UN rights envoy says Laos focus on big projects hurting poor

FILE - In this July 26, 2018, file photo, a man paddles his boat through a flooded village after a dam in southeastern Laos collapsed, in the Sanamxay district, Attapeu province, Laos. A United Nations human rights expert is urging Laos to focus less on big, foreign-invested dam and railway contracts and devote more resources to helping its children and the poor. Philip Alston, the U.N. rapporteur on poverty, said Laos’ economy can only thrive if its leaders do a better job of educating and caring for all of its people.(AP Photo/Hau Dinh, File)

BANGKOK — A United Nations human rights expert has urged communist-ruled Laos to focus less on foreign-invested dam and railway contracts and devote more resources to helping its children and the poor.

The U.N. rapporteur on poverty, Philip Alston, said Thursday that Laos' impoverished economy can only thrive if its leaders do a better job of educating and caring for all of its people. The current strategy of favoring big-ticket projects with Chinese investors and granting big concessions for land and other resources favors a wealthy elite and is leaving many others behind, he said.

Alston made the remarks in a news conference livestreamed from Laos' capital, Vientiane, after he toured parts of rural Laos, including an area devastated by a dam collapse last year.

They add to a chorus of concern over China's push for big construction projects linked to its "Belt and Road" initiative, which is aimed at weaving a global network of transport and trade that is integrated with its own economy and industries.

Tucked between Thailand, China, Myanmar and Cambodia, tiny Laos' economy has grown quickly in recent years, but the benefits of that growth have not reached many in its largely rural population.

Alston said many infrastructure and plantation projects take land from local residents, forcing their resettlement. Most generate too few jobs and result in too much debt, he said.

"Those concessions potentially cover something like 40 percent of the national territory and many if not most of those concessions have produced very few returns to the national budget," he said. "They have generated very little real revenue that can be spent on the wellbeing of the Lao people and of course they have led to widespread dispossession."

A Lao foreign ministry official, Phetvanxay Khousakoun, objected to Alston's comments.

"Some of that information that you received might be biased. Also, NGOs might have hidden agendas. This might provide you some misperceptions about Laos," he said. "These are rather small groups of people that do not reflect the entire country."

The official also suggested Alston's comments went beyond his mandate.

Alston praised the government for allowing his 11-day visit to the country. But he countered that his findings were in line with his mission.

"These challenges can only be met if they are acknowledged," he said.

He noted that women in Laos are largely shut out of decision making, and that the ethnic minorities who make up nearly half of the population are "severely deprived" by nearly every measure, with low incomes and inferior access to education and health care.

Despite major progress in alleviating poverty, more than one-fifth of Lao children are underweight, 9 percent suffer from "wasting," or severe malnutrition and a third are stunted. Less than half have been vaccinated.

"You might have no interest in children, but all you have to know is they are the economic future," he said. "You're not going to have a great workforce with those statistics as your starting point."

Alston, an Australian who is based in the U.S., acknowledged that all countries struggle with poverty.

He said the government's pursuit of resource-oriented foreign investment such as rubber plantations, mining and hydroelectric dams is directly linked to poverty because they fail to generate tax revenues or jobs needed to address poverty.

"Poverty is a political choice," he said. "When you decide to spend money on something else, you produce poverty or you perpetuate poverty."

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