November 2007

I’m reminded of a documentary I saw on a man working to distributed iodine-supplement salt in China. Thyroid disorders were very prevelant in the areas the rice was distributed. A tiny amount of iodine added to someones diet can fix all these problems. Free rice with the addition of iodine seemed the perfect way to distribute this dietry supplement.

Apparently some people receiving the free rice didn’t eat it but instead sold it. They believed the rice was not good for their health and tasted funny. Some people just feed it to their animals. Rumours had started to circulate, who knows from where, that the rice was poisonous. Although it seems tragically ignorant for them reject the rice I can understand how history may have taught people not to trust foreigners and to skeptical about any free gifts from them. We always tell children never to accept lollies from strangers. Perhaps if they sold the rice, maybe even with a premium price, it would have gained more acceptance.

In Laos there are many organizations that distribute food in the country. I’m told that in some parts of the countries at certain times of the year there are very low food supplies because you can not grow rice. Most Lao people eat sticky rice. Sticky rice is very expensive to buy in bulk when compared to white rice (the variety you would eat in a Chinese restaurant). However the opposite is true for small quantities, such as a market in Vientiane, where white rice would be more expensive.

I’m not exactly sure why this is true. It might be something to do with the fact that there isn’t much demand for sticky rice outside of Laos, so there’s no one producing large amounts of it for exporting.

Buying sticky rice in bulk might be 2 times more expensive than white rice, possibly even more.

So some development organizations buy white rice rather than sticky rice to save money. There are problem in that many Lao people don’t like or really know how to eat white rice. Unlike sticky rice, after eating white rice they don’t feel full. They may also not really know how to cook white rice. They may also dislike the taste and texture of white rice and it may not go as well with their other types of food they eat.

So sometimes the villagers don’t eat the free rice that’s given to them. They may instead use it as animal feed.

This story highlights to me the problem of poverty and malnutrition not being an engineering problem. Throwing money, resources and rice at the problem won’t necessarily fix it. Like that famous horse analogy, you can take a person white rice but you can’t force them to eat it. I’m reminded of the US army dropping rations in Afghanistan as a relief effort to Afghani population during their war with the Taliban. Apparently the rations contained Western food such as peanut butter. Unfamiliar with this strange food most people chose not to eat it.

Giving people the food that is the most nutritious for them may not always work. They need to be consulted and it has to fit in with their existing diet, otherwise people simply won’t eat it. Americans definitely have the money and resources to have a healthier diet than they currently have, but the fact they choose not to shows that having a healty diet isn’t always people’s number one priority in life.

Another volunteer has been up in Northern Laos working on a Iron Chef like project for the UN. He’s trying to do some cooking education to encourage an improved diet in some villages. He asked his helpers to go to the market and buy a large variety of vegetables. They’re going to have a cook off to try and create some new things, get some new ideas across and hopefully have a delicious meal.

The other problem that occurs when you start giving away food for free is that it lowers the prices of food and hurts the profits of those who grow food to sell to others, usually themselves poor people. For example, if an organisation were to start giving out cows for free this would lower the price of cows and negatively impacts the anyone who already owned some cows. This is not a good thing for them if that cow represented a significant part of their life savings.


I made a trip to Vang Vieng again last weekend and engaged in two activities.

The first activity was tubing, what Vang Vieng is famous for. Tubing can be broken down in the following parts. You go to the tubing shop in town and pay them $4. The tubing shop write a number on your hand in black permanent marker – I assumed this was done to identify your drowned body. The shop gives you a large truck size inner tube tyre and drive you 3 kilometers down the road to the river by tuk tuk. You take your tube down to the river, put it in the river, try to balance yourself while sitting inside the tube and push off to float down the river. The speed and depth of the river varies between the dry and wet season. To float back to down will take 1 hr in the wet season and 3 hrs, in addition to a very sore ass due to the low river level, during the dry season.

As you float along you can admire the mountains that surround the river or choose to stop at one of the many riverside bars scattered along your journey. Each bar offers its patrons the chance to jump off big swing or flying fox into the river. Some of the swings really are big, and I was too tame to try any of them.

The other activity I did was caving. A guy at my $4 a night guest house set up a tuk tuk to drive us to the cave. When we got there we followed two local guides who proceded to take us for a 25 minute briskly paced walk inside a pitch black cave. At the end of the cave we ended up at an underground lake where we went swimming. I had no idea what was going on, but the swimming in the underground lake was a lot of fun and the inside of the cave was pretty.

I visited Udon Thani over the weekend and paid a visit to the Centrepoint night markets. There was a market stall that only sold balaclavas, machete knives and a single baseball bat.

The markets in Udon Thani and Nong Khai are very different to the markets found just across the border in Vientiane, Laos. They’re much newer, spacious, diverse and cleaner.

After living in Laos for a while now I am starting to appreciate its differences with Thailand. Thailand has only Japanese made motorbikes while Lao ones are mainly Chinese made. Thailand has nice manicured garden everywhere and fantastic roads. Thailand has a lot of politcal announcements through speaker cards taking place at the moment, as there are elections coming up in about a month. Nong Khai and Udon also noticeably have a large number of older foreign men. Vientiane has a larger mix of both younger people and women. I think this is because Vientiane has a greater number of tourists and aid workers, while Udon attracts older men who want to retire in Asia.

I have an idea on how to use the web to help development organisations. I call it the outsourced volunteer. I imagine a website where development organisations can submit any work they need done. The type of work must be able to be done over the internet. It should involve foreign expertise not easily or cheaply available domestically. The kind of work stuff expensive foreign consultants are often hired for. Examples could be helping to edit English documents, building a website, or writing a policy document.

Outsourced volunteers around the world could then browse the website and volunteer their time and skills towards any of the advertised projects. The idea is similar to open source software development and it’s a coincidence that both areas share the common word of development. The potential of outsourcing should not be limited to for-profit endeavours. I think it has huge potential to help development organisations.

Outsourced volunteers would have a reputation rating on the website. The more volunteer projects an outsourced volunteer does, the more their reputation increases and the more prestige they will enjoy.

Outsourcing is something that those with left wing tendencies, the majority of those working in development, may cringe against. Perhaps this is why, to my limited knowledge, development organisations seem to be extremely adverse to the idea of outsourcing. Much can be said to criticise the money wasted on highly paid overseas consultants working in the development. Flying into the poorest developing countries is usually very expensive, as is staying at a nice hotel, being chauffeured around in a four wheel drive, eating western food and other activities that maintain a western lifestyle. If outsourcing saves organisations these expenses that they can instead be utilised in other areas of need then that’s a good thing.

The politics of those running development organisations may make they adverse to paid outsourcing. That makes unpaid outsourced volunteers a more palatable compromise for the left leaning.

The first question to ask about any idea is: has anyone else already thought of this and started doing it?


More information can be found here.

Western pop music in Laos is really dated. I’ve given much thought as to why this is. After discussing it a fellow Australian Volunteer who is working as a music producer for the local record company Indee Records I have come up with a theory.

When travelling to tourist locations outside of Laos I have heard a lot of The Cranberries. In restaurants around town I hear a lot of Celine Dion. I’ve also heard Shannon Noll’s cover of What About Me? but thankfully that’s been the exception rather than the rule. One of the most popular songs is Take me to your heart by Michael Learns to Rock. In fact I heard this being performed at the graduation ceremony for an English college. It was quite an interesting ceremony as there was traditional dancing and karaoke, far more entertaining than the usual boring speaches.

There shouldn’t be any restrictions on Lao people having access to more modern music. All the music is pirated. Getting a Britney Spears CD should be just as cheap as getting a Celine Dion CD. I would suggest that Lao people have equal access to any music they want. Piracy essentially means the entire back catalogue of western music is available as long as it has been released on CD at some stage in time.

Suppliers of music don’t advertise or have a vested interest in promoting one artist over another. There’s no need to push a particular artist to get more airtime because of financial benefit. Supplier of music’s only incentive is to give the public what they demand. Therefore I would think the music being consumed is heavily demand driven by consumer’s preference.

So Lao people have access to any western music they want. They aren’t being advertised to they way the west is with pop music. What they choose is really determined by their preferences, so their decisions come from their personal tastes a lot more than music consumers in the west who are bombarded with advertising. Therefore what they pick will be a purer choice as to what the best kind of music is.

The verdict is that Celine Dion is the best artist of all time for English pop music. The Lao people were given the chance to listen to what ever they wanted and they decided on Celine Dion.

As overheard at the Australian Recreational Club:

Mother: Stop! Don’t run around the pool!

Daughter: I don’t have to listen to because this is a slave country!

Today I shot a gun for the first time. I visited the shoot range behind the national museum and fired off 20 rounds. It’s about 20c per bullet, and the staff help you to load the guns. There are more expensive bullets available for $1.5, $2 (9mm) and $2.5 (.35). I fired a rifle and a pistol. I was pretty impressed with my accuracy with the rifle. I managed to hit pretty close to the center of the target about 80m away.

You buy the paper targets you shoot at and they let you take them home afterwards. They’ll make a nice, though perhaps slightly threatening, wall hanging in my room.

The pistol was really loud. You had the wear ear muffs to make firing it tolerable. The rifle was suprisingly quiet. The pistol had a little bit of a kick, but not a great deal. The rifle seemed to have almost no kick.

Nearby three locals were firing some extremely loud bullets with their own guns. It made it difficult to concentrate on your shooting all the commotion they were causing.

Shooting accurately with the pistol was a lot harder than I expected while the rifle was easier than I expected. Unlike Cambodia, the Lao range doesn’t seem to let you fire AK 47 or grenade launchers. Just pistols and hunting rifles. There were only paper targets available, unlike Cambodia’s shooting ranges with their infamous reputation for letting you blow up a live cow with a grenade.

I can now add firing a gun at the Vientiane Shooting range to the list of new things I’ve done in Lao PDR. I’d recommend it to anyone that’s got a spare hour to kill around town.

Oh yeah, it’s the first time in 8 year’s I haven’t bet on the cup so I didn’t win or lose anything.

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