plans.

Laos’ economic trump cards lie in its natural resources and today, extractive and energy industries are amongst the country’s priority sectors for investment and industrialisation. UNDP is collaborating with the mining and hydropower sectors, as well as with forestry and agriculture operations to ensure sustainable practices by enhancing law enforcement. This in turn will not only help to manage impacts on the environment, but also to protect villagers from unsustainable resettlement and compensation practices, as well as labour exploitation.

UNDP helps Laos to prosper in a sustainable way, spreading gains to all its people, especially the most vulnerable. One way of doing this is by land-linking this landlocked country to international and regional organisations – which will help transform the labour market and reduce urban-rural inequalities. With UNDP’s support, Lao PDR became a member of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Countries) in 1997 and of the World Trade Organization in 2013. Now efforts are focused on supporting Lao PDR in graduating from Least Developed Country status.

This year, as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of UNDP Laos, the country has just become part of the ASEAN Economic Community and assumed ASEAN Chairmanship.  Through the presence of world leaders at the ASEAN Summit in September this year, for a window of time that will close all too quickly, the world’s eye will be directed towards this peaceful and small country that usually does not attract international news attention. But, as we well know at UNDP, Laos is a country of many untold stories – stories of struggle for a brighter future, which has slowly started to dawn.

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This article was co-authored by Ms. Kaarina Immonen, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Laos and Ms. Ildiko Hamos-Sohlo, Communications Specialist, Head of Public Information Unit, UNDP.