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Updated: March 2009


Overview | World Vision's history in Laos| World Vision in Laos today


The Lao People’s Democratic Republic, more commonly known as Laos, is a landlocked country located on the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. It is bordered by Myanmar to the northeast, China to the north, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south, and Thailand to the west. One of the longest rivers in the world, the Mekong, forms much of the border with Thailand and flows for nearly 1,000 miles through Laos. The Annamite Mountains stretch for 1,300 miles along the eastern border with Vietnam. The terrain consists of heavily forested rugged mountains in the northern and central provinces, with some plains and plateaus in the south. Laos has a tropical monsoon climate, with a rainy season from May to November. Natural resources include timber, hydropower, gypsum, tin, gold, and gemstones.

Lao is the official language of the country and is spoken by 95 percent of Laotians. French is still commonly spoken, and English usage has increased in recent years. Many Lao living in the highlands speak a variety of ethnic languages. The Lao people make up 55 percent of the population, while members of the Khmou and Hmong groups represent nearly 20 percent of people. More than 120 other ethnic groups are also present, including the Yao, Akha, and Lahu, as well as small communities of Chinese and Vietnamese.

Original inhabitants of Laos migrated from southern China beginning in the 700s. The Lan Xang kingdom ruled the region from the 14th century until Laos was split into three separate kingdoms in 1713. After a brief time under Siamese (Thai) rule, Laos became a French protectorate in 1893. After World War II, France battled with Lao nationalists, granting Laos full independence as a constitutional monarchy in 1954. During that time, both the communist Pathet Lao group and Vietnamese forces invaded central Laos, sparking a civil war. A cease-fire was arranged in 1962, and opposing forces agreed to a coalition government.
map of Laos

Laocian flag 
Country statistics 
Population5.76 million
Land mass91,428 square miles
People per square mile63
Life expectancy56.3 years
Under age 5 mortality rate75/1,000
Literacy rate69%
Access to safe water51%
Average annual incomeUS$500

In the mid-1960s, hostilities between the United States and communist North Vietnam escalated, pulling Laos into the middle of the battle. North Vietnam used the country as a staging area for its troops against the South Vietnamese army and U.S. forces. The United States began a bombing campaign in an effort to destroy North Vietnam’s supply line, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran down the mountain valleys of eastern Laos. An average of one planeload of bombs was dropped every eight minutes for nine years. By the time fighting ceased in 1975, an estimated 200,000 Laotians had been killed, most of them civilians.

The Pathet Lao seized complete power in 1975, establishing a communist government and renaming the country the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Members of other political parties lost influence and quickly fled the country. In August 1991, Laos adopted a new constitution that renounced socialism but retained a one-party government. The communist party remained in control but began allowing market forces to drive the economy. Laos became a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 1997 and served as chair of the organization in 2004. The government is currently in the process of applying for full membership to the World Trade Organization.

Laos is, per capita, the most heavily bombed country in the world. The aerial bombardment of the 1960s and 1970s left approximately 16 million unexploded cluster bombs scattered throughout the country. Fifteen of Laos’s 18 provinces are affected—an area of more than 33,000 square miles. Since 1975 there have been an estimated 11,000 casualties as a result of unexploded ordnances (UXO). There is a correlation between areas with UXO and high rates of poverty and food insecurity. Farmers, who use their crops to feed their families, are prevented from safely cultivating their land.

The United Nations World Food Program estimates that 30 percent of Laotians do not have sufficient amounts of food for six months of the year. More than 40 percent of children under the age of 5 experience stunted growth due to chronic malnutrition. The national infant mortality rate is nearly six percent; and 7.5 percent of children die before reaching their fifth birthday—both rates are among the highest in Southeast Asia. An insufficient health-care system, high levels of food insecurity, and poor hygiene have contributed to Laos’s poor health status.

Poverty is higher in rural regions, suburban areas without roads, and in central and northern provinces. Nearly 40 percent of Laotians live below the poverty line, and three quarters of people earn less than $2 a day. Agriculture, mostly subsistence farming, employs 80 percent of the population and produces 41 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Crops include rice, sweet potatoes, corn, fruit, spices, and cotton. The government has instituted economic reforms and has recently relied on a resurgent tourism industry as a source of foreign exchange.

In the education sector, 40 percent of boys and 33 percent of girls attend secondary school—42 percent fewer children than attend primary school. One reason for this decline is that 65 percent of primary schools are unable to offer classes in all grade levels. Most schools offer up to only the second grade, which prevents children from completing their basic education. Approximately 25 percent of teachers lack formal training; in fact eight percent of them have not completed primary school. Teachers receive low salaries and are not equipped with the proper resources to teach. The government currently spends less than three percent of the nation’s budget on education, ranking it 111th out of 132 countries worldwide.

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World Vision's history in Laos

World Vision’s work in Laos began in l969 during the Vietnam War, operating several small-scale projects that served the needs of children. A World Vision field office opened in 1971. Following the end of the war in l975, all projects were suspended until the mid-l980s, when they resumed under the management of World Vision’s Asia Pacific Regional Office in Bangkok, Thailand. World Vision focused on improving health care for rural people by building a clinic and several hospitals in remote villages where few people had access to health services.

In 1990, World Vision provided emergency relief to areas in the southern provinces severely affected by drought. The following year World Vision received permission from the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to open a national office in Vientiane. In collaboration with government hospitals, an extensive program was launched to bring care and prostheses to the many disabled people in the country.

Additional offices were opened in Savannaket, Champasak, and Luang Prabang in the late 1990s. Between l990 and 2000, World Vision contributed $10 million to ongoing relief and development efforts.

In the 21st century, World Vision has implemented several projects in rural villages in the provinces of Luang Prabang, Savannaket, Champasak, Vientiane Municipality, Khammouane, Houaphan, Saravan, and Xieng Khong. Activities have focused on food security, education, health care, income generation, disaster management, HIV and AIDS, and water and sanitation.

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World Vision in Laos today

World Vision is committed to partnering with the people of Laos to enhance their lives today and to help enact sustainable solutions for the future of their communities, families, and children. Although World Vision United States does not currently fund any sponsorship programs, there are 17,250 children sponsored by donors in other countries. Several times this number of children and other family members benefit from World Vision activities. In addition, World Vision operates several projects, one of which is supported by donors from the United States.
  • The primary goal of the Savannakhet Trafficking in People Project, located in southern Laos, is to educate communities about the dangers of unsafe migration and the risks of human trafficking. Training is provided to young people as well as village leadership to help them identify and resist the offers of traffickers. Project leaders helped organize the first Child Advocacy Network (CAN) in the village of Naphaekngai. The primary and secondary schoolchildren of CAN are teaching their classmates about the dangers of trafficking through song, dance, drama, games, and short lectures.
For more information on World Vision’s programs in Laos, please contact the United States office.

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