9.-Back-in-the-Lao-PDR by huangyuarong


									Back in the Lao PDR - more on modernization and global

November, 2011

The other night at a restaurant in Vientiane we happened to meet a mixed group of expatriates, i.e.
foreigners with different missions in the Lao PDR/Laos. Some of them had been working in Laos for
years and others were newcomers or temporary visitors just like us. The conversation soon entered a
familiar ground in expatriate circles that can be called ‘blame it on the natives’, a discourse about the
disturbing social events that do not follow the western paradigm of reasoning that expatriates expect
to meet in their paradise! The grumbling discontents are normally connected to specific situations
and often expressed as a way to create ridicules for example in the way the ‘natives’ drive their cars
or motorcycles at crossings and roundabouts. Not to mention their seemingly lack of logical
reasoning when they do not react as expected in social situations. When the more humble and
culturally insightful expatriates invite to alternative interpretations, they are often ignored due to the
echoes of the consenting laughter. However, the laughter usually stops when the negative effects of
uneven capitalist development are brought on the table such as criminality that also affects the
privileged expatriates. Such effects are seldom allowed to be thoroughly analyzed from contextual
perspectives but are often left hanging in the air as disturbing or pitiful examples of individual
immorality and lack of character, according to western normality. Meanwhile there is a different
struggle going on, less discursive and more practical, outside these narrowly defined circles of
expatriates who have come to cash their salaries based on the belief that their work will – usually
naively - make a difference for the natives or will only mean to carry out another well paid job in the
global South!

The other struggle is more serious and can be connected at least philosophically with the present 99
percent movement in the US, which represents the parts of the American people who do not belong
to the superrich 1 percent, i.e. the 1 percent who all aspire to become members of the Forbes’ list if
they are not already listed.1 The slogans from the 99 percent movement are also heard of here
through the local national newspaper that go “All day All week, Shut down Wall Street”, “Banks got
bailed out, We got sold out”.2 However, the significance of this movement for the daily life of Lao
citizens is low in spite of the fact that scholars and authors like Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein,
Arundhati Roy, and Immanuel Wallerstein celebrate the movement.3 For example, Wallerstein starts
his mid-October commentary with the words: “The Occupy Wall Street movement - for now it is a
movement - is the most important political happening in the United States since the uprisings in
1968, whose direct descendant or continuation it is.”4

  Forbes publishes lists of the richest people in the world. Available at http://www.forbes.com/
  Vientiane Times (2011) Occupy protesters march nationwide; 300 arrested. Saturday November 19, 2011, page 5.
  Chomsky, US in vicious cycle of social issues, time to protest, at
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOgr8F9djkw&feature=related , Klein, Occupy Wall Street: The Most Important Thing
in the World Now, at http://www.naomiklein.org/main , Roy, The right to Dream, we are fighting for Justice, from "The
People’s University" held at Judson Memorial Church 11/16/11, downloaded at www.informationclearinghouse.info ,
Wallerstein, see below footnote 4.
  Wallerstein, Immanuel (2011) The Fantastic Success of Occupy Wall Street. Downloaded from

Down to earth in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, there are very few citizens who are directly
concerned about the two disparate issues above. Their daily concern is rather related to issues like
how to accumulate enough money for their basic needs. For example, an ordinary worker’s salary in
the modern sector is around 35.000 – 50.000 Kip a day depending on experience, while the income
for the majority of Lao who rely on the surplus from their own family productions within agriculture
or other local productions is far less. Even though the common workers’ daily salaries in the modern
sector are numerically high they only correspond to 5 – 6 USD, a light lunch at a restaurant in town,
or the costs for the consumption of rice for an ordinary family for two days. The fact that the Kip is a
strong currency at the moment does not help the people of Laos in their daily survival, as the
increasing food and fuel prices contribute to an acceleration of costs for living amongst consumers.

Meanwhile we can read about meetings with the international donor community represented by the
World Bank and the Asian Development Bank in the local newspaper Vientiane Times, published by
the Lao government (Pongkhao, 2011)5. The so-called Round Table Implementation Meeting, a
continuation of the meetings once initiated by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
in 1983, is still concerned about aid effectiveness almost three decades later. This time the
effectiveness is coupled to Millennium Development Goals set up and agreed upon in 2000 by United
Nations’ member states including Laos and global donor organizations. These goals are expected to
be achieved in 2015. The eight goals are concerned with poverty, education, gender, child mortality,
maternal health, diseases like malaria and AIDS, environmental sustainability, and partnership – all
important and legitimate human concerns. The general approach to fulfill these goals that the
international donor community has embarked on since the 1980s, i.e. a neoliberal marketization
policy of ‘standardization’ – following the device that the same measures fit all – has already proven
to be contrary to its own discourse of effectiveness when it comes to what it promises, unless you
read the message as it should be read, namely as a global pandemic caused by the ‘liberal virus’
whose maiming social effects also have returned to its roots in the US and Europe and created the
present protests at the Wall Street and elsewhere (Amin, 2004)6. These protests are another sign of
the strategic mistake by the global donor community to pretend that the neoliberal policies will
improve life so that the eight humanistic goals are achieved through a general global streamlining of
all human and social activities along marketization ideas. History has shown that the trickling down
effect of this strategy is marginal if compared to the enrichment of the owners of financial capital at
the global metropolitan centers in the North as well as the national owners of economic and social
capital around the world.

The liberal virus does not teach us to see the whole picture, but rather to concentrate on our
individual situation and to blind our eyes for the new dichotomy of wealth and poverty as well as
other people’s struggle. And the governments at the receiving end are fooling themselves as they
adopt the obligation “to strictly follow the requirements of development partners regarding aid
effectiveness, transparency and good governance” – as a way to get the much needed financial
support and at the same time indirectly accepting to lose a true sense of partnership in relations to
those who call themselves partners but who actually set the terms themselves (Pongkhao, 2011. p.
1). The global mantras about effectiveness, transparency, and accountability that have been

  Pongkhao, Somsack (2011) Govt seeks US$700m in aid to ensure economic growth of 8 percent. Vientiane Times,
November 22, pp 1 and 3. www.vientinetimes.la
  Amin, Samir (2004) The liberal virus: permanent war and the Americanization of the world. New York: Monthly Review

imported from the world of private enterprises and became disguised as New Public Management
have created false promises of modernization and global integrations that are endlessly repeated
until they reach a stage of meaninglessness in official documents as in statements delivered to
annual meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) (Khamphounvong,
2011)7. Furthermore, with 69 million children still out of school worldwide (and 45% out of primary
school and 64% out of secondary school in Laos in 2008) a report from the Global Campaign for
Education states:

              Still five years from the Millennium Development Goals deadline and despite
              countless warm words from leaders right across the world, the dream of Education
              for All remains just that. (Global Campaign For Education, 2010, p. 1)

This report also points to failures of the rich countries in the global North and the global actors like
the World Bank and the IMF to keep their promises. First, rich countries in the global North are
allocating a large part of their so called aid money to their own universities as costs for international
students. Therefore, in the case of Germany 56% of its aid to education never pass beyond the
German borders. Secondly, an overwhelming part of aid is used on technical assistance, meaning that
the aid money is pocketed by the expatriates mentioned above. In the cases of USA, Belgium,
Germany, Portugal, and France this is valid for more than 50 and up to 74% of support to basic
education. Thirdly, while the discourse of Education for All is made into an official promise but at the
same time a very effective doublespeak by the World Bank (and UNESCO as its obedient servant) its
conditionality and procurement policies turn the aid business into a global machinery of bureaucracy
according to the New Public Management devises that lives its own life far from the classrooms and
the lecture halls and only reach the learning processes as externally directed and controlled
behavioral competencies for the educators. To this we can add the ‘macroeconomic stability’ that
the IMF imposes through stipulated conditions to make all countries part of the global market and to
satisfy transnational capital, while the same conditionality “has a detrimental effect on countries’
abilities to allocate the sufficient funds to education, and to plan and rely upon long-term financing
to hire, train and retain the professional teaching forces that desperately need to be re-built after
three decades of neo-liberal economic policies”, according to the Global Campaign for Education
(2010, p 16).

On the ground in Laos we experience the effects of these combined efforts by the global economic
and financial forces. On the surface we see the growing numbers of luxury vehicles as well as the
more normal vehicles that people buy as signs of modernity finding their way through the crowded
roads in Vientiane. We are also told informally that Laos is the country with the highest per capita
number of Hummer vehicles, the American luxury car, in the world. The Vientiane Times also reports
about a Chinese introduction of a SUV vehicle in Laos called S6 that costs around 20.000 USD, which
corresponds to the accumulated salary of an ordinary university lecturer during four years.9 This
reflects another cruel fact of inequality considering the living conditions for the majority of Lao
citizens referred to above. We also see the growing numbers of international banks along the streets

  Khamphounvong, Phouphet (2011) Statement by the Hon. Phouphet Khamphounvong, Governor of the Bank for the Lao
People’s Democratic Republic, Governor Statement No. 29, September 23, 2011. 2011 Annual Meetings, World Bank Group,
International Monetary Fund, Washington D.C.
  Global Campaign for Education (2010) Back to School? The Worst Places in the World to be a School Child in 2010.
  Vientiene Times (2011) China automaker launches SUV in Laos. Page Business 1.

of Vientiane and the attached automatic teller machines (ATMs). A less obvious effect of the
mushrooming of banks from other countries is their connection with international financial capital
and the transfer of profits on a global scale far away from the places of production being them the
mining areas or the garment factories in Laos. We also see the modernization effects when the
traditional market place in the center of the city (previously called the Morning Market now named
Shopping More) is transformed to a modern shopping center with more of marketing, advertising,
and modern shops that resembles many other shopping centers in the world and thereby it is also
marginalizing the local vendors who sell their own and local products. Another sign of so called
development is the international luxury hotels and casinos that have started their businesses outside
the capital like the Savan Vegas Hotel & Casino (www.savanvegas.com) in one of the Southern
provinces. This and similar establishments along the border to China in the Northern parts of Laos
create flashbacks to similar developments in the 1980s in Southern Africa like the Sun City
establishment that became known as Sin City by the people who opposed such developments along
the borders of the Republic of South Africa, while the liberation struggle was still fought in the

While the financial crises is shattering the Western world and creating social reactions like the
Occupy Wall Street Movement, people in countries like Greece, Italy, and Spain are protesting
against the ‘structural adjustment programmes’ imposed by the Central Bank of Europe and the IMF
that this time hits its own people rather than the financial culprits and banks that created the crisis
through their own speculative actions, and the people of the Middle East have started to oppose
their leadership and created falls of regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and major protests in
Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen as well as almost all Arab countries in the region, life in Laos continues to
be reshaped by the similar dogma that today are failing in the global North. This is the tragedy of our
globalization times as the effects of the failing neoliberal capitalist system will become more severe
when its liberal virus has fully reached the people of the global South.

The above is part of the context for critical educational scholars who try to swim against the stream
rather than just floating along! Or as expressed by Raewyn Connell (2007, p. 224) in her book titled
‘Southern Theory’ when she is referring to the permanent revolution within social sciences that
answers to the ever changing empirical dimensions in collective learning processes: “The permanent
revolution of corrigibility, in fact, provides one of the best arguments against metropolitan
domination”. 10 This critical observation is valid far beyond the academic world of social sciences,
especially if we want to be serious about the issue of contextual relevance in a country that officially
still is a communist one party state that has adopted the neoliberal capitalist road towards
inequality! And it is not only the governments in the global South that are fooled – we are all
deceived by the neoliberal regimes:

          Neoliberal regimes are ruthless with spin and manipulation and, in combination with corporate
          advertising, have bent popular expectations to the point where deceit is now normalized in the
          public realm. (Connell. 2007, p. 230)

Lars Dahlström, after a two weeks visit to Lao PDR towards the end of November, 2011.

     Connell, Raewyn (2007) Southern Theory – the global dynamics of knowledge in social science. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Note: The title of this text is a paraphrase of a Beatles’ song ‘Back in the USSR’ by John Lennon & Paul
McCartney with reference to the lyrics “Been away so long I early knew the place, Gee, it’s good to be back
home, Leave it till tomorrow to unpack my case…. Back in the USSR, You don’t know how lucky you are, boy…”


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