Think of all the countries you know in Asia. Then think of those that have no coastline. Places like Nara in Japan! One of the biggest problems in developing your economy is lack of access to ports. It means you have to trade through other countries that do have ports, or else add expense by flying goods in and out of the country. It is expensive, time-consuming and inefficient. It makes you dependent on ports in other countries.
It is probably no surprise to you that Laos is the landlocked country I was talking about above, and as such it is one of the world’s poorest countries. It suffered terribly during the Vietnam War and afterwards. It is surrounded by Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma and China.
The United Nations uses a Human Development Index. What exactly is it? Well, it is a measure of life expectancy (how long people live), literacy (how well people read and write), education (opportunities for all men, women and children to study), and standard of living (how wealthy people are and the food and goods they can buy). It is extremely useful as a basic measure of human survival and extraordinarily important for understanding people’s lives around the world. It tells us whether people are living a good life, that they are safe from war and violence, and that they have enough food and water and clothes and a place to stay. It lets us know clearly about the countries where children are suffering most. In terms of management of the economy and overseas projects, it lets us know whether a country is developed, developing or under-developed. It shows how economic policies affect the quality of life of citizens in the countries.
The most recent information was released in December 2008 – about 3 months ago. Out of 192 member countries of the UN, only 15 were unable to provide data (because of war, etc.). Yes, that it the reality in the world. Some countries do not even have basic information about their own people.
And, at number 133 out of 177, is Laos. It can be compared to the human development level of another Asian ?country like Burma (Myanmar), where a military dictatorship is in power against the wishes of the people. Or a place like Papua New Guinea. Obviously, it needs all the help we can give.
Two years ago, I went to Laos with a group of volunteers from Teachers Helping Teachers who are interested in helping education in Asia. We’ll be going back this weekend to see the changes and help out with English education at a college in Vientiane. I’m excited to meet old friends, make new friends, and find out as much as I can.
Actually, non-profit organisations like JICA in Japan are already active in Laos. The international airport terminal, paved roads in the capital and the traffic lights are all directly or indirectly financed and built through Japanese aid. In fact, Japanese visitors to Laos do not need a visa, whereas I have to buy one each time I go!
The question I have for CUBE students is about the influence you can have. What projects can you get going? How do you know they will help? Our project is small and has limited aims. Two years ago, we visited the college for the first time and ran a seminar for the business students there and their teachers. It was a success, but we decided to change it last year. We added a workshop for the teachers, and made the seminar/presentations more focused on the students. This year, in addition to the college workshops and seminars, some volunteers in our group have done a great job in contacting local secondary schools. A few members of our group will be visiting the schools, staying with the families of the teachers, and team teaching English with them in regular classes! This is a big step forward in bringing education to the teachers and children who need it. It means that by starting with a small project, it can quickly grow into a larger project that helps a huge number of people.
I’ll be back in Japan from Laos at the end of this month, and I hope to be able to report on the progress of our project there. Let’s hope it helps people in Laos in climbing up the Human Development Index, and that it inspires all of us to actively participate in projects of our own. Ours is obviously connected with education, but there are lots of other projects that are just as valuable.