Aiding or Abetting?  Village Relocation and International Donors in the Lao PDR
Bruce P. Shoemaker and Ian G. Baird*


A number of programs and policies currently in place in the Lao PDR are promoting the internal resettlement of mostly indigenous ethnic communities from the more remote highlands to lowland areas and along roads. These ongoing initiatives--including village consolidation and relocation, and the establishment of “focal zones”--are often linked to policies calling for the rapid elimination of swidden agriculture and opium cultivation, and the concentration of rural populations. International donors--bilateral and multilateral agencies as well as NGOs—have played a key role in facilitating these initiatives—sometimes intentionally and other times with little understanding of the issues or the implications of their support.

There is increasing evidence –throughout the Lao PDR--that internal resettlement is having devastating impacts on the livelihoods and well-being of upland people and communities. While usually undertaken in the name of “poverty alleviation”, these initiatives often, in fact, contribute to long-term poverty, environmental degradation, cultural alienation, and increasing social conflicts. The serious impacts of internal resettlement in Laos were first reported in a 1997 UNESCO/OSTROM study which detailed mortality rates of up to 30% in upland communities following poorly implemented relocations. Since then, evidence has continued to mount of the negative consequences of internal resettlement. Both official Lao government documents and a series of more recent studies in many parts of the country have confirmed many of these same severe impacts.

These studies and reports have affected a number of international donors—some now say they will not knowingly support internal relocation and will encourage local government agencies to support more appropriate development in existing upland communities. This in turn has had some impact on government agencies. However, other donors claim to distinguish between “voluntary” resettlement (which they will support) and “involuntary” resettlement (which they claim not to support).

Recent research calls into question this whole framework. Much of what is classified as voluntary resettlement is, in reality, not villager-initiated. Most donors lack the capacity to adequately assess what is voluntary and what is not. Others remain oblivious or uninterested in the issue. Even when it is brought to their attention, some agencies appear more concerned about program continuation and supporting other objectives sought by some western countries—such as an end to opium cultivation. Are these agencies in reality facilitating violations of the basic rights of impacted communities through their support for internal resettlement?

In order to avoid this possibility, aid groups need to take a much more analytical, pro-active and “preventive” approach to their rural development work in Laos. Some recommendations for doing this are provided, while acknowledging that local circumstances are likely to dictate somewhat varying approaches in different areas.

* Bruce Shoemaker is an independent researcher based in Minneapolis who previously worked in Laos for almost eight years. Ian Baird is a graduate student at the University of British Columbia and has worked in Laos for many years. Both speak Lao, Baird also speaks Brao, an important ethnic language of southern Laos.