The Lao government's economic policies have worsened the living conditions of the nation's poor and marginalized populations, while widening the gap between the haves and have-nots, a United Nations rights expert said Thursday, at the end of an 11-day official visit to the country.

In a statement issued at the end of his March 18 -28 visit, Philip Alston, the U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said that improvements in the lives of the poorest Laotians had not kept pace with the country's economic development.

Despite important progress in reducing poverty, the [Lao] government's economic growth strategies have too often destroyed livelihoods, entrenched vulnerability, and actually made some people poorer by taking away their access to land, livelihoods, and resources, Alston said.

During his visit, Alston traveled to the capital Vientiane, as well as Attapeu, Champasack, Xienkuang, and Houaphanh provinces. He met with government officials of various levels, village leaders, workers, farmers and tradespeople to gather information on their daily lives.

In his statement, Alston criticized the government for merely ticking boxes and improving numbers rather than ensuring meaningful changes to the lives of Lao people.

Lao PDR has made impressive progress, halving the number of those living below the poverty line, raising school enrolment rates, and expanding access to electricity and sanitation, said Alston.

However, rapid economic growth has not led to a commensurate reduction in poverty.

The special rapporteur's findings painted a grim picture for many of the nation's poor, which the U.N. estimates to make up around a quarter of the population.

An estimated 80 percent of the population live on less than U.S. $2.50 per day and are at risk of poverty. Certain demographics also struggle with adequate representation in the halls of government, putting them at further disadvantage.

Large parts of the country have been left behind, Alston said. Poor women must navigate highly patriarchal beliefs and institutions, are routinely shut out of decision-making processes, and are deeply disadvantaged in relation to education and access to formal work and positions of authority.

Alston noted that ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples continue to experience poverty at a vastly higher rate than the Lao-Tai majority, while people in rural areas have been left behind by economic progress, and may lack roads, water, and electricity.

Children face steep barriers to education and high rates of child labor and early marriage, he added.

Alston recommended that the government place more priority on actual results rather than holding dialogue on poverty reduction. Less emphasis should be placed on large-scale infrastructure projects for their own sake, he said, suggesting they be complemented with policies to promote sustainable farming and investment in the manufacturing, service and tech sectors.

He also recommended, to that end, an overhaul to the tax policy that would address income inequality, with increased transparency regarding tax exemption or reduction for entities involved in land concessions and special economic zones.

In addition, Alston called for an improvement in data collection methods, which he said would lead to more transparent governance.

Focus on rights

The U.N. expert also urged the government of Laos to change its attitude toward human rights.

Although progress has been made on engagement with formal human rights mechanisms, at present, a too common refrain is that rights are synonymous with anti-government policies, the statement said, adding that many consider the use of the term thus effectively banned, except in the context of discussions with foreign governments or for external reporting to the U.N.

In particular, Alston recommended that the government more seriously defend the rights of women and children. At present, he said, authorities are more concerned with the prevention of violence or sex trafficking, and must also focus on societal attitudes towards women, or on health and education for children.

He also warned that dam construction and operation should only proceed after the government has considered the impact on the rights of those it would directly affect. Citing the July 2018 collapse of the dam at the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy hydropower project, which killed at least 40 people in Champassak and Attapeu provinces, he called for more accountability for private entities involved in future projects.

Finally, Alston made recommendations regarding increased spending for health and education, acknowledgement of the disadvantaged status of ethnic minorities, more emphasis on an effective civil society, and a recognition of land tenure�especially respecting those who live in areas designated as forests.

Government response

RFA's Lao Service was not immediately able to reach the Lao Foreign Ministry for comment on Alston's statement at the time of publishing, but the Associated Press quoted Foreign Ministry official Phetvanxay Khousakoun Thursday as saying that the U.N. expert's findings did not reflect the actual situation in the country.

Some of that information that you received might be biased, he told the AP, adding that NGOs might have hidden agendas.

This might provide you some misperceptions about Laos These are rather small groups of people that do not reflect the entire country, said the foreign ministry official, who also implied that Alston's comments went beyond his mandate.

Though highly critical of the government in his statement, Alston was optimistic, having met many Laotians during his visit that he said could be tapped to usher in positive change.

It does not need to be this way. I met with Lao people doing impressive work to support their communities and provide healthcare and education in remote areas, and many government officials who are clearly deeply dedicated and eager to find effective approaches, Alston said.

If the government can be encouraged to adopt policies of transparency, meaningful participation, and genuine public dialogue, a huge amount could be accomplished in terms of promoting sustainable development and alleviating poverty.

Alston's trip to Laos is the highest profile visit by a U.N. official since September 2016, when then-Secretary General Ban Ki-moon attended the 8th ASEAN-U.N. Summit.

During that trip, Ban held a series of bilateral talks with Southeast Asian heads of state and witnessed the signing of the Lao-PDR-United Nations Partnership Framework, which remains in force through 2021.

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