Laos' emerging civil society: challenges and opportunities
Oxfam provides direct support to non-profit associations (NPAs) and, together with other international non-governmental organizations and key partners, engages with the Public Administration and Civil Service Authority (PACSA), various Ministries, and authorities at provincial and district levels to support the development of an enabling environment for Lao Civil Society, mainly through capacity building.
Space for civil society opens up
In Laos, space for civil society has been, albeit slowly, gradually opening up over the past five years and in 2009, the Government of Lao PDR (GoL) approved a decree for the regulation and operation of Lao non-profit associations (NPAs). This is a significant development in the Lao political context where there is no organized political opposition and little space for freedoms of association, speech and media.
Thus, a number of new actors have emerged as important drivers of change for a sustainable development of Laos: the local and national NPAs that have begun to engage in policy advocacy. Oxfam has supported the earliest formation of the Lao civil society; the most advanced groups today, like the Gender Development Group, are partners that Oxfam has supported over a long period of time, and now serve as a model for new groups. Over the past two years, networks that seek greater visibility and opportunities for advocacy at national and international level have emerged. One of them is the Lao NPA network, another partner of Oxfam.
The Learning House for Development: a network for Lao organizations working in development
The Lao NPA network was officially re-named the Learning House (LH) for Development not to confront the GoL which is averse of networks and organizations which might criticize its national plan and policies. Learning House's goal is to create an enabling environment in which Lao NPAs and other civil society groups can contribute to inclusive and sustainable development of Laos, poverty reduction and play an active role in social-economic development.
M. Khammouane Siphonesay, the LH Manager and Coordinator, said: “This is very challenging because many NPAs are young and need strong support in terms of organizational development, project management, funding proposals writing and reporting to donors, English capability and understanding of civil society.”
The Lao NPA network has currently 25 members which focus mainly on community development, implementing various projects in all the country. The network brings together these organizations to share knowledge and experience, and to enhance coordination. “Before the Learning House, there was no coordination mechanism and NPAs discovered each other sometimes outside the country in international workshops or seminars,” added M. Siphonesay.
Another objective of the Learning House is to help NPAs in launching activities or improving staff capacity to implement development projects. “For example, we have incubator rooms, in other words a temporary office for young NPAs which do not yet have an office or budget of their own. They can use facilities to write funding proposals in order to grow independent,” explains M. Siphonesay.
The emergence of the Lao civil society is still a long process
Many NPAs are not registered and cannot benefit from funding opportunities, especially since donors don't want to offend the GoL by supporting them. The process of registration is not an easy task, neither for NPAs, nor for the Public Administration and Civil Service Authority (PACSA) in charge of implementing the decree.
“Some NPAs fail to submit a complete registration, and then the procedure is delayed. From the GoL’s side, the decree is quite complicated to understand and involves diverse Ministries and other stakeholders. Moreover staff is young and busy with other tasks,” M. Siphonesay explains.