03/30/2019, 09.16
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Laos: from Chinese mega-projects "little employment and huge debts"

UN special envoy criticizes the government: "Ticking boxes and boosting numbers, not the lives of Laotians". 80% of Laotians live on less than $ 2.5 a day. Over 20% of children are underweight, 9% suffer from malnutrition and a third are rickety.

Vientiane (AsiaNews / Agencies) - The massive Chinese projects of the Belt and Road Initiative (Bri) and the vast concessions to exploit land and resources generate few jobs and too many debts: the current strategy of the Lao socialist regime favors a wealthy elite and increases economic inequalities with the poorest sections of the population. 

This is according to  Philip Alston, special envoy of the United Nations (UN) for poverty and human rights. According to the Australian expert, Vientiane should focus less on Beijing-funded projects - such as dams and railways - and devote more resources to children and the marginalized.

Alston released these statements two days ago, in a video-broadcast press conference from the Laotian capital. The UN official closed an 11-day mission (18-28 March) in various regions of the country. The visit touched Vientiane and the provinces of Champasack, Xienkuang, Houaphanh and Attapeu, where a dam burst last year. Alston met with government officials of various levels, village leaders, workers, farmers and traders, to gather information about their daily lives.

Nestled between Thailand, China, Myanmar and Cambodia, the economy of small Laos has grown rapidly in recent years. However, the benefits of this growth have not reached the entire, largely rural, population. 

It is estimated that 80% of Laotians live on less than 2.5 US dollars a day and are at risk of poverty. While acknowledging the country's economic progress, Alston criticizes the government of "simply ticking boxes and boosting numbers, rather than ensuring significant changes to the lives of Laotians".

The special envoy points out that many infrastructure and plantation projects take land away from local residents, forcing their resettlement. Most initiatives generate "few jobs and too many debts," he says. “These concessions potentially cover something like 40% of the national territory and many, if not most, have produced very few returns on the national budget; real revenues that can be spent for the well-being of the Laotian people ”.

Alston notes that women in Laos are largely excluded from the decision-making process and that ethnic minorities - which make up nearly half of the population - are "severely deprived" of almost all development measures, with low incomes and less access to education and health care. 

Over a fifth of Laotian children are underweight, 9% suffer from "debilitating" or severe malnutrition and a third are rickety. Less than half have been vaccinated. "You may not have any interest in children, but all you need to know is that they are the economic future - he concludes -. You will not have a large workforce if those statistics are your starting point."

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