Lao PDR, a small country in the heart of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), has a population of just over 6 million, including a diversity of ethnic groups, and is endowed with rich natural resources and biodiversity. Subsistence agriculture accounts for about half of GDP and involves over 80% of the country’s labour force. The majority of the population (more than 80%) live in rural and remote areas without access to basic infrastructure and services.

The Lao PDR is developing rapidly, driven by a natural resources boom (hydropower and mining). However, the country also faces numerous challenges: a predominantly agrarian economy surrounded by rapidly industrializing neighbours; an increasingly young population with limited education and skills; mountainous and sparsely populated areas beyond the reach of basic services and infrastructure; mounting pressure on fragile forest and water resources; and limited national and local government capacity to raise revenues, to implement policies, and to enforce laws and regulations. It is unlikely to achieve non-income Millennium Development Goals as scheduled.

Laos endured one of history’s heaviest bombing campaigns. From 1964 through 1973, the United States flew 580,000 bombing runs over Laos — one every 9 minutes for 10 years. More than 2 million tons of ordnance was unloaded on the countryside, double the amount dropped on Nazi Germany in World War II. "Certainly, on a per-capita basis, Laos remains the most heavily bombed nation in the history of warfare," says Martin Stuart-Fox, a historian at Queensland University in Australia and author of A History of Laos. From 1964 The U.S. bombing was designed to cut North Vietnamese supply lines that looped into Laos on a route to communist forces in South Vietnam and Cambodia; the trail was designed to bypass the demilitarized zone that separated North and South Vietnam during the war. The bombing runs also supported Laotian government forces fighting a losing battle against communist Pathet Lao rebels and their North Vietnamese allies. Four decades after the bombing stopped, two or three Laotians are killed every month and another six or seven are maimed by unexploded ordnance, called UXO, left over from the war. A brief on this short but significant part of the country’s history can be downloaded here.

Power’s work in the Lao PDR

Jo at workThe dire need to support victims of these UXO was the reason Power went to Lao in 1995. Power worked with the National Rehabilitation Centre of the Ministry of Health to deliver a high quality physical rehabilitation service, based on prosthetics, orthotics, wheelchairs and other mobility devices, to all in need throughout Laos. This programme refurbished or rebuilt five P&O (prosthetic and orthotic) centres ensuring each one had up-to-date workshop, clinic, gait, and training facilities; equipped all centres for ICRC’s polypropylene technology; and established new wheelchair and component manufacturing capacity. Additionally the programme trained a new cadre of technicians through the CSPO school in Phnom Penh to staff these centres.

At that time there was little representation for people with disabilities in Laos, and in 2000 recognising the importance of this, Power moved to support the development of the Lao Disabled People’s Association (LDPA) through leadership and institutional strengthening. This programme developed LDPA from a small group of disabled people in Vientiane, to a membership-based association with representation ten provinces and a membership of more than 6,000 people with disabilities. This was a pioneering development in the context of the Lao PDR where there is little representation of civil society. Progress was made in opening dialogue on how to protect and advance the rights of people with disabilities through the use of media and advocacy. 

Today Power continues to work in partnership with the LDPA and its provincial branches across a range of programmes addressing education, rights of women with disabilities and employment/livelihoods for people with disabilities.