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August 11, 2004

Helping the Poorest of the Poor

Lao Parliamentarian Attends Seminar to Address Poverty Issues at Home

In Laos, the poorest and least developed country in the East Asia and Pacific region, the people live on an average of $380 (US) a year—little more than $1 a day.

The issue is not overpopulation. “There are just over 5 million people in Laos. Thailand has 60 million—in the same area,” points out Kukeo Akhamontri, PhD, a member of the National Assembly of the Laos and vice president of the Lao Association for Parliamentarians for Population and Development.  But In Thailand, the average annual income is more than five times that of Laos. 

The problem in Laos is attributable to the discrepancy between the number of children some Lao families have and their economic status.

Kukeo Akhamontri, PhD, vice president of the Lao Association for Parliamentarians for Population and Development

Kukeo Akhamontri, PhD, vice president of the Lao Association for Parliamentarians for Population and Development

Akhamontri, who has been a member of the National Assembly of the Laos since 2002, was one of 11 parliamentarians who attended a leadership seminar last week sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The participants spent a week learning about new management theories, HIV/AIDS, human rights, and population and development issues.

Akhamontri says the Lao government is committed to population policies to reduce poverty in the country. He cites three objectives devised by the Lao government after the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in September 1994.

“First, the Lao people must be able to decide by themselves the number of children they will have, and at what intervals they will have them, on the basis of their socio-economic status so that they will have a better standard of living” says Akhamontri.  “We want it so that the government doesn’t interfere. We must give them sound information about contraceptives, about the economic dangers of having children, about unsafe motherhood.”

The second objective is reducing the exodus from to rural areas, where the poverty rate is 41 percent compared to 29 percent in the cities. The third objective is to develop the human resources of the country with the active participation of women. The Lao government wants to reduce the fertility ratio from 4.5 children per woman to 3.

This is not easy in a country where so many people are just trying to survive. “I doubt family planning is their priority,” says Akhamontri.

 Akhamontri found the seminar’s presentations on new birth control technologies and contraceptive especially pertinent. And as someone whose public health career has been mostly in management, he was glad to have new management techniques presented within the context of reproductive health.

 He said he has especially enjoyed the seminar’s training on the use of statistical methods, particularly as applied to issues of equity in family planning. “Inequality is a difference,” says Akhamontri. “Inequity is an unfairness—for example, some people not having access” to birth control information and technology. 

 “The government’s goals will not be achieved if the poorest of the poor’s issues are not addressed. This is the message I have learned,” he said.—Kristi Birch