LAOS: the future is bright, for those who see it (Part II)
The main purpose of having two parts in blogging this trip is because I couldn’t decide which photos to include in the first post. There are just too damn many good ones. But, really I wanted to go more into the culture of the country and the future of the county—an important topic at this time in history.
Notwithstanding long and rich cultural heritage, the country’s more recent history centers on a pivotal moment when Communism entered the county in 1930. This changed many things for this country. Much of that change came in the form of, well, not changing. Being largely closed off to the rest of the world economically and culturally, most of Laos remains undeveloped, with the majority of the population living in simple wooden huts with no water or sanitation; and even some of the most remote villages don’t have schools.
While still a communist country today, Laos is opening up economically in the last decade and plans to officially open it’s economic borders by joining ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations). This change will officially take place in 2015 and has massive implications for all of Laos. As I mentioned briefly in my previous post, the wealth gap in Laos is dramatic. And the biggest part of that gap is in education and skills. The poor working class of Laos (population 6.6 million) fall significantly behind their Vietnam and Thailand neighbors when it comes to skilled labor and work ethic. This hasn’t posed a threat until the opening of the borders, when any Thai or Vietnamese worker can move to Laos indefinitely for work (currently it is very difficult to secure a work visa for neighbor citizens).
At the same time, Laos is a country rich in natural resources. “…The rapid growth of the natural resources sectors has transformed Laos’ economic landscape” (World Bank, 2011). Currently many of these resources have been granted to foreign countries both in Asia and the Western world (such as an Australian company mining gold and many countries in the logging and electricity industries). Once the economic borders open, this will make Laos vulnerable to exploitation (as we’ve seen in developing countries before). “In their rush to capitalize on the rising demand and prices, a number of Southeast Asian governments made dubious choices between exploiting their resources and the needs of environmentally sustainable development. Short-term thinking in resource-rich developing countries has created long-term damage to the environment, the sustainability of their resources, and the human security of some of their poorest citizens who depend on traditional access to forests, fisheries, and agricultural land for their food and livelihoods.” (source). Laos does not have the infrastructure or human resources to smoothly move into the 21st century economic landscape, and with few advocates on their side, I fear that the country will soon be lost to the highest bidder.
But there is one critical key to potentially steering this country safely from this seemingly inevitable fate: the Lao diaspora.
During the political upheaval of the 1970s, many Lao fled the country seeking refuge in Western countries. As a result, there are significant Lao communities in America, Australia and Canada. By this time many are first generation immigrants who know only of their homeland in stories from their parents and grandparents. But, many of those stories are not positive. Because many Lao refugees sought refuge from political oppression, their memories are fraught with fear and abandonment. Some have no desire to return at all. And yet, this is exactly what Laos needs—it’s people to return home.
This next generation of skilled Lao throughout the world are the bright future of this fledgeling country with so much potential and wealth to offer. Having grown up in both cultures, these young people can play a critical role in transitioning Laos into world economy. They bring the critical skills needed to build the infrastructure and human resources this country desperately needs.
Laos needs leaders.
People who can stand up for their country while also standing with it in ethical practices, narrowing the wealth gap, the education gap and the cultural gap. They need people like Amy Chanthaphavong, who recently left her home in California, took a job in Laos’ capitol of Vientiene and is working tirelessly to advocate for the future of her homeland.
Laos needs more leaders like Amy, and those of us who are less likely to move to Laos to make a difference, we should be supporting people like Amy who understand the culture and can speak the language, literally and culturally.
(Amy has a film coming out later this year that tells the stories of inspiring social entrepreneurs already on the ground working for a greater future in Laos. Look for that later this year by following her website. Oh, and I’m the director on the film project!)