Annette Kanstrup-Jensen

In 1986, the Democratic Republic of Laos adopted a new economic policy, enshrined in a “New Economic Mechanism”, with the aim of opening itself up to the world market. If the country is to survive in the world of globalization, however, methods and contents of training also need to change. The Government has therefore developed a “Human Resource Development Policy”. But are the measures introduced suitable for the ethnic groups which make up 48% of the population and live largely in rural areas? What is needed so that they can also play a part in the development of a new society? Annette Kanstrup-Jensen worked as Education Adviser for Norwegian Church Aid in the Lao PDR from 1992 to 1995 on primary and non-formal education for ethnic minority groups. The complete version of this paper was presented at the International Akha/Hani Conference in Xishuangbanna, China

Educational Constraints and Resources among Ethnic Minority Groups in the Lao PDR

In 1986 the Lao PDR adopted the New Economic Mechanism (NEM). This economic reorientation, which has components similar to reform-processes in other communist countries, is an attempt to bring about better efficiency and profitability in the utilisation of human resources. Monetisation of the economy, liberalisation of trade and encouragement of foreign investments are some of the key elements of the NEM. The economic reorientation is an attempt to bring about better efficiency and profitability in the utilisation of human resources.

This first step from being – also in a figurative sense – a landlocked country to an open door policy nation was followed up when the Lao PDR was one of the signatories of the World Declaration on Education for All in 1990. Consequently Lao educators were brought into the mainstream of world thinking on educational development – which was also relevant in connection with the changed economic policy.

As a consequence of the new economic policy the Government of the Lao PDR launched an explicit Human Resource Development policy in October 1995 (followed by an operational plan in 1998). For the Lao Government human resource development means – in principle – a constant development of the human being starting with birth and concerning all aspects of life.

The latest initiative towards joining the globalised world is the full membership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) obtained in 1997.

This new openness towards the non-communist world, the intended membership of the world community and hence the fulfilment of the rather ambitious development goals set by the Lao Government demands a modern, skilled labour force. According to the newest HRD plan (1998–2001) the focus is on capacity building for public management and community development. 32.5% of the total expenditure (2/3 from external funds and 1/3 from domestic sources) will be allocated to education in general. The predominant part of these funds will be earmarked to build the capacity of school managers and administrators at all levels. The second objective is to train and upgrade especially primary and secondary teachers in new teaching techniques and methodologies.

The question is whether this new methodological approach to education will appreciate and incorporate the existing learning resources of the approximately 48% of the total population (5.2 million) belonging to minority groups. Most of the minority group· live in small villages in areas remote from provincial and district centres. Most of their activities are devoted to sustaining life through food production, hunting and gathering.

In a poor country with low average years of schooling (2.9 yrs) and a literacy rate of 56% (UNDP Development Co-operation Report 1997) all problems are exacerbated with regard to ethnic minority groups. However, there are considerable economic advantages attached to investing in education. In itself education does not generate economic growth, but investment in education fully outweighs the costs. The social rates of return to investing in basic education is high in terms of fewer and healthier children, for example. Children of parents who have been in a learning environment take better advantage of educational opportunities. Therefore an important question to be asked is:

What educational opportunities are offered to ethnic minorities in the Lao PDR – and how can education enable them to contribute to their own and to national development?

To improve the quality of life for oneself or to assist others in the process encompasses both the satisfaction of material as well as non-material needs. The four essential needs are 1: welfare (basic material needs such as food, drinking water and shelter), 2: freedom / rights (non-oppression e.g. freedom to express oneself), 3: survival / security (as opposed to destruction) and 4: identity (as opposed to cultural and national alienation)

When discussing social change, quality of life and the satisfaction of human needs in Third/Fourth World countries at the stage of transition towards a modernised society, one has to reflect on how ”modernisation” is being interpreted. It has been defined differently as “the improvement of human productivity”, “a form of human adaptation and the increasing use of man’s rationality and knowledge in mastering his environment” and conceptualised in terms of “growth in moral, social and personal choices” (Fägerlind & Saha 1989 p.97). Therefore the question is:

What kind of education can enable ethnic minorities in the Lao PDR to master their own environment in a better way, and what kind of education will enable them to make choices?

The political aspect of development started coming into focus in the 1980s: “...formal education is both determined by and a determinant of the political system” (Fägerlind & Saha 1989 p.123). Education can be seen as serving three main purposes: “1: as the main agent for the political socialisation of the young into national political culture, 2: as the primary agent for the selection and training of political elites, and 3: as the main contributor to political integration and the building of national political consciousness” (ibid p.125). In other words, education prepares children for citizenship in a particular political context, inculcating the civic values that are prevalent in a particular political ideology. In multi-ethnic states the requirement of a consensus on political values and loyalty to national symbols may conflict with values being taught in traditional cultures in terms of authority and power relations, for example. Thus the education policy can be used to accentuate ethnic, racial and cultural boundaries. Therefore a last question to be asked must be:

Is education among ethnic minorities in the Lao PDR helping to make people free by nurturing their critical sense as a prerequisite for change? Or is the education offered by the state a domesticating factor with the purpose of maintaining the status quo?

Educational Constraints for Ethnic Minorities

An ambitious part of the national education policy is to expand primary and secondary education to serve ethnic minorities in every province. Yet even if the physical structures are provided, educational achievement among the ethnic minority groups is impeded by many factors in the communities – similar to constraints in nearly all developing countries. The most important is that parents need their children to work in food production and in caring for younger siblings. They cannot afford the loss of labour and the added expense of sending their children to school. The standard curriculum is not designed to meet the needs of people in remote areas, and a third issue is that Lao, the national language, is a second language for ethnic minorities. The results are poor attendance, low attainment and high repetition and dropout rates.

Gender inequality is especially rife among ethnic minority groups, who generally follow a patrilinear social system. In rural areas where nearly all people are engaged in some form of agriculture, men assume the tasks requiring the greatest strength. However, women perform a great deal of the tedious, time-consuming and physically demanding work. (Nearly 2 million of the total population are women living in rural areas). Women begin assuming household responsibilities much earlier in their lives than men, and over twice as many girls as boys in the 11 to 15 year age group are occupied in the agricultural sector. Nearly all domestic and child-care duties are performed by women and young girls.

The illiteracy rate is highest among women (in rural areas very often more than 80%) and the enrolment rate, whose figures seldom reflect the actual attendance, is extremely low for girls and women at various levels among ethnic minorities.

The barriers to women’s and girls’ participation in education should be viewed within the larger context of Lao social and cultural factors that shape attitudes towards women and men. Among the cultural constraints that inhibit the involvement of girls living in remote areas in the education system is the distance to school. Generally families are reluctant to let their girls travel long distances to attend school. If the school is outside the village, the family gets suspicious of changes in socialisation: teachers from different social backgrounds or communities might influence the girls’ traditional morals, and some parents do not want their daughters to be taught by a male teacher.

In most societies women have lower status than men – the social and cultural beliefs define role expectations, control the allocation of family and community resources, govern the division of labour, and offer continuous resistance to attempts to redress gender inequalities. From a family economics point of view, sending girls to school is perceived to be a futile undertaking. Women’s and girls’ participation in education programmes results in high opportunity costs. Girls and women do not require education to perform their social roles – productive as well as reproductive. Furthermore, girls very often marry at a very early age and move, denying the natal family the returns on educating them, whereas educating boys is considered a long-term investment of precious family resources; their education serves more “collective” family interests.

Also linked to the rural families’ disinterest in education is the lack of perceived benefits for the girls from the present formal education. Parents may not be against educating their daughters, but the content and the teaching methods have little relevance and applicability to their daily lives in rural areas.

In recognition of the inadequacy of the formal curriculum and methodology in relation to the rural population, the Ministry of Education established the Department of Non-Formal Education (NFE) (1991) as a supplement to – and in some areas as a substitute for – the formal education. The NFE topics are connected to rural life, encompassing health and agricultural subjects, various income-generating activities, e.g. chicken raising, as well as literacy classes. In the NFE activities the rural communities are involved in the planning, and wisdom and resources are built upon.

Education Resources – Indigenous Education

Indigenous education is variously defined by sociologists or anthropologists as the socialisation or enculturation process that everybody in all societies goes through. The characteristic of indigenous education is that it is “learning for life”, a process that is not confined either to a schoolroom, a fixed curriculum or a timetable, and does not end with exams showing academic results. The ultimate goals of indigenous education is “to integrate the individual into his society” (Ocitti 1994 p.22). Among indigenous peoples the rites of passage encompass both social and practical learning as well as the responsibilities that follow from passing from one stage of life to another.

In the ethnic minority communities in the Lao PDR, indigenous education is carried out after approximately the same pattern. The womb-to-tomb learning is essential for the maintenance of the society, and the learning processes are present in all aspects of indigenous life – in the mythology, songs, handicraft, herbal medicine etc.

Thus the tradition of learning throughout life is already existent in the rural communities, the respect for the educators as well. In other words the understanding of the importance of learning is innate in everybody. In order to make education programmes succeed among minority groups functional learning must be reflected in practice, and educators (planners, teachers etc.) must understand that “basic education” is already carried out by the villagers themselves.

The prevailing concept of “education” as linked to schooling, the inflexible and often irrelevant formal curriculum, and the mechanical teaching methodology, are counterproductive for the development of rural communities. These are all factors that help to enhance the unevenness in the development process in favour of the urban population. It increases the disparities between the ethnic groups in the country. In order for the minority groups to have equal opportunities, master their own development and to make choices, the curriculum ought to be better adapted to rural life in terms of topics, language and seasons, and the teaching methods should be more learner-centred. Many teachers and education planners have progressive and innovative thoughts about education – these should be supported, and creative and critical thinking among children and adult learners should be nurtured. Non-formal education should be strengthened, and representatives from the ethnic communities should be involved in education planning at all levels.

Given the demographic, geographical and infrastructural conditions of the country, the establishment of boarding schools seems a reasonable solution as a transitional arrangement. It could be an active way to redress educational disparities. In this reform process, the ethnic minorities in the Lao PDR must be given the choice of adaptation or disappearance. However, the philosophy behind boarding schools might also carry political and ideological overtones of the need for a skilled and docile labour for´e to meet the demands of a growing industrial sector. This could result in alienating the youth from their cultural heritage and denigrating their traditional beliefs and values.


Fägerlind, I & Saha J.L.: Education and National Development – A Comparative Perspective, Oxford 1989 (Butterworth, Heinemann)

Ocitti, J.K.: An Introduction to Indigenous Education in East Africa, IIZ/DVV, 1994


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