In Laos, Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) is working primarily with development projects. It is about helping local farmers to grow rice, to raise livestock as cows, pigs and goats, to build schools, to train physicians and to provide general education. There is in particular a focus on the poorest areas of Laos. It is primarily in the northeast corner of Laos in what is called Luang Namtha.
“We help local people by teaching them new techniques of working and to use new types of crops. We take the local farmers on study tours to other parts of the area so they can learn from others how they do it elsewhere. Best-practice experiences are very important,” explains Henrik Schmith, who is in charge of the local projects in Laos.
Although NCA is Norwegian, the employees are not Norwegians only. Henrik Schmith is 48 years and comes from Espergærde in Denmark. He has lived in Laos for 10 years, is Lao married and now has two children. He first came to the country as a UN volunteer with UNDP, and he has also worked for both Danish Refugee Council, Norwegian Refugee Council, and the UN World Food Programme. Now he works for Norwegian Church Aid, which since 1990 has had regional headquarters in Vientiane. Formerly, the regional headquarters were in Bangkok, but as the focus moved away from Thailand, which less and less needed the same help as some of the other countries, the headquarters were moved to Laos.
The farmer to farmer-principle
The finances for the Norwegian Church Aid’s work come from the Norwegian government and from private donors, who account for approximately 50 percent each when it comes to the work in Laos. Henrik Schmith says that NCA uses the money to work with a particular strategy in their relief work:
“The most practical way to help the locals is to use what we call the farmer to farmer-principle. In short, we help farmers to learn from each other and to learn new and different things from other farmers. Things they can take home with them,” he explains, but states that NCA’s work is often opposed to nature itself:
“Alongside this we are fighting against a part of nature in the area. For example, there are so many rats, and that is a very big problem because they eat the crops and are difficult to get rid of.”
Background and strategy
Norwegian Margrethe Volden is area manager for the NCA, and her territory covers Laos, Burma, Thailand and Indonesia. She explains the background on just to focus on poor farmers in Laos:
“The agriculture project was started to help finding an alternative for the farmers to grow opium. In Laos, it is typically the most disadvantaged farmers who grow opium because they live in the poorest areas, and that is why we chose it as a very important focus. Before we arrived, it was for many the only thing they knew of. We would help them to focus on something else.”
The most important work for NCA was, among other things, to improve local infrastructure and hence the local community. If farmers can not get to the nearest market, because the roads are simply too poor, they have no possibilities to sell their goods. Therefore, an improvement of infrastructure in the region is among the main priorities to promoting local trade.
“In addition to that, we help them to assess what kind of crops that could be valuable for them to grow. They must grow something that has a good value and obviously can be sold, while it must have a high nutritional value, so they can get as much as possible out of it,” Margrethe Volden says about NCA’s strategy.
As a totalitarian, communist country, the government of Laos put more emphasis on strict management and control. They are not usually enthusiastic about external interference in internal affairs, so it is reasonable to believe that relief organizations also may have problems with local authorities.
Margrethe Volden explains that relations with the Laotian authorities basically functions well, but problems can also occur sometimes:
“Fundamentally, the government is interested in cooperation because they are extremely dependent on our and other aid organizations’ help. But control is extreme in Laos. When we want to begin a new project, it requires very long and tough negotiations with the authorities. They are accustomed to having control of everything in this country, so we must be careful, and if there is anything in which they disagree, they get their way.”
Both Margrethe Volden and Henrik Schmith note however that it usually works out well, once they have a clear agreement in place with the official Laos. Margrethe Volden elaborates:
“The authorities want to have clear and firm agreements for everything we are involved in. It might be a little frustrating that it must be run that cogently, but we have learned to work that way. Here that is the case, and one must be prepared even before starting to work, as we do.”
Young people must be mobilized
The various projects will be regularly reviewed and addressed, but in addition to that it is soon time for a whole new round of strategic planning. NCA has been satisfied with their projects until now, but there must be time for looking forward. Margrethe Volden and Henrik Schmith explain that the future strategy will be about helping local farmers with climate adaptation in relation to the future and to collaborate more closely with local organizations around the areas. Another important focus will be on the youngest Laotians:
“We must encourage people to found local movements and associations, so people get used to become more active in their communities. It is central to the democratic development in the area,” Henrik Schmith states.
It is not really something that has fallen particularly in the very taste of the Lao government, but demands from the international side and from the many private donors have begun to pay off. The authorities continues to provide a strictly control, and each new movement must be approved by the authorities. But it is moving in the right direction, the two aid workers evaluate.
“It’s about mobilizing young people,” Margrethe Volden suggests, and continues:
“This is done initially by informing them about opportunities for education, help them understand that they live in a big world, explain to them about today’s possibilities with the internet and mobile phones and of course explain to them about the dangers of diseases such as AIDS.
We will keep them at school, and we will try to engage them more in their local communities. They should do sports such as football, and they must learn to be active in associations and organizations that can strengthen their networks, their unity and their prospects for the future.”
Henrik Schmith nods affirmatively and concludes:
“It is a priority we will focus on in future relief work in Laos, and we have high expectations.”
About Norwegian Church Aid
– A church based organisation owned by churches and congregations on Norway.
– One of the largest humanitarian organizations in Norway, supporting work in more than 60 countries.
– Representative offices in more than 20 countries worldwide, employing around 500 people from a wide variety of backgrounds.
– Representative offices in Asia in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Lao PDR.
– Working with church based, faith based, and secular partners around the world.