Authorities in Laos have been asked to consult with civil society groups and foreign donors on a controversial set of guidelines that could restrict the operations of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) working in the country, according to the United Nations development agency.
Kaarina Immonen, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) resident representative in Laos, made the call based on concerns expressed by participants in a recurring dialogue on aid strategy which the agency co-chairs with the Lao government, according to a transcript recently obtained by RFA’s Lao Service.
Speaking last month at the closing session of the Round Table Implementation Meeting (RTIM) to government officials, lawmakers, and NGO representatives, Immonen said Laos should improve the operating space of civil society in the country.
She said the meeting had called for a review of how to apply June-proposed guidelines from the foreign ministry that would make a four-year-old decree regulating the activities of INGOs stricter in Laos, according to the groups’ staff.
The guidelines, among other things, require multiple and time-consuming approvals by the authorities for community projects.
“It was suggested that the Governance Sector Working Group could host a regular forum between representatives of Civil Society, Government and Development Partners [donors] to advance an agreed application of the guidelines and deal with other outstanding issues, including the enabling environment for Civil Society activities,” Immonen said.
INGO workers in Laos have said that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) had previously invited feedback on its proposal from foreign embassies, donors, and civil society groups, but fear that the suggestions would not be incorporated into the final draft.
A Lao official told RFA last month that it was unclear when the final draft of the guidelines would be released—ahead of their implementation—as the process requires “more discussions.”
Under the proposed guidelines, INGOs must annually obtain operating permits from the foreign ministry, which can take up to two months for approval.
MoFA would have to approve all INGO project proposals, foreign staff, and the establishment of offices in Laos, according to the decree, which also states that INGOs are required to submit progress and financial reports for their projects at regular intervals.
Currently, operating permits are granted to INGOs on a case-by-case basis, depending on the projects approved through Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) negotiated with relevant government ministries. The MoUs also currently incorporate all approvals related to staffing and establishing offices.
NGO staff believe permit applications based on the proposed guidelines would face tighter scrutiny.
Any INGOs or their staff who violate the guidelines “shall be warned, [or their] operation permit or project shall be suspended, depending on the nature of the transgression,” according to the proposed guidelines, a copy of which was obtained by RFA.
NGOs have also expressed concerns over a government plan to amend a 2009 decree regulating the work of local non-profit associations (NPAs) by requiring them to notify or obtain permission from relevant ministries for funding they receive from foreign sources—regulations that currently do not exist.
Observers have suggested that the government is targeting both INGOs and NPAs with new curbs because many work in the field of development—a controversial topic in recent years in Laos, which is the least developed of all the member states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
According to the World Bank, Laos had a gross domestic product (GDP) of merely U.S. $11.14 billion in 2013, compared to neighbors Vietnam with U.S. $171.4 billion and Thailand with U.S. $387.3 billion.
Much of the country’s recent foreign investment has involved controversial land concessions for rubber plantations, mining, logging, and hydroelectric dams—projects that have resulted in forced evictions, compensation disputes, and environmental degradation.
Last month, Immonen told RFA that civil society organizations (CSOs) in Laos should be closely engaged in any debate involving proposed government changes to rules that could limit their ability to operate in the country.
She said that the UNDP believes the success of development depends on both “a robust state and an active civil society,” and that promoting CSO engagement for the achievement of national development goals is “an integral part” of the agency’s work in Laos.
A Lao official who oversees government cooperation with INGOs, defended last month the draft guidelines that are expected to limit their ability to function in the country at the time, saying that only “a few parts” of the existing decree had been amended “to ensure their implementation.”
He told RFA that the guidelines would “not restrict the scope of INGOs,” but instead strengthen cooperation between the government and INGO sectors.
Reported by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.