A Discussion with Wihane Sibuonheuang, Program Support Officer, Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC)
Background: The context for this discussion is preparation for a consultation on faith and development in Southeast Asia, held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on December 14-15, 2009. The consultation was an endeavor of the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD), the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, with support from the Luce Foundation, and the University of Cambodia. It aimed to take stock of the wide range of ongoing work by different organizations that are, in varying ways, inspired by religious faith, but more important, to explore the policy implications that emerge from their interactions with development organizations. Wihane Sibuonheuang and Michael Bodakowski conducted this discussion by telephone. Wihane Sibuonheuang is Program Support Officer for the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC). CRWRC is the relief and development arm of the Christian Reformed Church. In this interview he reflects on his work in Laos and the special challenges that country faces because of its poverty. He also reflects on working as a faith-inspired organization where such entities are rare and subject to restrictions.
Interview Conducted on December 3, 2009
Can you describe the political and development context in Laos today? What are main issues for development?
Laos is a very small country, and the poorest in South East Asia. There is a one-party political system managing the country which has been in power for 34 years. Laos is also one of the poorest countries in the world, which poses many development challenges, including a lack of schools for our children and limited professional opportunities for individual development. Besides that, the government cannot manage all of its tasks in the country, due to a limited budget and lack of human resources and physical infrastructure. There is a lack of knowledge on how to develop the country. Laos is largely Buddhist, along with a small number of Christians; there are some animists as well.
Laos is open for foreign investment, as of approximately 15 years ago. From 2000 until the present day, a lot of investment is taking place in the country, but this investment is not trickling down to the people. There are many Western investors (including Germany, Austria, and the United States), as well as from China, Korea, Vietnam, and Thailand. I think China is the largest in terms of investment, due to its impressive economic growth and status as our neighbor. Laos has been a member of ASEAN since 1997.
Can you tell me about your experience and inspiration throughout your career and how you arrived at your present position doing development work in Laos?
My experience and inspiration to do development work began early on. After I graduated from high school in 1990, I won a government scholarship to study in Russia. With this scholarship I studied psychology in Irkusk and in Moscow, at Moscow State University, for three years, but did not have the best of luck. At this time, the Soviet Union was in the midst of Perestroika, and as a result of the social upheaval at the time, I was unable to finish my studies.
In 1993 I decided to return to Laos, where I began my studies in agriculture. I did not choose to study agriculture on my own, but rather it was chosen for me by the government. I did not like the course at first, but after 6 months of study, I became more interested in the subject. I finished my Bachelor of Agriculture after three years, and started to work on development issues in Southeast Asia with a Dutch Organization named ZOA Refugee Care. ZOA focused on assisting refugees who returned to Laos from Thai refugee camps. In 2004, CRWRC came to Laos and took over all of ZOA’s facilities and staff. With both organizations combined, I have been working on development in Laos for the past 13 years. I started off as the responsible officer for agriculture programming, working with the poor in remote areas, especially on refugee assistance from Thailand. These people did not have a home or land, but through the work I was doing, there were able to live stable lives.
In 2004, I became a project manager for the north of Laos and managed about 35 staff. My programs supported road and school construction, education, health care, leadership, and agriculture. Through this position I gained great insight into education, as well as the situation of the Mon and other ethnic minorities in the country.
In 2008, I moved to the capital, Vientiane, and became a Program Support Officer. I have been in this position for about one year. I moved here with my family, and travel quite frequently around the country, by bus and car, for 1-2 weeks at a time. Transportation infrastructure is a challenge. Roads are terrible, especially in rainy season. From May, it is difficult to travel because of muddy roads and flooding. It takes time, and can also be an impediment to program implementation.
Apart from the work that we do independently, we also network and cooperate with other organizations and with the government to have better access to the poor. Through our collaboration, we are rapidly expanding our programming. In 2004 we only had programs in 12 villages, then we expanded to 20 villages, and now are working in 43 villages on education, health care, leadership and agriculture.
Are there challenges working as a faith-inspired organization in Laos?
CRWRC is a new organization in Laos, and overall there are not many Christian organizations in the country. It is sometimes difficult for us to implement all of our work, due to strict government controls. We do work hard to complete our work despite the challenges, networking with government and other organizations throughout the country. Networking has been an important tool for us, helping us to work within the existing restrictions, and also across provinces. We have been successful in implementing our programs in education, health care, leadership, and agriculture. We sometimes organize trainings on faith; however, there we do encounter difficulties. I believe that to overcome difficulties, people have to have dialogue.
A large part of the challenges also have to do with differing cultural perspectives. We have many different ethnic minorities with different faith beliefs (including spirit beliefs) and political views. It is not always easy to find common understanding between the different beliefs. However, we are working to find common ground. In our organization, our staff is from many different religions and minorities, including Animism, Buddhism, and Christianity. Personally, I became Christian about 10 years ago, after being raised as a Buddhist. My knowledge of both religions helps me to see the similarities between both religions, and to overcome some of the challenges we encounter.
What is the health situation in Laos, especially with concern to maternal and pre-natal care? How can faith-inspired organizations play a role?
Health in Laos is poor. People are poor, so their health is also poor. In rural areas, people have do not have clean water, creating poor hygiene and sanitation conditions. Also, because of cultural reasons they do not use latrines, creating pollution in the forests and runoff in the water. This has a catastrophic effect on mothers and children. There are many diseases, including parasites. Children do not have readily available access to vaccines, and malnutrition is also high in certain areas.
How is your organization playing a role in improving health in Laos?
Health is a very important issue for our organization. We want to bring improved health conditions to rural areas, so that all Laotians can have access to quality health care. One thing we do is to organize volunteer doctors and nurses to conduct trainings for village health practitioners. We also encourage good hygiene and sanitation. In January, we will research the feasibility of an opium detoxification program. Opium use is widespread in the rural areas of Laos, especially in the North. In a given village about 50% of people smoke opium and it is very bad for their health. Some children use opium as well, stealing opium from their parents continuing to smoke for their entire lives. We aim to conduct a pilot program to reduce opium use.
How about education?
The education sector is poor. There are not many educational institutions & neither schools nor colleges. In villages, often there are no schools, and people cannot study and are illiterate. In the region where I am from, few people can read or write.
NGOs are focusing on school construction and curriculum (because there are very few textbooks available in rural areas). The national publishing company has limited publications. There is a lack of teachers as well.
Here in the capital there are many foreign companies investing and opening operations in the country. The companies capitalize on the low skilled, uneducated workers, an example being hiring low wage workers in Chinese factories to work long hours. The working conditions are poor and the pay is minimal. Greater education can help provide Laotians with more opportunity and choice for employment.
Can you speak some more about the foreign investment and its implications in Laos?
There are large investments on the Mekong River, including plans for hydroelectric power on the river and its tributaries. Such a project will have large implications for the communities living along the river. The government uses such projects to show its neighbors that it is developing, whether or not true development is reaching the people. Investment and the direction is takes is decided by the government. Consequently, positive results are being seen at the government level, but not trickling down to the level of the individual or the farmer. Beside hydropower, rubber plantations are also booming. The primary investors are Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai. Land conflict is arising among the communities surrounding the plantations, especially land concession issues. Global warming and a lack of rural development in Laos are contributing to and intensifying the negative consequences of foreign investment.
Faith is often a topic that is not on the official agenda of development organizations, yet it is a crucial factor in many settings, including in most parts of Asia. What, from your viewpoint, is missing on the development agenda with regards to faith, and what should be added?
I feel personally, that government and the national development goals are mostly focused on materialism. When I see development goals (for example, the Millennium Development Goals), they promise a lot of money, but money is not development, it is material. There needs to be greater integration towards holistic development, and not only economic development. Increasing knowledge and education will lend people the capacity to make decisions for themselves, and faith-inspired organizations are in a position to work in this area. Economic progress and infrastructure alone are not sufficient.
I think that many people hold and value religion highly. For example, in Buddhism, people have good hearts and live simple lifestyles. I appreciate the harmony this creates. This harmony however will change with development. When people here believe something they will believe it forever. If we cooperate and focus development in the right direction, we can help to build a strong national cultural unity. Faith-inspired organizations can build on development in this manner.