Effort needed to raise living standards

Agence France Presse

Vientiane, July 27:

Years of effort will be needed to bring the standard of living in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar closer to the level of their more wealthy regional neighbours, a UN official said today.

“This is going to take some years and it requires a strategic approach and a lot of political will in order to bring it about,” Finn Reske-Nielsen, representative in Laos for the UNDP said. He was speaking after talks with officials from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on how the UN can help lower the so-called development gap within the 10-member group. Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, ASEAN’s newest members, are also its poorest. “You see in Vietnam tremendous economic growth which, if well-managed, will lead to enormous progress in terms of development that would benefit the majority of the people.”

“In Laos, which has been lagging behind, you also see respectable economic gro-wth and eventually that will lead to a betterment of the lives of all the people,” he said, “But it’s not something that can be done between today and tomorrow.”

The contrast between rich and poor is seen starkly in the difference between Singapore, the group’s richest member and Laos, its poorest sibling which is hosting an annual meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers. The countries have similar-sized populations, about four million in Singapore and more than five million in Laos. Singapore boasted annual imports and exports of more than $363 billion last year and has first-world assets like skyscrapers, a subway system and top-quality medical care.

Laos’s merchandise trade until the third quarter last year barely reached one billion dollars. The capital, Vientiane, has only one high-rise building. Foreign fast food restaurants have yet to arrive, and according to state media, 55 per cent of the population will still be without electricity this year. Reske-Nielsen said talks today concentrated on how to support Laos and its poor neighbours so that private sector development and trade can be carried out in an equitable fashion.

“Clearly, support could and should be provided to those four countries in particular to make informed and enlightened decisions about economic integration and trade promotion because it is not a given that, say, increased trade would lead to development and certainly it is not a given that increa-sed trade would lead to development with equity,” he said.

Under a six-year plan endorsed by ASEAN leaders in 2002, the association seeks to narrow the development gap through measures including transportation and energy sector development, improving higher education and capacity building in the public sector, information and communication technology modernisation and economic integration in the poorest four countries. “It’s good to see that ASEAN is focussing on it very seriously,” Reske-Nielsen said. The ASEAN foreign ministers, who have been holding annual talks, signed an accord yesterday to set up a fund aimed at narrowing the economic and development gap.