On August 17, the World Bank signed an agreement with the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to finance three projects aimed at increasing the efficiency and reliability of electricity, facilitating quality health and nutrition for women and children and building necessary infrastructure, such as roads, health clinics, schools and drinking water systems.

The World Bank has approved a US$68 million loan, which will be divided among the projects. The Power Grid Improvement Project will receive the greatest sum, US$30 million, with the Health and Nutrition Development Project and Poverty Reduction Fund II Project endowed with US$26.4 million and US$11.6 million respectively.

Although Laos has successfully provided most citizens with electricity, there are still problems. After a distribution loss in 2014 of 24 percent, greater than the 13 percent national average, Laos’s Xaythany district of capital city Vientiane has become the target area for the Power Grid Improvement Project.

The experience of increasing electricity efficiency will provide a building block, serving as a jumping off point for further improvements across the country.

With the Health Governance and Nutrition Development Project, the Lao PDR government aims to bolster women and children’s healthcare by providing free services. If successful, the project will reduce the instances of stunted growth and wasting from lack of nutrition. In order to accomplish better childhood nourishment, the program will promote breastfeeding.

Also on the agenda is developing a communication strategy that will effectively promote healthy child and infant feeding practices. Along with nourishment, maternal mortality will be targeted by means of providing better access to family planning resources and antenatal care.

The project also hopes to increase the number of births facilitated by a skilled health worker.

Through the Poverty Reduction Fund II Project, the Lao PDR government will work to establish infrastructure that serves the country’s marginalized communities. Schools are of particular note, as UNICEF reports that of Laos’s poorest 20 percent, only 5.3 percent are able to attend early childhood education.

Construction of drinking water systems is also important. At present, nearly 40 percent of rural inhabitants don’t have access to improved drinking water sources.

These projects are expected to substantially contribute to Laos’s development, building upon the country’s past poverty reduction success.

Emma-Claire LaSaine

Sources: World Bank, UNICEF

Photo: Flickr

education in laosAs a developing country in Southeast Asia ruled by a communist government, Laos has a very limited education system. The country is populated by several ethnic groups but only the Lao Loum, or “lowland Lao,” have a tradition of formal education and written script.

Buddhist temple schools called wat schools were the main source of education until the mid-twentieth century and the subjects covered were rudimentary. Buddhist monks would teach their pupils basic arithmetic and reading skills as well as social and religious subjects. At the time, only ordained boys and men had access to further education.

The French had an influence on Laotian education during the colonial period but, unfortunately, the secular system it established had little relevance to the vast majority of rural citizens. Most students never exceeded secondary school studies, and the few that did had to travel to larger cities in Vietnam. The elite minority who reached university-level studies usually traveled all the way to France to continue their education.

Recently, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, or LPDR, has shifted its focus toward constructing an education system that will encourage broad ideological thinking and mobilize potential. With goals to build a well-rounded development in areas such as economy, technology and culture, the LPDR sees education as a way forward for the nation. It wants to strengthen the national education system by improving its overall quality, increasing relevance and ensuring equitable access.

These goals are specifically listed in Article 19 of Lao’s Constitution that states that “educational, cultural, and scientific activities are the means to raise the level of knowledge, patriotism, love of the people’s democracy, the spirit of solidarity between ethnic groups, and the spirit of independence.” In Article 22, the Constitution asserts that “the State and society shall endeavor to improve the quality of national education system, to create opportunities and favorable conditions for all the people to receive an education, particularly the inhabitants of remote and isolated areas, ethnic minorities, women, children, and disadvantaged persons.”

The Decree on Compulsory Primary Education of 1996 was a milestone in these endeavors by making primary education free and compulsory for all children whether by public or private institutions. All schools were mandated to comply with a national curriculum, thus standardizing minimum requirements of education for all schools.

The national program currently consists of primary schools where students learn for five years and can then move on to two periods of secondary education—four years in lower secondary and three years in upper secondary. Although girls are allowed to attend primary and secondary schools, they are still underrepresented along with cultural and language minorities. This is reflected in Lao’s literacy rates, where 86 percent of females between the age of 15 and 24 were surveyed to be literate in 2011, whereas 92 percent of males of the same age group were confirmed to be literate.

The Education Law enacted in 2000 and amended in 2007 reasserts the claim made in the Laos Constitution that “all Lao citizens have the right to education without discrimination” and establishes that the government has a duty to expand education for “the development of Lao citizens’ necessary knowledge and capacity for their occupation or further study.”

Although education in Laos is still not up to speed with that of developed nations, it is clear that the LPDR government has prioritized education improvement as a means of both modernizing the state and safeguarding the future of its people. It understands that education is an important means of national development and has strongly invested its interests in expanding education to reach that end.

– Shenel Ozisik

Sources: Library of Congress, State University, UNESCO
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In the fall of 2008, Kimberly Hartman decided to temporarily leave behind a 16-year-long career in fashion in pursuit of an opportunity to pause, reflect and gain some perspective: an extended solo trip to India and South East Asia. What she discovered on her journey inspired JADEtribe, the iconic handbag collection that has altered not only Hartman’s career path, but also her global impact.

The fashion and design guru landed in Laos, a far cry from the cosmopolitan cities she’d been theretofore residing in. Laos, one of the poorest countries in East Asia—and one of the few countries that remains communist—has made significant gains with poverty alleviation within the past two decades, bringing the poverty rates from 39 percent down to 26 percent with the help of foreign aid. The country is heavily mountainous and landlocked, and though less than 5 percent of the land is suitable for agricultural production, the economy remains agrarian.

While exploring a weaving market in a remote village in Laos, Hartman found what she was looking for: inspiration. She became at once enamored by the colors created with natural, organic dyes, and by the awe-inspiring textiles that were woven from them. Fabrics and prints that were unlike any others she had seen before caught Hartman’s well-trained eye. Here, in Laos, where women work more than men—taking on an average of 70 percent of the farming and household duties—and receive less education were beautiful creations that essentially went unnoticed. Hartman was inspired.

She has since employed the weaving village to create exclusive colors and patterns that laid the groundwork for her entirely unique collection of JADEtribe handbags.

And it was more than just a brave career move for Hartman, who had established a name for herself in New York City managing some of the industry’s top brands. It was the perfect marriage of two things about which Hartman has always been deeply passionate: fashion and humanitarianism.

Through the creation of JADEtribe, Hartman has discovered a way to launch a brand that directly gives back to the people of a country in which 41 percent of the population is malnourished. By commissioning villagers, leather artisans and female sewers to create her handbags—and paying a fair price—Hartman has created immense opportunity for growth in jobs and an increased quality of life for a population of a least-developed country.

One hundred percent natural and ethical, JADEtribe bags truly represent fashion with a conscience. Seen on celebrities and in boutiques and trade shows across the globe, JADEtribe is a shining example of how one person’s passion and desire to make a difference truly can transform lives. Hartman’s JADEtribe bags are available on her website,

– Elizabeth Nutt

Sources: UNDP, JADEtribe, World Vision, UN, The Borgen Project
Photo: BoutiqueBlu

Poverty in Laos
As one of the few countries in the world that remains communist, Laos is ranked as one of the poorest countries in east Asia.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Laos found difficulty in altering their “political and economic landscape.” Despite various attempts at reforms, Laos remained dependent on international donations following the 1990s. Majority of these donations spur from Japan, China, and Vietnam.

In spite of their conditions, the country has been able to make impressive gains within the past 20 years. In the 1990s, the proportion of poor individuals was 39 percent. By 2010, this number decreased to 27.6 percent.

Over the years, Laos has experienced various complications in reforming their economic state. The government has gradually enforced economic and business reforms since 2005. In 2011, a stock market was also opened in the hopes of shifting towards capitalism.

Although these measures have been taken, economic growth in Laos has reduced poverty on a minimal scale. In 1997, the Asian currency crisis struck a deafening blow to the country, causing them to lose more than nine-tenths of their national currency’s value against the US dollar.

The landscape of Laos adds to it’s state of disparity. Being a heavily mountainous area, the country is landlocked and widely blanketed by tropical forests. Less than five percent is suitable for any sort of agricultural subsistence, furthermore contributing to the 80 percent rate of unemployment.

Outside of the country’s capital, individuals lack electricity or any access to general facilities. In the mountainous areas where majority of the population lives, the poverty rate is roughly 43 percent. This is a significant difference compared to individuals in the lowlands, where the poverty rate is 28 percent.

Majority of the disadvantaged households are located in regions that are constantly plagued by the threat of natural disasters, lack livestock of any form, have a great number of dependents, and are led by women.

In Laos, women work more than men, taking an average of 70 percent of farming and household tasks on, while also caring for young children. The literacy rate of women is generally 54 percent, while being 77 percent for men.

One-third of those living in Laos lives below the national poverty line, lacking resources necessary to lead healthy lives. According to Health Poverty Action, less than half of all women who go into labor have a doctor, midwife, or nurse to support them.

Around 40 percent of the children in Laos are chronically malnourished and suffer from severely stunted growth. In various ethnic groups, this number increases to a disturbing 60 percent.

There is good news for the country of Laos, however. In 2010, a Nam Theun 2 dam scheme was inaugurated, projected to provide $1.3bn to the country. This will be used in order to generate electricity to allow exports to Thailand. This step forward will not only boost the economy, but help develop infrastructure as well.

In early 2011 the country was also set to have the construction of their first high-speed rail begin between Laos and China. With all of the anticipated infrastructure and improvements to the overall economy, many hope that Laos will experience relief soon.

– Samaria Garrett

Sources: BBC, Rural Poverty Portal, Health Poverty Action

It is often assumed that Asian Americans are one of the minority groups in the United States that is doing well economically. However, this statement too broadly categorizes all Asian subgroups. According to the official poverty rate from the U.S. Census in 2011, the Asian American poverty rate was actually 2.5% higher than that of Caucasians.

In fact, amongst poor Asian Americans, Southeast Asians face some of the highest poverty rates in the whole country. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles conducted a study on income sources, home foreclosures and housing burden. The study indicated that Southeast Asians in the United States have consistently relied on food stamps for many decades. Moreover, language barriers are still major roadblocks that prevent Southeast Asian Americans from entering new labor markets.

The poverty rate for Asian Americans is highest amongst Hmong, Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese. Hmong Americans have a startlingly high poverty rate at 37.8%, followed closely by Cambodian Americans at 29.3% and Laotian Americans at 18.5%.

According to a study by UCLA scholars on Asian Americans in eight different states, 23% of Hmong Americans in Fresno, California relied on cash public assistance for income. This is comparably higher than the 10% of Asian Americans that also did so. It is also significantly higher than the 3% of Caucasians who used public cash assistance. Hmong Americans were also amongst the least likely to receive social security benefits or retirement income.

Additionally, Southeast Asians have especially high rates of depression and suffer higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder compared to the rest of the general Asian American population. These facts definitely counter the model minority stereotype that all Asian Americans belong to one monolithic group.

A study on social trends by Pew Research has found that with a population exceeding 18.2 million – or 6% of the U.S. population – Asian Americans have become one of the fastest growing minority groups in the U.S. Moreover, Asian Americans have become the nation’s best-educated and highest-paid racial or ethnic group. Yet these findings run the risk of perpetuating the stereotype of Asians as high achieving.

Additionally, such facts tend to hide the growing poverty amongst Southeast Asian Americans.

The National Council of Asian Pacific Americans has stated that the media has narrowed in on “one-dimensional narratives of exceptionalism,” of successful Asian American families, usually eastern Asians such as Chinese or Japanese.

Due to popular perception of Asian Americans in general, poverty amongst sub-groups is not well known. Thus in order to truly fight poverty in the United States a more inclusive examination of poverty trends is vital.

– Grace Zhao

Sources: LA Times, Diverse Education, White House, National Alliance in Mental Illness
Photo: Asia Foundation

Success often brings its own challenges. In the small Southeast Asian nation of Laos, rice yields have doubled since 1995. But this growth in production and the government’s plans to become an exporter of rice create a whole new set of challenges.

The cultivation of rice is an ancient practice in Laos, going back at least 4,000 years. And even today not much has changed. 80% of the country’s population works either part-time or full-time growing rice. For many of them, while some cultivation methods have been improved and new seed and fertilizer have allowed for increased yields, the production of rice hasn’t evolved much over the millennia. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are still rare, and the majority of cultivation and harvest is still done by hand. Despite this, yields have been increasing and the government has been raising official targets for production every year.

This however creates a problem. As the government increases targets by 200,000 tons each year, bringing the target up to 3.8 million tons this year, Laos’s rice yield falls short. Increases are no longer enough to meet targets, and attempting to do so has begun to harm the environment. Slash-and-burn is a traditional method of preparing new arable land for crops. But as the demand for cropland has increased drastically in recent years, so too has the use of slash-and-burn. And while before, on a small scale, this method was reasonably sustainable, today on a massive scale it is causing significant damage to the microclimate and ecosystem of Laos.

It’s a very real example of the pressing need for sustainable action. Previous methods that posed no threat on a smaller scale can become significant when scaled up. For Laos, the focus needs to be on continuing to raise production and meet goals of becoming a rice exporter, while simultaneously ensuring that production can remain at such levels and that there are no long-term environmental side effects.

– David Wilson

Sources: Asia News Network Radio Free Asia
Photo: World Radio Switzerland