economy


Last weekend I participated in the fun run down Vientiane’s main boulevard and under Laos’ answer to Paris’ Arc De Triumph, Patuxay. It’s the big thing in the background of this photo. Rather amusingly, Patuxay has a plaque at its base labelling it as a “concrete monstrosity”, also stating that “it looks worse up close than it does far away”. The concrete was apparently supplied by the Americans (source: Lonely Planet Laos). It was meant to build a new airport, but instead the Lao government used it to building this tribute to France. There is no greater indication for appreciation of your work than plagiarism.

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Photo from the Vientiane Times website.

I had to wake up at 5:30 am to get to the fun run on time. The run’s purpose was to raise awareness about the usage of Child Labour in Agriculture.

Some Lao people were a little suspicious behind the reasons of the run. In rural communities, it is very normal for children to be involved in the subsistence farming process of their families. When it is the rice harvesting season, many children do not go to school. At home, children after often responsible for the domestic duties as both their parents spend the day working. When some Lao people hear about this plan to stop child labour in agriculture, they think wonder how these poor rural families will survive. Without their children working to support the family they may not be able to produce enough money or food to survive.

When I look at something like this I always think of the opportunity cost. For example, a lot of people in the West look at sweatshop labour and think of it as an evil that should be banned. The pay is poor, the hours are long, the conditions are inhuman. By this perspective is only relative to the pay, hours and working conditions faced in the West. This is not the viewpoint of sweatshop workers who see the alternative to their factory work as subsistence farming, something with much harder work, lower pay and at the mercy of the weather (ie. drought = nothing to eat).

China’s economic growth has been the biggest contributor to poverty reduction in recent times. It has been foreign investment, and it’s exploitation of cheap labour in China, that has allowed millions of people to claw their way from poverty. The number of persons living in poverty in China was reduced from 250 million in 1978 to 29.27 million in 2001 according to World Bank figures. Working in a sweatshop is pretty terrible, but many have decided that subsistence farming is far worse.

As you can probably tell, I’ve probably been reading too many copies of The Economist. For some reason it is only $1.40 USD here, which is about a fifth of the price of anywhere else in the world.

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Here’s a link to the World Bank’s website containing a good summary of Laos’ economy and the direction it is heading.