While the overall economy of Laos is growing strongly, many of the country’s rural people (around three-quarters of the population) remain extremely poor. Programmes to extend bank credits to small farmers will hopefully give a boost to rural communities, but in the meanwhile, life remains a struggle for many subsistence farmers and chronic malnutrition is common. After Timor-Leste, Laos has the highest rate of malnutrition in the East Asia and Pacific region.
In a recent report from the news agency IRIN, an expert with the UN’s Child Agency (UNICEF) confirmed that high rates of malnutrition persist in Laos, particularly in rural areas. Stunting affects 44% of under-fives nationwide, but in some areas such as the northern highland provinces, rates are as high as 58%. Malnutrition not only affects children’s health and their capacity to learn, but also “hampers adult productivity”.
According to a spokesperson from the World Food Programme (WFP), addressing the problem of hunger in Laos is “challenging”. Organisations such as the WFP face a number of obstacles such as the remote nature of many communities, poor dietary diversity and low awareness about nutrition and health issues. Food insecurity is also a factor, since most small-scale farmers rely on rain-fed irrigation and seasonal harvests.
Reliant on rice
Aid workers in the country say that food storage facilities are often basic and stored harvests can be ruined by heavy rains. Lean harvests caused by pests or natural disasters such as typhoons can also create widespread food insecurity. One smallholder in a northern province explained “the rice harvest can be ruined by birds or floods and my family [has often been] forced to eat only soup”.
With limited resources to buy meat or fish, it is common for households to rely on rice. Anaemia is therefore a problem among infants and pregnant or breastfeeding mothers. Rice is also frequently fed to newborns, especially since women usually return to work in the fields shortly after birth, with only half of babies under six months exclusively breastfed. According to UNICEF, around 5,000 babies die in Laos each year due to nutrition-related factors.
Laos joined the World Trade Organisation this year and hopes to move out of the UN’s least-developed countries list. The government is therefore taking measures to prioritise nutritional programmes. However, experts admit changing attitudes and increasing awareness will take time. As one aid worker explained, “it is a long-term process”.