It has been two days since we arrived in Vientiane, and it’s dawning on me that we need to stretch the definition of “urban” in order to compare our experiences from Jakarta’s and Manila’s slums to the living conditions of the poor in Vientiane.
Although Laos is witnessing fast paced urbanization, it is still at an early stage. Vientiane Capital Region is a large area that, in many places, is still more rural than urban. On the one hand, the negative effects of crowding as observed in Manila are largely absent since space is really not an issue. On the other hand, there are many other problems: lack of government services for the poor, very limited health care services, extremely low graduation rates (in particular among the poor), and lack of non-farm opportunities.
The list above is a rough summary of the issues that were brought up repeatedly in interviews with NGOs we conducted during the last two days. When briefing the team of surveyors about our survey and discussing the different areas we intend to cover with our exploratory survey on urban poverty, it became apparent that the poor in Vientiane’s center live hidden from the public. The poorer areas of Vientiane are located further away from the center, some only accessible through poor, partially gravel, roads.
The NGO interviewees stated that Vientian’s economic awakening has not been very inclusive so far. The impressive GDP growth has benefited large investors and the newly formed middle class. It is an interesting question what steps could be taken by the government and the NGO sector respectively to support the poor in reaping more of the benfeits from Laos’s economic growth? We will get back to that later.
To conclude I would like to mention one particularly interesting initiatives that we learned about here in Vientiane. It is a savings-led community fund set up in conjunction with a comprehensive water and sanitation initiative. The fund requires an initial deposit for registration and then provides only three different loan options to its members. A loan for agricultural endeavours (1% monthly interest), for non-farm businesses (2% monthly interest) and for education or health emergencies (0,5% monthly interest).
The simplicity and intuitive fairness of this structure impressed us. The reasons for that and more details will follow in a separate post.