A United Nations rights expert recently traveled to Laos, where he met with government officials of various levels, village leaders, workers, farmers and tradespeople to gather information on their daily lives.
U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Phillip Alston said at the conclusion of the trip, during a press conference that although the government has made progress in reducing poverty levels, the lives of many people in the country are either not improving or actually getting worse.
Alston’s trip to Laos was the highest profile visit by a U.N. official since September 2016, when then-Secretary General Ban Ki-moon attended the 8th ASEAN-U.N. Summit.
RFA interviewed Alston in Bangkok on Mar. 29, one day after his 11-day tour of Laos ended.
RFA: What is the current economic condition in Laos and what does that mean to the everyday Lao citizen?
Alston: I spent 10 or 11 days in Laos, and I was looking mainly at the situation of people who live in poverty, but the reality is that in Laos, the model of economic development that’s been followed has made the wealthy very rich and created an also wealthy middle class. But the rest of the society has not benefited. So they’ve had huge and record economic growth, but they’ve put almost no serious resources into health, education, social protection. And so people are not getting access to good schools, they have very low level of health care, the education standards are bad and the government just has not invested in the human capital, which it needs to do.
RFA: What specific obstacles must the government face in order to improve the lives of average Lao citizens?
Alston: I think the challenge for the government is to adopt a policy which is less centralized than the current one. They need to permit a much greater degree of openness within civil society. They need to move towards more transparency in government. People need to be able to know what sort of contracts have been signed with foreign investors. There needs to be a way for those who are being resettled to make complaints which will be taken seriously and not met with brutal repression. I actually don’t think that those changes would require too much of the present government. It has done some very positive things. It has started to crack down on corruption. It has consulted on some issues but it hasn’t yet gone nearly far enough to really make sure that the people are aware of what’s going on and that it is receiving the necessary information itself about the actual situation in the country.
RFA: What are the issues that disproportionately affect people in Laos’ poor and rural communities?
Alston: One of the biggest challenges in Lao is that the government is making it very easy for foreign investors to take over large land areas in the country. One estimate is that more than 40 percent of the country is actually subject to foreign concessions. Once a corporation wants to build a dam, set up a rubber plantation, or whatever, the government then resettles a large number of people. In principle, resettlement could be an acceptable option if it is done in accordance with international standards. But what I saw consistently is that the people who have been resettled are given a comprehensively bad deal. They are moved to locations that are very unsatisfactory. They are given land that does not provide them with a livelihood. In the resettlement from the Attapeu dam collapse for example have been given land that they describe as rocky and sandy and completely infertile. So the government needs to radically improve the conditions under which resettlement takes place.
RFA: Can you talk about your findings in regards to the levels of health care available to the people, and how the government might improve the situation?
Alston: In Laos today the government has made important progress over the last 20 years or so in terms of bringing down poverty rates. But the reality is that the percentage of child stunting, which is still at 33 percent, the very high level of maternal mortality, and the generally very low standards of health care, mean that there are a lot of people who are dying unnecessarily and who are unable to live full lives. That’s why the government really needs to start investing seriously and not just trying to rely on international donors in sectors like health and education and social protection.
RFA: During your visit, how accessible were the local people? Did the government try to limit your access or prevent you from finding the truth?
Alston: In trying to understand what’s really happening in Laos, it was very important for me to be able to speak to local people and get a sense of what’s actually happening. The government made a very big effort to make that very difficult. They followed me everywhere. They tried to advance brief the people I was speaking to, and they really didn’t want me to be able to find out the conditions of life were. But in the end I was able to speak to a lot of people and to get a sense of the real challenges that they face. And they presented to me a picture that is very different from that which is told by government officials. In think that in many cases the government officials themselves just don’t know what’s going on. They rely on the village chief who tells them what they want to hear. But they don’t really then have to grapple with the daily challenges that the people in the villages are confronting.
RFA: How does Lao PDR measure up in terms of women’s rights?
Alston: The Lao government has a formal commitment to gender equality and in the national assembly and the provincial assemblies, for example, which they more or less control, they have made sure that something like one-third of the members are women, and that’s very good. But for the rest, they have given a complete monopoly over gender discussions to the Lao Women’s Union, which is actually a very conservative organization, which doesn’t really push to promote the interests of women, unless they coincide with those of the party. The result is that women are very poorly represented in most contexts. In government, there are very few senior women. When one speaks to senior male officials, the attitudes to women are completely condescending, “Women are not very smart. Women don’t want to work. Women don’t want to be leaders, they just want to stay home.” That’s the story that one is told. So I think the situation of women in Lao is still really very bad and a lot needs to be done to unleash the potential role and contribution that women can make in Lao PDR.
RFA: How did the government react to your findings?
Alston: The government of the Lao PDR was critical of the findings that I presented to them. That’s normal, because no government likes to be criticized. … But what’s important is that the Lao government is genuinely, I think, engaging with the international community. They’ve invited special rapporteurs and that’s important. And I believe this could be the start of an ongoing constructive dialogue to talk about policy options. Certainly my final report will contain a lot of very specific suggestions as to things that the government might consider and I hope they will consider that seriously and engage with it.