Where you stand determines what you see.

As part of New Mandala’s Focus on Laos, I thought it would be worthwhile to devote a few blogs reflecting on different elements – personal, political and commercial – of Australian interaction with Laos.

What do we see when we focus on Laos? It is virtually impossible for an Australian to encounter Laos (either physically or through literature and media) without their perception to be shaped by the problematic of poverty and underdevelopment. The story of Laos’ need for development is by far the dominant window by which outsiders come to experience the country. It is this knowledge of Laos’ poverty which explains the work of so many Australians, and is ostensibly the reason for hundreds of millions of dollars of expenditure. But what do we really know about the experience poverty, or the experience of underdevelopment in Laos?

On November 11, Remembrance Day, I attended the Charlie Pahlman Memorial Lecture, hosted by the Australian Mekong Resource Centre at the University of Sydney. Charlie was a remarkable individual – a long-time campaigner on development issues in Laos, whose life had an enormous influence on how many Australians view the Mekong region ( just check out the tributes on his memorial web-site.

I first met Charlie while undertaking my Ph.D research in Laos in the mid-1990s, while he was the Lao Field Representative for Community Aid Abroad. We quickly became friends, even though he (gently) harangued me to start thinking about who my research would serve (As Bob Dylan says, “You gotta serve somebody”). Charlie insisted that by undertaking research on development in Laos, I was becoming an agent, that there was no such thing as an impartial observer, and that I needed to take responsibility for my agency.

Charlie’s allegiances were unambiguously staked to the remote villagers with whom he mixed so casually, spending long hours sitting in huts engaged in deep conversation. Charlie’s ability to transcend the great cultural divide separating a tall, blonde Swedish-born Australian and Lao peasant farmers was second to none. His Lao was excellent, if a tad provincial, and nights in a village were an occasion for much hilarity. I have visited villages where they still recount with enthusiasm a visit by Charlie over a decade ago.

Charlie was not a romantic. He did not consider consider ‘traditional’ rural life in Laos to be a perfect manifestation of human interaction with nature. He did not imagine them to exist in a pre-modern state of bliss. But he did have a profound sense of the great value and dignity of the communities and traditions that he came across, and of the imperative that people have a real opportunity of defining for themselves what ‘poverty’ and ‘wellbeing’ mean.

It is illuminating to look at two quotes below, one from Charlie and one from the institution which he did so much to oppose (and expose), the Asian Development Bank.

Laos is a very, very interesting country… It has some of the most intact and undamaged natural resources left, it has very strong rural communities which have very high degrees of social cohesion, and have very, very high levels of indigenous knowledge, of local knowledge, of how to manage their environment, how to manage their forest resources, how to manage their water resources… I think that there are all sorts of ways in which development can build from the local level up, on those strengths. (Charlie Pahlman, 3 November 1996, Radio National)

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) is one of the poorest countries in the Asia and Pacific region. Per capita gross domestic product is $490, one third of the population is poor, one third of the adult population is illiterate. A small domestic market, the subsistence nature of the rural economy, skill shortages, and the remoteness and isolation of much of the population, are among the structural factors constraining growth and poverty reduction. However, prospects for economic and social development are promising. The economy has grown and diversified in the last 5 years, based on Lao PDR’s natural resources base for hydropower, mining, and tourism, and poverty incidence has been reduced from 46% to 33% between 1992 and 2003. (ADB, Country Strategy and Program, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, 2007-2011, September 2006)

These two quotes tell radically different stories about what the problems and challenges facing rural communities in Laos are, and what some of the solutions might be. It raises the question of whether there are limits to our ability to comprehend human problems without significant and sympathetic human contact.

With the release of the White Paper on aid earlier this year, Australia made a commitment to a huge increase in aid spending earmarked for Laos and the Mekong region, along with a brand spanking new Mekong Strategy (not yet released). What sort of understanding of the human story in Laos does the Australian aid program embody? Well that is another story …

Charlie Pahlman lived in Northern Thailand and then in Laos, from 1987-1996 working for NGOs such as CUSO (Canadian), Community Aid Abroad (now Oxfam Australia) and TERRA (Bangkok-based Thai NGO). Upon returning to Australia Charlie was instrumental in igniting a coalition of activists, development NGOs and academics to focus attention on the impact that institutions such as the Asian Development Bank were having on communities and natural resources in Laos, and hightlighting the role of the Australian government in supporting this. Charlie died tragically while on holiday in 2005. He is greatly missed.