Op-Ed by Kaarina Immonen, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative | Lao Tribune

Op-Ed by Kaarina Immonen, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative

During the past five years, I have had the privilege to be assigned as UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative to the Lao PDR. In this period, I have not only come to know the country’s kind people, unparalleled history, and stunning nature, but together with the Government, development partners and UN colleagues, I have also had the unique opportunity to accompany the Lao PDR on its sustainable development journey.

Blue Patuxay as Symbol for Partnership

On 24 October 2015, marking 60 years of Lao � UN partnership and the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, Patuxay was bathed in the colours of the United Nations.

Standing by in awe as the national landmark lit up, I thought of the many Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that had been achieved. Between 1990 and 2015, the Lao PDR cut its poverty rate and undernourishment by more than 50 per cent, increased net enrolment in primary schools from 59 to 99 per cent and halved the mortality rate of under 5-year-old children.

I felt gratitude towards the many close partners I have the opportunity to work with, who show incredible commitment every day to adopt international standards and to improve the lives of people, especially the most vulnerable.

From Millennium Development Goals to Sustainable Development Goals

Leaving no one behind lies at the core of the Agenda 2030 and its 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which bring together the economic, social and environmental dimensions of development. The SDGs endeavour to end poverty and hunger everywhere; to combat inequalities within and among countries; to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies; to protect human rights and promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls; and to ensure the lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources by 2030.

It was encouraging, motivating and inspiring to experience the Lao PDR’s commitment to this global agenda, with the Prime Minister at the helm of the national SDG Steering Committee. The Lao PDR was among the earliest countries to integrate the Sustainable Development Goals into its national planning framework. 60 per cent of the current 8th National Socio-Economic Development Plan indicators are directly linked to SDG indicators.

Working closely with UN agencies, the Government presented its first Voluntary National Review on the implementation of the 2030 Agenda to the UN High-Level Political Forum in New York in the summer of 2018. This may have been one of the very first steps towards the formulation of the 9th National Socio-Economic Development Plan with the starting date of 2021, with even closer integration of the SDGs across sectors.

National SDG 18

The Lao PDR holds the sad record of being the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world. Affecting people’s lives in 15 provinces and 25 per cent of its villages, and hindering the country’s development, unexploded ordnance (UXO) is a unique and deadly legacy. On the sidelines of the 2016 ASEAN Summits, I was therefore gratified to witness Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith and former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon inaugurate Lao PDR’s national 18th Sustainable Development Goal on ‘Lives Safe from UXO’. The country’s own SDG aims to reduce casualties, address the needs of victims and clear the land from UXO in a way that most benefits the poorest people.

Graduating from the Group of Least Developed Countries

In March 2018, the Lao PDR was for the first time declared eligible to graduate from Least Developed Country status by the United Nations Committee for Development Policy, acknowledging the country’s major development gains.

With the Human Assets Index and Gross National Income, two of the three graduation criteria were met. The Economic Vulnerability Index threshold remains within reach. The Lao PDR is well underway to graduate from Least Developed Country status by 2024 and to become an Upper-Middle Income Country by the 2030s. However, we were reminded only a few months later how development achievements can easily be washed away, overnight.

Working together on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Recovery

Heavy rains, a saddle dam breach and the largest flooding in the Lao PDR’s recent history triggered the United Nations to support the national emergency response. The provision of lifesaving assistance to people affected by the floods, reestablishment of basic services and infrastructure, support to the restoration of livelihoods and self-reliance as well as protection for the most vulnerable people were all equally urgent and demanding tasks.

To help the Government-led recovery, the United Nations worked closely with the World Bank, the European Union and other partners to help prepare a comprehensive Post-Disaster Needs Assessment across all provinces and sectors and continues to support the recovery.

With the climate changing, the frequency of extreme weather events is expected to increase. When the first-ever universal, legally binding climate document was adopted in Paris at the end of 2015 to stop the rise of global temperatures, the Lao PDR became the first ASEAN country to ratify the historic agreement and has taken measures such as increasing forest cover and conserving valuable ecosystems to protect our planet.

Continued Policy Dialogue

While progress has been swift and impressive, many challenges such as poverty, inequality and nutrition remain. The United Nations will continue to work with national institutions in their commitment to address the country’s development priorities and to improve service delivery to the population. To achieve this, further support is required to increase accountability, enhance transparency and strengthen the rule of law.

The Round Table Process, co-chaired by UNDP, provides a good forum for policy dialogue. 10 Sector and 30 Subsector Working Groups, many of them co-chaired by UN agencies, have been working together to support the national development priorities, promoting an open, frank and consultative exchange of views among the Government and its development partners.

It has been my privilege to serve in Lao PDR in such important times. I have been humbled by the companionship and cooperation from the Government, bilateral partners, civil society and private sector. I will miss my colleagues in the UN family, who are fortunate to continue serving in this beautiful country.

Having travelled to all provinces, I believe the people are the country’s greatest asset. I wish that the children with their glisteningly mischievous eyes grow up with access to good education and health care, in a country that is economically diverse and on the forefront of green growth, with its natural treasures well preserved.

I have felt inspiration, motivation and engagement throughout my assignment, learning perseverance and kindness from the Lao people. When I say sok dee to you before leaving, I say it with a fondness that knows that the Lao PDR and its people will always have a special place in my heart.

Source: Lao News Agency