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Rich Regime, Impoverished Children in Laos

LUANG PRABANG, Laos — To know misfortune is to be a child born in Laos.

UNICEF figures show that 48 percent of Laotian children are stunted. They will grow up short and probably not very smart. That comes from serious malnutrition during the first years of life.

This should come as no surprise to the uncaring, obdurate Communist government that rules this place. Five years ago, the UN’s World Food Program carried out a major food-security study of Laotian children and found that half of them were chronically malnourished. Today, nothing has changed.

In fact, a group of doctors and nurses gathered in the rural province of Sekong a few weeks ago to discuss combating malnutrition once again. In that province, Dr. Wonkaeo Phonesivisay said, 60 percent of children under 5 years old are so seriously malnourished that they will grow up stunted.

Aid workers here say all of their work is “program based.” That’s jargon for the realization that if they stop funding and operating the programs, the efforts will simply wither and die.

But the government is working on one big project that, at first glance, looks like it could benefit the people: a big hydroelectric dam on the Mekong River. This in a country that offers less electric power for its people than almost any place on earth, except for a handful of states, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Most residents of this poor, mountainous country have never even seen a light bulb—or a government official, for that matter.

Governments downstream of Laos—in Cambodia and Vietnam primarily—are howling in complaint about this dam. But given the needs of Laos’s own people, perhaps the dam is justifiable?

Laotian officials, explaining the dam project at the groundbreaking ceremony late last year, told journalists they wanted to vault their nation from its status as one of the world’s poorest. Well, that was the talk until a few weeks ago—when Laos made a contract with its neighbor, Thailand. The Thai will buy most if not all of the power that the new dam generates.

So the new dam will almost certainly benefit the Lao people not at all. The money earned from the Thai will go where most money here goes—into the pockets of Lao leaders. Laos ranks 160th out of 174 nations in Transparency International’s 2012 corruption index.

The way things are going here, it seems a safe bet that if UNICEF or the World Food Program has a look at Laotian children five years from now, they will see that nothing has changed.

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Laos