A joint project in Laos has set an example for other countries in the region to reduce poverty and improve lives
By Yuan Yanan
“We didn’t dream of the day an iron and steel bridge would be built across the river running through our village,” exclaimed Khamchan Boudvinai, 49, deputy chief of Ban Xor Village in the suburbs of Vientiane, Laos. With the assistance of the Chinese government, a modern bridge was constructed near the existing wooden bridge. Boudvinai recalled the days his village had weak infrastructure. Its dirt roads turned muddy on rainy days and dusty on sunny days. Getting around was very inconvenient for villagers.
“Since the beginning of the poverty reduction cooperation project, our village has changed a lot,” Boudvinai continued. “The roads have been paved with asphalt, and the overall environment has improved.”
“The new bridge will make it easier for villagers to travel and kids to get to school,” said Boudvinai, “We don’t have to go around the mountains to cross the waterway any more.”
Poverty reduction has always been at the top of the Lao government’s agenda. In November 2014, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang suggested a cooperation initiative on poverty reduction in East Asia at the ASEAN Plus Three Leaders’ Meeting. According to the initiative, China would organize a pilot project on poverty reduction cooperation in East Asia. Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar were selected as the first group of partner countries involved in the community-based poverty reduction cooperation program. Leveraging its experience with integrated village development and targeted poverty alleviation, China provided assistance to six villages in the three countries over the course of three years.
In September 2017, the demonstration project in Laos was officially launched in Ban Xor Village in Vientiane and Xienglom Village in Luang Prabang Province. “Learning from China’s poverty reduction experience was about much more than local authorities accepting money and supplies for the villages,” said Fan Xining, leader of a Chinese team of experts and resident Chinese director of a joint office of the China-aided Laos Poverty Reduction Demonstration Cooperation Technical Assistance Project (“demonstration project” for short). “This is about helping the villagers strengthen their ability to capitalize on their development potential.” He believes that application of Chinese experience in poverty reduction adapted to the actual conditions in Laos has been effective and fruitful.
Simma is a 70-year-old resident of Xienglom Village. She opined that the demonstration project brought real changes to her life. “The village used to be pitch black at night,” she said. “With new paved roads and street lights, the village now gets lively when it gets dark, with children running around and adults chatting under the street lights.” Construction of new roads with solar-powered lights in the two demonstration villages has been a game changer for 2,800 people.
Villagers’ lives have improved in other ways, too. In Xienglom Village, aging infrastructure and a lack of clean water sources had caused the drinking water quality to deteriorate. The Chinese experts working on the demonstration project joined local officials and residents to comb the surrounding mountains and ridges for a source of clean water. Then, they built a dam and a reservoir to divert clean mountain spring water to villagers’ homes.
On a hillside behind the village, a clinic was built to be managed by a medical practitioner with 20 years of experience at Luang Prabang provincial hospital. Residents can now see a doctor for minor issues without leaving the village.
In the village school, thatched classrooms have been replaced by a brand-new modern building with a playground and a variety of sports equipment for teachers and students.
In Laos, women frequently wear the colorful national dress. This drives great demand for cloth with unique patterns and reliable quality. Ban Xor Village is traditionally known for its weaving and has accumulated rich experience in the trade. However, the household industry has remained scattered, small in scale, dull in style, and lacking investment, leaving it weak market competitiveness. In 2018, Ban Xor Village decided to make weaving one of the priority industries for development after discussions with the joint office of the demonstration project. A weaving cooperative was thus established. Weaving equipment was procured with project funds. The property rights to the equipment belonged to the village collective. The cooperative members were required to pay a rental fee to use the equipment. They could also borrow money from the project funds to buy raw materials. In August 2020, the Ban Xor Village Weaving Products Exhibition Hall was completed thanks to Chinese aid. Local weaving products are on display in the hall, which has already attracted many visitors and buyers alike.
Nyi Campavonsha is a villager in her late 40s. She joined the weaving cooperative alongside 20 neighbors. The business has added around US$615 to her annual income. Experts involved in the demonstration project are planning to build an e-commerce platform to promote sales and branding of the village’s weaving products. The combination of collective marketing and independent sales is expected to earn an average of US$1,340 for each member of the cooperative every year. Alongside weaving, the Chinese experts organized a series of skills training courses in vegetable cultivation, cattle ranching, and chicken farming to help villagers master operational skills and practical techniques. The two demonstration villages paired up with Dazhai Village of Guilin City in southwest China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region to become “friendship villages.” This arrangement made it possible for the local villagers to learn from their partners on how to reduce poverty through ethnic minority cultural tourism and explore other channels for income generation.
According to the International Poverty Reduction Center in China (IPRCC), the demonstration project has introduced Laos to the concept of “targeted poverty alleviation” and the model of “poverty alleviation with capacity building led by the government and featuring participation by all.” The project has helped Laos reduce poverty by improving community infrastructure and public services, developing industries, improving living standards, building capacity, and providing technical assistance. The success of the demonstration project has improved the working and living conditions in relevant communities and boosted their capacity for self-sufficient development, setting an example for other East Asian countries to reduce poverty and improve living standards.
“China’s innovative poverty reduction model has provided assistance to Laos not only through financial support, but also provision of experience, ideas, and technical training. This is what a major responsible country does.”
“Rural development in Laos is in step with building new socialist rural areas in China,” commented then Lao Deputy Prime Minister Bounthong Chitmany. “I hope the two sides will devise a work plan for the next phase to optimize the assistance provided by the Chinese government so the demonstration project serves as a sparkling example for development of surrounding villages.” “The demonstration project was jointly implemented by the Chinese and Lao governments,” said Lao Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Khambounnath Xayanone. “China’s innovative poverty reduction model has provided assistance to Laos not only through financial support, but also provision of experience, ideas, and technical training. This is what a major responsible country does. We are confident that our bilateral cooperation in poverty reduction will continue to move forward and achieve more.”