A U.N. development agency says civil society organizations (CSOs) in Laos should be closely engaged in any debate involving proposed government changes to rules that could limit their ability to operate in the country, according to the body’s resident coordinator.
Kaarina Immonen, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) representative in Laos, told RFA’s Lao Service in a statement that the UNDP “promotes cooperation and consultation between the government and CSOs” in the country, as well as “facilitates fora for dialogue on various subjects” between the two groups.
Immonen’s statement came in response to claims by some international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) that the UNDP seemed to support government moves to further regulate the organizations in Laos.
The Lao government has emerged with proposed guidelines that would make a four-year-old decree regulating INGOs stricter, including requiring multiple and time-consuming approvals for community projects, according to staff of INGOs.
Local NGOs have also expressed concerns over a government plan to amend a 2009 decree regulating the work of Lao nonprofit associations (NPAs) by requiring them to notify or obtain permission from relevant ministries for funding they receive from foreign sources—regulations that currently do not exist.
Immonen said that the UNDP believes the success of development depends on both “a robust state and an active civil society,” and that promoting CSO engagement for the achievement of national development goals is “an integral part” of the agency’s work in Laos.
“When the Government of Lao PDR initiated the INGO decree implementation guidelines and NPA decree revisions, UNDP 's role in this process was to encourage the Government of Lao PDR to provide space for various stakeholders including CSOs to contribute to policy debate,” she said.
She said the UNDP also promotes CSO participation through the Round Table Process—a recurring dialogue on aid strategy which it co-chairs with the Lao government—and works with the government to establish mechanisms for CSOs to access funds for their operations through other initiatives.
The UNDP also said that the revision of the NPA decree was “solely a government prerogative” and that it had not hired any consultants for the purpose.
A member of an INGO operating in Laos had claimed earlier that a consultant hired by the UNDP to work with the Lao government on the proposed changes seemed to "support" some of the restrictions on the organizations.
But INGOs told RFA that as a U.N. agency, the UNDP had not done enough to prod the government to engage with civil society during the process of revising the NPA decree and INGO guidelines, calling on the agency to promote more participation in the process.
“My personal thought is that while the revision processes take place, I don't think the UNDP really has the power to control or influence the government to accept the voices of INGOs and NPAs,” a representative of an INGO in Laos told RFA, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“When the UNDP does not have leverage, they end up just supporting the government. I am not sure how much the voices of INGOs and NPAs have been heard.”
Another INGO representative said that while the UNDP claims to push for CSO inclusion in forming government policy on aid in Laos, “this kind of answer doesn’t address the wider issues experienced by CSOs.”
The source said many CSOs in the country complain about delays in government approval for memoranda of understanding to proceed with projects and visas for foreign co-workers, and that provincial level officials are ordered to strictly monitor their work.
It said the UNDP must do more to address “the atmosphere of repression” under which CSOs are forced to operate.
The representative of a third INGO said that while the UNDP engages with the government on establishing mechanisms for the “benefit” of civil society, it must also consult with CSOs on “what they think those mechanisms might be and how they could work.”
It is important to “build ownership on both the government and civil society side, otherwise it will always be a one-sided government-imposed mechanism, essentially endorsed and supported by the UNDP, by default,” the source said.
Meanwhile, a Lao official who oversees government cooperation with INGOs, defended the draft guidelines that are expected to limit their ability to function in the country, saying that only “a few parts” of the existing decree had been amended “to ensure their implementation.”
He said that the guidelines would “not restrict the scope of INGOs,” but instead strengthen cooperation between the government and INGO sectors, adding that it was unclear when the final draft would be released, as the process requires “more discussions.”
New measures requiring INGOs to make regular financial and activity reports on their projects are part of a bid to increase transparency when the government accepts aid from donors through INGOs, he said.
He added that the government had held consultations with INGOs on the draft of the revised rules.
A recent article in the official Vientiane Times said that more than 170 INGOs from 21 countries are working in Laos, and that 78 of the organizations have their representative or project offices in the country, citing a government report.
More than U.S. $340 million in resources have been mobilized by the organizations for development in Laos over the past five years, it said.
Last week, impoverished Laos—which depends on foreign aid—held talks between the government, NGOs, and donor countries to encourage long-term development in the country, as part of round table talks held once every three years.
Ahead of the meeting, Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) called on international donors to make future aid commitments to Laos contingent upon the government’s tangible progress in addressing key human rights issues, and slammed the proposed regulations for NPAs and INGOs.
Reported by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.