Government boost for local NGOs

International aid groups have welcomed a decision by the Lao government to allow local NGOs to register and operate as independent entities for the first time.

“This is an important development for the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and civil society,” UN Resident Coordinator in Laos, Sonam Yangchen Rana, told IRIN from the capital Vientiane.

By November this year Lao citizens will be able to apply to form NGOs after the Decree on Associations was signed by Prime Minister Bouasone Bouphavanh and announced on 11 May.

The decree will be effective within 180 days.

Two or more people can now establish a local NGO under the new law, which “provides a guideline for Lao officials as they consider applications”, a UN statement said.

The decree provides a clear legal framework for membership-based groups, in contrast with a more ad hoc registration process, Luke Stephens, country director of the Irish-based NGO Concern Worldwide, told IRIN from Xam Nua, the provincial capital of northeastern Houaphanh Province. That process often depended on connections.

“It’s difficult to underestimate the potential value of this for Laos,” Stephens said of the government’s decision.

Although international NGOs can do much in the country, local NGOs were often more attuned to the local culture, as well as needs at the community level, he said.

“As Laos is sparsely populated and extremely remote, INGOs cannot reach everyone. Local NGOs can provide real added value here,” he explained.

Asked whether he thought there would be an upsurge in the number of local NGOs being registered, Stephens said: “It will take time. There has never been a history of civil society in this country before. This is just the beginning.”

There are currently more than 100 local organisations of various types now working in Laos, but not centrally registered, in addition to some 80 INGOs.

According to the UN Development Programme, landlocked Laos is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world today. Approximately 33 percent of its almost seven million inhabitants live under the national poverty line of US$1 a day.