Fighting poverty takes more than one day a year

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In some villages in Laos, a household of six people live on US$320 a year, living with whatever means their environment offers them.
I find it amazing the number of “world days” there are. Food day, health day, hand washing day, peace day, elderly person day—there is almost an event for every day of the year! And while people who are poor, have no food, or do not live in peace, do not need a reminder, the world as a whole does.

In Laos, I would venture to say most people do not need the reminder of last week’s Blog Action Day or United Nations anti-poverty day. According to Government figures, approximately 35 percent of the country’s population—roughly 2 million people—is poor (living with less than US$1.50 a day). And while the number has improved significantly in the last ten years (down from 45 percent of the population in 1992), it is still a big number.

In some of the villages that I have visited in Laos, a whole household of six people live on US$320 a year. They live with whatever means their environment offers them. This, in turn, makes them ever the more vulnerable to anything that may affect the ecosystem that surrounds them.

Sometimes it takes two days of walking to get to where some of the poorest people live. The remote location has an impact on their ability to attract school teachers and see doctors, while the accessible river water is not always safe for drinking. And more than ‘markets’ for goods or income generating activities, they may trade here and there with nearby communities—one basic need for another.

So where do you start to help them overcome poverty? About two months ago a couple of colleagues and I took a trip to Northern Laos. The trip was very fruitful in that it brought together an economist with experts on roads, health and education expert, among others. In the end we realized that everything is needed at the same time. Without roads there is no school, and a health center that doesn’t have a road doesn’t help anyone.

Unfortunately it is not that simple. You can’t just grab a construction company and start building roads, schools, and health centers. Who staffs them once they are completed? Who attends? What is the impact of a community when a road connects their once remote village to the rest of the world? Who takes care of the entire infrastructure so it lasts for more than just a couple of years?

Working with people to help them overcome poverty takes much more than just building things. It takes talking to people about what their needs and aspirations are. It takes training people to be doctors and teachers. It takes helping the government build the necessary institutions that can function to deliver the services needed (and staffing them with the well-trained people). It takes working with villagers to help them develop more efficient farming methods and understanding the importance of education.

While I think the international community has been making significant strides in eradicating poverty, the fight is far from over. So while I can be a cynic and joke about the number of banners decorating Vientiane (and other cities worldwide) celebrating this and that world day, I am glad that there is at least one day that focuses on reminding the world the extreme poverty in which people still live, and all that needs to be done to overcome it.

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