27th October 2014 

October 24 is UN Day and to mark the occasion Vientiane Times arranged an interview with the United Nation Resident Coordinator in the Lao PDR, Ms Kaarina Immonen.

Q: The UN does many things in the Lao PDR, but in your opinion what are its main functions here?

A: The main function of the United Nations in Lao PDR is to support the Government in achieving its national development targets.
Our priority areas of work covers, among other things, sustainable and equitable growth, gender equality, improving the delivery of public services such as access to quality education and health services, improving food and nutrition security, promoting sustainable natural resources management and reducing the impact of unexploded ordnance (UXO). This sounds like a lot but there are 25 different UN agencies currently operating in the Lao PDR, with each agency specializing in different development issues.

While working closely on the national agenda, we promote Lao PDR's participation in the global efforts. Since 2000, we have been supporting Lao PDR to achieve the internationally agreed Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and more recently to contribute to the post-2015 agenda, where it will be important for the voice of the Lao people to be heard and taken into consideration in shaping the next set of global development goals.

Q: How does the UN support the Lao Government to achieve its development targets in various sectors in the country?

A: We help the Government make informed decisions about their development priorities by providing policy advice and technical assistance. For example, we support various studies, analytical research and data collection efforts, such as population and housing censuses.

In addition, we promote regular consultations between the Government, international donors and development partners in key development issues. The UN is also currently supporting the Government in the design of its next 5-year National Socio-Economic Development Plan (8th NSEDP), which will provide key guidance for the country in moving towards the graduation from the Least Developed Country status.

We also facilitate and encourage South-South cooperation, utilising the know-how of the neighbouring ASEAN countries.

Q: Could you tell me a little about the work of the UN in contributing to help Lao PDR move forward and meet the MDGs?

A: Many of the development issues that Lao PDR faces are interlinked. For example, food- and nutrition security is a huge challenge and one of the most seriously off-track MDG targets. Our direct interventions in this area include providing nutritional supplements to undernourished children and working with farmers to diversify their sources of income, but we also try to address the underlying issues that contribute to the overall food insecurity in the country.
A concrete example of this work can be seen in flood-prone Xayaboury Province, were we have helped communities to adapt to the changing climate by developing water reservoirs to store excess water in rainy season to be used for crops in the dry season. This enables people to grow crops throughout the year, resulting in improved food security for the community.

There are many similar examples of how we work with communities and the Government to bring about real, positive change for people. Another example is the presence of UXO in Lao PDR, which limits development in large parts of the country. The areas with highest UXO contamination are also some of the poorest in Laos, therefore accelerating the clearance efforts is essential part of poverty reduction. At the moment we are working with the authorities and donor partners to make the clearance more efficient by prioritizing the most contaminated areas rather than measure success by the surface area cleared.

Success is really a team effort, and none of this could happen without the work and support of the Lao Government and partners.

Q: Could you rate which MDGs Lao PDR has made a good progress in and which MDGs have made slow progress and why?

A: Lao PDR has made significant progress towards improving the well-being and living standards of many poor communities in the country since the adoption of the Millennium Declaration. The MDGs consist of several different targets and Lao PDR is on track to achieve some of them by the 2015 deadline, but others will take longer to be realised. Lao PDR has made good progress with the expansion of basic health and education services, the strengthening of rural infrastructure and achieving substantial reduction in poverty, which has dropped by over 40% since the early 1990s.

However, high rates of malnutrition with around 44% of under-5s stunted, high rates of infant and maternal mortality as well as shortfalls in UXO clearance continue to keep several of the MDGs in Lao PDR off-track.

There are various reasons as to why the progress has been slow in some sectors. For example, the approach previously applied to address nutrition has been recently revised. Rather than being seen as an issue belonging just to the health sector, it is now been recognized as an issue that needs the involvement of several different sectors and an integrated approach.

Also, while the economy of the country has been growing at a remarkable rate in the past two decades, the sustainability of the growth has not been given sufficient attention. The social-economic benefits of the growth need to support poverty reduction, food and nutrition security and improved education and health services, particularly for those living in remote areas.

Q: What are the some of the challenges for the UN working in the Lao PDR?

A: Reaching out to the various communities is a big challenge because the infrastructure is still poor in many parts of the country and getting services to the most vulnerable is often very difficult.

Given their dispensable role played in enhancing services delivery and achieving development goals, we recognize the need for increased space for the civil society and greater participation by grassroots actors. It is an area where the progress has been slower than we have hoped for.

We work closely with our partners and the majority of our budget (around 60 million USD in 2013) comes from donor countries. Budgets continue to shrink so we have to be increasingly agile in using these scarce resources while demonstrating high quality results for everyone.

Q: In your point of view, what can the Lao Government and the UN keep working on together to help Lao PDR remove itself from the list of least developing countries by 2020?

A: Graduating from the Least Developed Country (LDC) status is an admirable goal for the country and the Government has been very ambitious in setting itself this goal. While it is first and foremost a task for the Government, we are here to support these efforts.

For the Government to realise this goal, a broad vision is required. The LDC graduation should not be an end in itself: it will not only require growth in GDP but also a greater focus on the quality and equity of that growth.

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