Development partners must hold the government of Laos accountable to commitments it has made at a recurring dialogue on aid strategy to ensure the meetings produce results, an international nongovernmental organization said ahead of a new round of talks scheduled for next week.
The government and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) will host the 12th High Level Round Table Meeting (RTM) on Friday in the capital Vientiane with a focus on implementing a four-year socio-economic plan that will enable Laos to graduate from “Least Developed Country” status by 2020.
More than 300 delegates from the Lao government, as well as development partners from the U.N., donor governments, international NGOs, non-profit organizations and representatives from the private sector, are expected to attend.
According to the Lao Ministry of Planning and Investment and the U.N., the meeting will cover “the government's strategic development policies in promoting economic growth, stability and inclusion, boosting human development through improving food security and nutrition, health and education, and ensuring development is sustainable and helps mitigate climate change” in order to meet its goal for 2020.
But an official with an international NGO told RFA’s Lao Service that the government of Laos needs to tackle existing development concerns addressed in previous RTMs before it can proceed with new goals, and urged development partners to ensure commitments are being met.
“It’s good to have the RTM as a discussion platform between the Lao government and development partners, but more importantly, a review and evaluation of the implementation of previous [commitments] must be seriously undertaken, instead of simply going forward with new goals,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The implementation should be evaluated to make sure if it has been carried out or not.”
The official pointed specifically to issues such as the environment, land grabs and the unsolved disappearance of Lao civil society organization (CSO) leader Sombath Somphone, who was kidnapped in front of a police outpost almost three years ago and has not been heard from since.
“These issues must be reviewed and evaluated [to determine] if they are addressed, and if not, why?” he said.
Although authorities have denied any role in Sombath’s abduction, it is widely believed to have been carried out by police or another government-linked group.
“The working climate of Lao CSOs, which has been restricted by the government since Sombath’s disappearance, is an outstanding issue, so I wonder if development partners … will be willing to raise it. So far, I see that CSOs operate in fear—being threatened by governmental officials,” the official said.
“I think development partners must have a monitoring mechanism strategy on the working climate of CSOs, human rights violations, and other issues, otherwise the RTM will only serve as a traditional event—such as the annual boat racing festival—and nothing will be done after [the meetings].”
The INGO official’s comments followed an open letter issued earlier this month and signed by four dozen rights groups and international members of parliament calling for RTM participants to reflect on an address delivered by Sombath to the 9th Asia-Europe People’s Forum in Vientiane three years earlier.
In it, he had called governance a “key pillar” of development and urged greater transparency by “promoting participation in decision-making, monitoring, and reporting of development activities by all stakeholders.”
The INGO official’s concerns were echoed by other observers who told RFA the RTM process lacked guidelines necessary to ensure the government of Laos is honoring its commitments at the meetings.
“I am glad that donors have been talking with the Lao government about development planning, but I am unaware of any specific donor efforts related to these discussions that are designed to address Laos’ serious land grabbing problems,” said Ian Baird of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Baird highlighted land disputes as “amongst the most important development challenges facing [Laos],” based on the high number of calls received by the country’s National Assembly (parliament) “hotline” set up to deal with complaints from the public, and urged donors to address them at the RTM.
“I do hope donors have taken the opportunity to be proactive when it comes to serious problems related to land conflicts,” he said.
“It would be a shame if this important opportunity was not sufficiently utilized.”
A Laos-based writer with the blog LaoFAB questioned the point of the RTMs, saying little had been done as a result of the meetings to improve the lives of the country’s poor since the first one was held in 1983.
“While I agree that development coordination is important, is the RTM an efficient way of achieving this in the 21st century?” he asked.
He said that with technological advances in communication, “I can’t see what is gained by a select group of people putting on suits and going through the ritual of reading statements that were prepared weeks in advance,” adding that “the only real discussion that takes place is during the coffee break.”
The blogger also questioned the launch of The Vientiane Declaration on Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation at next week’s RTM—which the UNDP and Lao government have said will update a document from 2006 to place a greater emphasis on new sources of development finance, such as domestic resources, knowledge and technology transfer, and the private sector.
“We are told that the biggest achievement of the RTM process since the turn of the century was the Vientiane Declaration of , but it seems that most donors have spent the past decade shuffling away from the agreements they made at that time,” he said.
UNDP and Lao statements
In a statement, the UNDP told RFA that it continues to engage the Lao government on human rights issues, noting that it plans to support the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in hosting a seminar on rights mechanisms early next month.
It noted that a pre-consultation for the RTM was held to take in the views of a range of CSOs ahead of the meeting and that the Vientiane Declaration “calls on all signatories to enable civil society organizations to work and contribute to development planning.”
“These partners generate knowledge and learning, and make an important contribution to policy discussions by promoting rights-based approaches, as well as often supporting poorest and most vulnerable,” the statement said.
“The Declaration commits the government and all partners to produce an action plan for implementation, with sufficient resources, by September 2016.”
Sysomphorn Phetdaoheuang, deputy director general of the Department of International Cooperation under the Lao Ministry of Planning and Investment, told RFA that next week’s RTM would be useful because it would review the government’s previous four-year socio-economic plan, in addition to the new one set to launch next year.
"In addition to this, the meeting will open up the opportunity to representatives of INGOs and CSOs to participate,” he said.
Reported by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.