LAO SOCIETY: A FEW RICH AND LOTS OF POOR

LAO SOCIETY

Laos is a rural country whose relatively low population density has allowed the continuation of a village society reliant on subsistence agriculture. The lack of a national government infrastructure and effective transportation networks has also contributed to the relative independence and autonomy of most villages. Residence in a village thus has been an important aspect of social identity, particularly for lowland Lao ethnic groups. For many upland ethnic groups, clan membership is a more important point of social identification. For all groups, the village community has a kinship nexus, although structures differ. Rice is the staple food for all Laotians, and most families and villages are able to produce enough or nearly enough each year for their own consumption. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Lao society lacks rigid class distinctions and no longer has a hereditary elite. Buddhist monks, school teachers, and the elderly are held in high esteem and given respect. Particularly in rural villages, there is little differentiation except that based on age and to a lesser extent occupation. Wealth doesn’t divide village group because no one has much. Laos does not suffer severe population pressure, but there is a steady migration into the cities due to increasing disparities between urban and rural living standards.

Strong Buddhist traditions and firm government control has brought order to Laotian society. Lao sort of go along with rules in a laid back way without making much off a fuss even if the rules seem extreme or silly. Great lengths are gone through to prevent conflicts. Intermediaries are often used to settle disputes. Disputes sometimes occur between the Lao and hill tribes over land use and animal grazing rights.

Village society is based on household and extended kin groups. Numerous activities require the cooperation of members of the Laos Communist Party. Social control is based in the need to maintain good relations The division of labor for farming and chores is worked out on the village level. Dishonest, uncooperative behavior and laziness are frowned upon. In extreme cases, people are accused of witchcraft ad expelled from the village.

Also See Separate Article HOMES, VILLAGES AND RURAL AND RURAL LIFE IN LAOS

Lowland Lao Society

Lao Loum (Laotian of the valley), have been the dominant group—numerically, politically, and economically—since the founding of the Kingdom of Lan Xang in the fourteenth century. The Lao of the Lao Loum ethnic group comprise just over 50 percent of the total population. Other related lowland groups include the Lue and Phu Thai, who together make up an additional 15 percent of the population. Groups such as the Tai Dam and Tai Deng are included by government statistics in the general category Phu Thai despite linguistic and cultural differences from other lowland groups. Variations occur regionally and among different ethnic subgroups, but the general patterns are relatively uniform. Most officials in the RLG were Lao Loum, and despite increases in the number of minority officials in the government, the lowland Lao held a clear majority in the early 1990s. Lowland cultural patterns are frequently considered the norm in designing policy or setting development priorities. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Lao Loum traditionally live in stable independent villages situated near lowland rivers or streams. At higher elevations, villages are located in valley areas that give as much access as possible to land suitable for paddy rice cultivation. Villages are self-contained and range from around twenty to over 200 households, although they typically contain forty or fifty houses and 200 to 300 people. Usually, villages are separated by rice fields or unused land. In rural areas, there might be five kilometers or more between villages, whereas in more densely populated areas only one kilometer or less separates the settlements. Most villages have grown in population over time, and if good land becomes scarce in the vicinity, it is not uncommon for some families to migrate to another area, either individually or as a group. Individual households usually move to another village where the family has kin or friends, but larger groups have often migrated to unsettled areas. Such village fission or relocation continued into the early 1990s, although migrants had to obtain permission from the district administration before settling in a new site. *

The traditional independence and relative isolation of lowland villages has been reduced since the late 1980s. Although commerce in forest products—for example, sticklac—dates to colonial times, as roads have improved and marketing networks expanded, the government has encouraged commercial production for trade and export. As long as the open economic policies of the New Economic Mechanism are operating, the process of integrating lowland villages into a national socioeconomic system will likely continue. *

Lowland Lao are almost all Buddhists, and most villages have a wat, which serves as both a social and religious center. Whereas small villages may have only one or two monks in residence plus a few novice monks, larger villages may have up six monks plus novices. Many villagers assemble at the wat for prayers on the days of each lunar quarter; on days of major religious festivals, they carry out more elaborate ceremonies and may organize a boun (religious fair) at the wat. Before the development of a national education system, boys and young men received basic religious and secular education at the wat. The wat is frequently used as a place for village meetings, because the hall is often the only building large enough to accommodate everyone at once. Most villages have a small wat committee to oversee the maintenance of the building, organization of the fair, and the general welfare of the monks and novices. The committee members are selected by consensus on the basis of their morality and religious sincerity and usually have been monks at some time in their lives. *

Although they are Buddhists, Lao Loum also respect the power of phi (spirits), which may be associated with a place or a deceased person. More important for village organization is the cult of a village protective deity, or phi ban, which is typically celebrated yearly. Many villages have abandoned this practice in the face of increased modernization and official discouragement by the government. However, some villages continued through the early 1990s to offer an annual sacrifice to the phi ban in a ceremony that both reaffirmed the importance of the village as a unique social unit and aimed to secure the continued good fortune of the village and its inhabitants. *

Lowland Lao Village Organization

Occupational specialization in the village is low; virtually everyone is a rice farmer first. Some villagers may have special skills in weaving, blacksmithing, or religious knowledge, but these skills are supplementary to the fundamental task of growing enough rice and vegetables for the family. Social and economic stratification tends to be low within any one village, although villages may differ substantially one from another. Status accrues to age, wealth, skill in specific tasks, and religious knowledge. Factions based on kinship or political alliance may exist in a village but usually do not obstruct overall village cooperation and governance. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Traditionally, lowland Lao villages are led by a village chief (pho ban or nai ban) and one or two assistants who are elected by the villagers, although district or province officials sometimes use their positions to influence the results. Respected elders, including women, form an advisory group that deliberates intravillage disputes. Since 1975 villages have been governed by an administrative committee headed by a village president (pathan ban) and several other persons with responsibilities for such specific areas as economic and population records, self-defense militia, agriculture, women's affairs, and youth affairs. All members are in principle elected by popular vote, although for about a decade after 1975, party cadres at the village level were supposed to have taken an active role to ensure that acceptable candidates were selected. *

Even under the present political system, however, village leaders have little or no formal authority and govern through consensus and the use of social pressure to ensure conformity. Village meetings are held infrequently but are usually well attended with different viewpoints on issues expressed openly. If a consensus on an issue is not reached, leaders will delay decisions to allow further discussion outside the meeting with all members of the community. Typical issues might include whether to build or expand a village school or dig a community well, or how to organize the annual ceremony for the village protective spirit. Historically, religious and ceremonial activities and ties with the Buddhist temple or monastery (wat) have been very important in village life and a focus of considerable time and expenditure. *

Each family contributes equal amounts of labor, material, and money to village projects. Once a decision is made to undertake a project, a committee is appointed to manage the details and keep track of the contributions to ensure that everyone does his or her share. Systems of rotating labor groups for village projects are common; for example, groups of ten households may supply one worker per household every three to seven days, depending on the number of groups, until the project is finished. Some large projects, such as building a school, may continue for several years, with work taking place during the dry season when farming tasks are not heavy or when funds are available to purchase materials. *

Households also cooperate informally, especially in agricultural work. Labor exchange occurs for almost every task associated with rice farming, although it is most common for transplanting, harvesting, and threshing. There are two different patterns of farm exchange. In central and southern Laos, villagers call on many other households, sometimes the entire village, for one day's help to complete a specific task such as transplanting. No specific repayment is required, but the family is obligated to help others in the village if they are unable to finish work in time. In northern villages, mutual assistance is organized on the basis of exchanges between families that should even out over the year; a day's work transplanting may be repaid by a day's work threshing. The contributions of men, women, and children over sixteen are considered equal, regardless of the task. *

Disparity of Income and the Rich in Laos

The income gap in Laos between rich and poor is very wide. Most of the wealth is concentrated in the Vientiane area, where only about 10 percent of the population lives. While people in Vientiane enjoy meals and fancy restaurants and satellite television people in the countryside and the mountains can go hungry if their crops fail. The top fifth of population control 44 percent of the country’s wealth while the bottom fifth controls only 8 percent.

A) Population below poverty line: 26 percent (2010 est.). B) Household income or consumption by percentage share: lowest 10 percent: 3.3 percent; highest 10 percent: 30.3 percent (2008). C) Distribution of family income - Gini index: 36.7 (2008), country comparison to the world: 81; 34.6 (2002). [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Rich people in Laos include royals, old families, newly rich and Marxist power brokers. In the old day the elite were educated at French schools elsewhere in Indochina and in France itself. When the Pathet Lao came to power some members of the royal family and old aristocracy were stripped of their property and sent to labor camps.

The traditional Lao elite was comprised of 200 or so families and their offspring that descended from or were associated through high level appointments or service to the former royal family. Under the Pathet Lao their fortunes changed. Mnay were forced to seek refuge in France, where they were forced worker in factories and as house cleaners.

The urban elite live in nice villas with satellite dishes and drive around in Toyota sedans and SUVs. They are mostly believed to be well-connected with the government, foreign aid donors and foreign investors.

Regional and ethnic discrepancies remain the greatest source of poverty and poor living conditions. Many lowland villages are prosperous, regularly produce a rice surplus, and assist a small number of less well-off households within their boundaries. Other villages, particularly those in the uplands or of minorities who had recently relocated to lowland sites, are less well off and often unable to produce enough rice for village consumption. In these situations, the ability to produce other salable commodities, whether livestock, opium, or vegetables, or to find wage-labor jobs, is critical to the well-being of the household and the village. In settings where an entire village is rice-deficient, interfamily exchanges and rice loans cannot ameliorate the basic shortage affecting the community. Acute regional crop shortfalls in several years between 1989 and 1993 were largely met by rice imports provided through foreign aid. As market networks expand and as the economy becomes increasingly monetized and population growth and resettlement increase pressure on land resources, the number of villages in marginal economic situations can be expected to increase. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Poor People in Laos

Laos was considered one of the world's 10 poorest countries. More than one quarter of the population lives under the national poverty line. In the early 2000s the per capita income was about $350 and malnutrition affected half of the nation's children. Many people subsist on donated grains. In the 1990s, by one count more than 90 percent of the people who lived outside of Vientiane lived below the poverty level of $1 a day.

Many Laotians are subsistence farmers and their fortunes are tied to the yield of their harvests. Between 1994 and 1997, the harvest were mostly bad because of droughts or floods. In some tourist areas children dive for coins thrown in the Mekong River.

Wayne Arnold wrote in the New York Times, “Laos’s “people live in conditions more typical of Africa than Southeast Asia. Illiterate children survive on less than 90 cents a day in remote villages. Many venture to cities only to end up across the Mekong River, in Thailand, working in sweatshops or as prostitutes. Laos wants to rise from the ranks of the world's poorest nations by 2020, something the International Monetary Fund estimates will require annual economic growth of at least 7 percent. [Source: Wayne Arnold, New York Times, March 5, 2002 ~~]

According to the World Food Program: Despite steady economic growth over the last 15 years, Lao PDR continues to have very high chronic malnutrition rates: nearly every second child under the age of 5 in Lao PDR is chronically malnourished and every fifth rural child is severely stunted. These rates are even higher in remote areas and among some ethnic groups. Natural disasters such as floods, droughts and pests are common and can lead to acute undernutrition since the infrastructure is weak and overall coping strategies are limited. In addition, micronutrient deficiencies affect large parts of the population, with over 40 percent of children under 5 and 63 percent of children under 2 suffering from anemia, and almost 45 percent of children under 5 and 23 percent of women between 12 and 49 years of age affected by sub-clinical vitamin A deficiency. [Source: World Food Program]

According to Lonely Planet: The government has shown little inclination to address the abysmally low education standards, or poor health facilities for a rural population faced with endemic diseases such as malaria, and HIV/AIDS. Some NGOs and foreign aid programs are trying to help, but human resources remain poorly developed. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Poverty in Laos in the 1980s and 90s

Despite statistics indicating that Laos is one of the poorest counties in the world, it has for the most part been spared the acute problems often associated with underdevelopment and poverty. Famine and serious epidemics have been absent in the twentieth century, urban slums have not existed, and debt bondage has been unknown. Because the rural economy was not effectively monetized through at least the early 1980s, households usually countered seasonal crop shortages by increasing their gathering activities and relying on wild tubers and other foods as insurance crops. Most villages have customs regarding the provision of rice loans-- sometimes interest-free--to families experiencing a bad year. Most shelter in rural areas is self-built and not dependent on land ownership or access to money. Thus, it is possible for most families to survive at least at a subsistence level, although for many the material standard of living is not high. Chronic marginal food production and lack of access to or inability to afford medical care and education remain pervasive problems, however. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

A 1988 survey of income distribution in urban Vientiane found an average household monthly income of about K35,000, or US$70, with the most common income of between K25,000 and K30,000 per month--about $US55 at the 1988 exchange rate. With 4.5 persons per average household, the modal figure implied an annual per capita income of about US$150, far below the UN poverty line of US$275. Whether this survey included noncash income from agricultural production or other exchange was unknown, however; family crop production was still an important element in the economy of many urban Vientiane families. These limited statistics emphasize the relative sensitivity of urban residents to prices and cash income, particularly when compared with rural villagers who were more insulated from the effects of inflation and market behavior. *

Rural Poor in Laos

The Lao People's Democratic Republic is also more rural in character than any other country in South-East Asia. More than three quarters of the total population lives in rural areas and depends on agriculture and natural resources for survival. Poverty is particularly concentrated in these areas. While agriculture is the mainstay of the economy, farming is largely practised at the subsistence level, and productive conditions for farmers are generally poor. [Source: International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) \*/]

Poverty and extreme poverty are most common in mountainous regions, where the majority of the country's ethnic minority peoples live. In upland areas, the poverty rate is as high as 43 per cent, compared with about 28 per cent in the lowlands. The poorest groups in the lowlands are those who have been resettled from mountain regions. In general, the most disadvantaged households are located in areas that are vulnerable to natural disasters; have no livestock; include a large number of dependants; and are headed by women. \*/

Women generally work longer hours than men, often taking on about 70 per cent of farming and household tasks, as well as caring for young children. They also receive less schooling. Women's literacy rate is 54 per cent, compared with 77 per cent for men. Ethnic women and girls, especially those in the highlands, are the most vulnerable members of rural communities. Women in ethnic groups comprise 70 per cent of the illiterate population and suffer further isolation given that so few of them speak the national language. \*/

Poor rural people depend on agriculture for food and income, but agricultural conditions are often unfavourable and productivity is low. Farmers struggle to meet food requirements, especially when their households are large. Most use traditional farming methods. They lack knowledge of new technologies and skills to improve yields, they have few inputs and their landholdings tend to be too small for paddy cultivation or production of other crops. \*/

In the highland the soil is generally of poorer quality than in the lowlands. Things like toothpaste and basic medicines are out of reach for most people. Declining soil fertility also affects productivity. Few farm households have access to irrigation. Livestock diseases spread unchecked, causing loss of animals. Because of declining yields of rice and other crops, in many parts of the country households are forced to use wild forest resources to provide food and generate cash. This unregulated exploitation of important natural resources causes serious environmental damage and ultimately exacerbates poverty. The Government's programme of opium eradication has been largely successful, but continued investment is required to support the development of sustainable alternatives to the cultivation of opium poppies as a cash crop. \*/

Poor, remote rural communities are also geographically and institutionally isolated. During the rainy seasons as many as half of all Lao villages become unreachable. Social isolation is a particular problem for upland ethnic peoples, who are marginalized in many ways because of their languages, customs and religious beliefs. In addition, rural communities have very limited access to government and financial services, roads, markets, basic education and health services. They are largely cut off from the benefits of a market-oriented economy. And their lack of education prevents them from gaining access to information that would help them improve their living standards and know their rights. \*/

Laos Government Does Little to Help Starving Children

Joel Brinkley of the MacClathcy-Tribune Information Service wrote: “To know misfortune is to be a child born in Laos. The United Nations classifies Laos as one of the world's "least developed" countries. And no wonder. Half of all children here are chronically malnourished during their first five years of life. They suffer "stunting" as a result. That inelegant term means they do not grow, either physically or mentally. If these children make it to adulthood, they will be small and not very smart. And then there's the 10 percent classified as "wasting" - little children who are, essentially, starving to death. [Source: Joel Brinkley, MacClathcy-Tribune Information Service, September 4, 2008 |=|]

It's quite obvious that the callous, opaque communist government here could care less about its children. Over the last 10 years, the malnourishment statistics have changed little if at all. If not for people like Karin Manente, Lao children would have nothing to hope for. "There is so much human capacity that is lost here," she laments. Severe malnourishment in early childhood "affects you for the rest of your life." Manente is Laos country director for the World Food Program, the underappreciated U.N. enterprise that struggles to feed the poorest people in countries governed by obdurate, uncaring leaders. |=|

Among its programs here, the WFP delivers mid-day meals to 88,000 schoolchildren - a daunting task in a mountainous nation with almost no paved roads. Many villages can be reached only on foot, and the next settlement might be 20 miles away. The problem is, these are the places most in need. These are the children Manente tries to feed. For many of these children, that is the only meal they will get each day. |=|

The Lao People's Democratic Republic doesn't exactly stand in the way. But each year, the WFP gives the government a plan for feeding the schoolchildren, laying out its minimal responsibilities for funding and general assistance. "But it doesn't all materialize," Manente says, pursing her lips. That means, to use aid-worker jargon, the school-feeding initiative is entirely "program based." Manente translates. "It means if we stop, the program stops." She cannot be expected to be hyper-critical of the government. Still, the most generous assessment she can muster is this: "Their people do consume staff time at meetings with us here in Vientiane." |=|

With a government this cold, closed and uncaring, it's little surprise that the people are poor, ill-served and underfed. But no one had ever taken the time to examine exactly what that meant. The WFP weighed and measured thousands of children all over the country to produce a "food insecurity" study, published several months ago. The malnourished children, it concluded, "do badly at school and have low productivity in adulthood." That is, if they survive to adulthood. Just over 8 percent of all children born here die before they reach age 5. The others "pass on poverty and deprivation to future generations."

Part of the problem is rice. For many of the rural poor, 80 percent of the nation's population, rice is just about the only thing they eat. What happens if you eat only rice? No vegetables, no fruits, no animal protein? Stunting. Wasting. The terrible shame is that it would take very little to save many thousands of these children. If families planted what aid workers call a "kitchen garden," in this tropical climate it could supply vegetables year round. That would help diversify a child's diet. But in the poorest areas, fewer than half the households think to do that because eating only rice is well-established custom. In one area, Manente told me, "when a baby is born, the mother can eat only rice for three months. That's the tradition."

In other words, they don't know any better. Someone needs to tell them. The WFP is running a pilot project in four small villages, and the results are encouraging. "Once you get to them" with this nutritional information, Manente said, "they are receptive." Aid workers aren't capable of educating the public at large. That's the government's responsibility. But that's not what it likes to talk about.

Poverty Reduction Progress in Laos

Economic growth has reduced official poverty rates from 46 percent in 1992 to 26 percent in 2010. The per capita GDP of Laos is now over $3,000.

According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development: “The high growth rate achieved by the Lao People's Democratic Republic since the introduction of economic reforms in the mid-1980s has resulted in a steady decline in poverty. The country has made impressive progress in economic growth, with the proportion of poor people falling from 39 per cent of the population in the mid-1990s to 27.6 per cent in 2010. [Source: International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD \+\]

According to UNDP's Human Development Report 2010, the Lao People's Democratic Republic is one of the 10 "top movers" in the world in terms of progress on human development over the past 20 years. However, the country remains one of the poorest and least developed in South-East Asia. Although social indicators have also shown an improvement, they are still among the lowest in the region. \+\

The Vientiane Times reported: As of 2013 “the number of poor families in Laos has dropped to 17 percent, it was revealed yesterday during a review of the implementation of the government’s 7th National Socio-Economic Development Plan. [Source: LaoVoices, vientianetimes.org.la \*/ ]

“The Ministry of Planning and Investment presented the mid term review of the 2011-15 socio-economic development plan to Laos’ development partners. One of the highlights was that in the first two and a half years of implementation, there has been a significant decline in the number of poor families. Development partners, senior government officials and economists attended the half day presentation session. Planning Department Deputy Director General Ms Phonevanh Outhanvong and Asian Development Bank Country Deputy Director Mr Barend Frielink presided over the meeting. \*/

“According to the review, the government expects to lower the percentage of poor families even further to 15 percent by the end of this year and to 10 percent in 2015. In 2011, it was estimated that 19 percent of families in the country were poor. The government has spent about 896 billion kip on its poverty reduction programme and plans to spend 7,387 billion kip from 2011 to 2015. To achieve development targets, the government has built roads to the poorest districts to enable people in rural areas to transport their crops to markets in urban areas. The government has also encouraged people to grow crops such as sweetcorn, coffee, cassava and sugarcane to generate more income. \*/

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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