By Devinder Kumar
VIENTIANE (IDN) – Laos is a landlinked country bordering Myanmar, Cambodia, China, Thailand, and Vietnam. About 6.8 million people live in its 18 provinces, with most people – 68 percent – still living in rural areas. However, urbanisation is occurring at a rate of 4.9 percent each year. The country is largely mountainous, with the most fertile land found along the Mekong plains. The river flows from north to south, forming the border with Thailand for more than 60 percent of its length.
Despite still being a least developed country (LDC), Laos – officially known as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) – has made significant progress in poverty alleviation over the past two decades with poverty rates declining from 46% in 1992 to 23% in 2015, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). “The country achieved the Millennium Development Goal target of halving poverty, however the challenge now is to ensure that all Lao people benefit in the country’s development.”
The main development challenge is ensuring that the benefits from high economic growth, averaging more than 7 percent for the past years, are evenly distributed and translated into inclusive and sustainable human development, says UNDP. Widening gaps between rich and poor, women and men, ethnic groups, and residents of different regions of the country need to be addressed if Laos is to work towards achievement of all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The country’s economic boom is driven primarily by foreign direct investment in natural resource extraction and hydropower. “Ensuring that this is conducted in an environmentally sustainable way and that the revenues generated benefit everyone is critical for the development of the country,” declares the UN’s global development network.
In a unique challenge to the country, the presence of unexploded ordnance (UXO) from the Second Indochina War continues to destroy lives and limits agricultural production and expansion. More than 2 million tonnes of bombs were dropped on all provinces between 1964 and 1973, with 30 percent of those failing to detonate. The correlation between UXO contamination and the prevalence of poverty is clear, with 42 of the 46 poorest districts affected, states UNDP.
It adds: “In Lao PDR, the significant gains made in economic growth and social sectors over the recent years have paved the way for continual improvement in human development in the country. Between 1990 and 2015, substantial progress has been made in the main Human Development Index indicators: life expectancy increased by 13 years, Lao people now go to school over 3 years longer than in 1990, and the Gross National Income (GNI) per capita increased by over 200 percent between 1990 and 2015.”
Consequently, Laos has seen steady improvement in its Human Development Index (HDI) value over time, making the country one of the HDI growth leaders in the medium human development category, where it currently sits. The country was ranked 138 out of 188 countries in the 2015 Human Development Report.
UNDP’s role in the development of the Government’s 8th National Socio-Economic Development Plan (2016-2020) has resulted in a focus on high economic growth that benefits all people and does not harm the environment. In addition, localising the SDGs is incorporated in the plan, in addition to an overall target of eligibility for graduation from Least Developed Coutry (LDC) status by 2020.
UXO Lao, the national clearance operator, supported by UNDP, have made over 30,000 hectares of land safe from unexploded ordnance (UXO) since starting programmes in 1996. This is equivalent to 300 square kilometres of the country. During this period, more than one million items of UXO have been destroyed.
Since the Sekong and Saravan provinces in the south-east and south of Laos have the highest poverty rates in the country, UNDP is supporting a project aimed at ‘Effective Governance for Small-scale Rural Infrastructure and Disaster Preparedness in a Changing Climate’ which was launched in May 2013 and concludes in December 2017.
The rationale behind the project is that communities in the Sekong and Saravan provinces are particularly vulnerable to floods and drought, as well as extreme climate events such as storms and flash floods, which are occurring with increasing frequency in the region.
Subsequently, important rural infrastructure such as irrigation channels, rainwater storage systems, check dams, roads, bridges and water supply have been damaged in storm events, most recently the 2015 Ketsana storm.
The project combines improved standards in rural infrastructure with ecosystem-based adaptation, such as using road-side vegetation to protect road degradation, to contribute to the conservation of water resources and protect rural infrastructure from the impacts of climate change.
According to UNDP, the project has achieved results across three categories.
Capacity development: Developed capacity of local, district and government stakeholders through the implementation of project activities, i.e. during prioritisation and selection of infrastructure projects, design of infrastructure projects in the four selected districts, development of tender documents and finally in implementation of the four projects in Lakhonpheng, Saravane, Kaleum and Thateng districts.
‘On the job’ training has been widely successful in developing capacity of local officers and departments in climate management related planning and activities.
Implemented a capacity needs assessment leading to the development of a capacity development plan which emphasises proficiency in activities linked to project implementation.
District Development Fund: Achieved amendment to the District Development Fund Memorandum of Understanding between the Ministry of Home Affairs and the United Nations Capital Development Fund, to include a climate resilience grant facility, with climate resilience performance criteria to be used for future fund approval and allocation.
Revised and included incentives in the District Development Fund guidelines to integrate climate resilience into the planning process of the next round of climate change preparedness and disaster risk reduction projects.
Safeguarding vulnerable ecosystems: Two ecosystem areas were selected from the 2014 Vulnerability and Adaptation Assessment Report and meetings and workshops were organised to develop a management roadmap for these ecosystems. [IDN-InDepthNews – 15 September 2017]
Photo: There are 49 officially recognized ethnic groups in Lao PDR. Credit: UNDP Lao PDR/Harish Murthimore
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