Notes from the Field

New Decree Opens Way for Civil Society in Laos

June 2, 2010

With a single-party government and state-run media, civil society in Laos is one of the most limited in the world. Since the founding of the Lao PDR in 1975, the state has disseminated information and policies, delivered basic social services, and consulted the public through state-funded mass organizations which are part of the communist party structure (such as the Lao Women’s Union, Lao Revolutionary Youth Union, and the Lao Front for National Construction). With hundreds of thousands of members, well-organized communication and outreach structures, high levels of respect, and a presence throughout the country in even the most remote villages, these mass organizations have dominated the space that civil society organizations traditionally occupy in other countries and political contexts.

School kids in Laos

Laos remains one of the lowest ranked countries in Asia for almost all measures of human development, including living a long and healthy life, having access to education, and access to purified drinking water.

Though little known or utilized, under Article 44 of the Lao Constitution, civil society groups in the official form of “associations” are legally permitted in Laos. The constitution states, “Lao citizens have the right and freedom of speech, press and assembly, and have the right to set up associations and to stage demonstrations which are not contrary to the laws.” Because of the decentralized registration process, the exact number of Lao associations is difficult to pinpoint. Some speculate that between 80 and 200 exist throughout the country; others say it is less than half that. As for capacity, some assessments indicate there are only about 15 to 20 associations capable of operating with any impact, whether they are school-parent associations or farmers associations. Most Lao citizens are unaware that such associations exist at all, much less what role they can or do play.

Laos remains one of the lowest ranked countries in Asia (and among the lowest in the world) for almost all measures of human development, including living a long and healthy life, having access to education, and access to purified drinking water. But the economy is steadily growing and Laos is gradually becoming more integrated into the international community. As such, it is under increasing pressure from within its own government, and from beyond its borders, to do more to address the needs of the poor. Even with positive growth, however, the country suffers from a low level of human resources, a miniscule tax base, inadequate infrastructure, and a rugged terrain making it time-consuming and difficult to reach remote villages which are often most in need of services. With the exception of the two or three biggest cities, most airports do not have daily flight service, and the majority of roads are unpaved (and tend to wash out during rainy season). Many villages throughout the country do not have access to roads at all and can only be reached by small boats or on footpaths, sometimes requiring journeys of two days to the nearest town. Under these circumstances, any intervention – from providing immunizations to basic literacy campaigns – is even more daunting.

There appears to be a growing realization within the government that it simply cannot address the nation’s development challenges on its own. The National Socio-Economic Development Plan that the government set forth for 2006-2010 expresses commitment to “provide basic social and essential economic services, and ensure security and facilitate the participation and empowerment of the poor in economic, social, political and other arenas to reduce poverty on a sustainable basis.” By some estimates, the government has recognized the positive role local associations can play in national development and how that can enhance its own poverty reduction activities.

Despite the fact that civil society associations are technically legal in Laos, until last year, bureaucracy made forming them difficult, and in some cases prohibitive. There were no standard procedures for their establishment, roles and functions, and no clear oversight by a single designated government agency. To establish an association, official approval from an appropriate ministry or mass organization was required. The decision of which ministry to approach would likely be based on personal relations or recommendations. The process itself varied over time and across offices.

In recent years, the Lao Government has taken steps to reduce these ambiguities and obstacles. The progress toward creating an improved legal mandate began with the drafting of a Decree on Associations in 2006, and continues with the ongoing drafting of a Decree on Foundations and legislation concerning the development and oversight of business associations. To increase the number of associations, streamline the registration process, and improve oversight, the Prime Minister’s Office approved the Decree on Associations in April 2009. The decree, which took effect in November 2009, defines an “association” as being a “non-profit civil organization set up on a voluntary basis and operating on a permanent basis to protect the rights and legitimate interest of the association, its members or communities.” The types of associations listed include: economic associations; professional, technical and creative associations; social welfare associations; and others. The decree is groundbreaking in its attempt to systematize and codify the registration process for civil society associations and consolidate their oversight under one government body, the Civil Society Division within the Public Administration Development Department, Public Administration and Civil Service Authority (PACSA). Lao citizens wishing to form an association now have a clear point of contact and procedures to follow.

Even beyond the critical objective of poverty alleviation, a vibrant civil society holds potential to have a significant impact in contributing to good governance. In the highly centralized Lao government system, a skilled, articulate, and respected civil society sector could provide an unprecedented avenue for citizens to communicate with policy makers and impact laws and regulations. The process will take time, but as the first organizations are now registering to become legal associations under the new decree, the next year could mark the start of a real Lao civil society sector.

Gretchen Kunze is The Asia Foundation’s Country Director in Laos. She can be reached at gkunze@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Gretchen A. Kunze

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