Renewed efforts to help Laos combat poverty, malnutrition

Lao government and World Bank officials on Tuesday launch Phase II of the Reducing Rural Poverty and Malnutrition Project. - Vientiane Times/ANN

VIENTIANE: The Lao government launched Phase II of the Reducing Rural Poverty and Malnutrition Project on Tuesday (June 11), bringing additional resources to improve nutrition and raise incomes in the country’s 25 poorest districts, with support from the World Bank.

The project is part of the second phase of the Nutrition Convergence programme, which was also launched on Tuesday to coordinate five World Bank-financed projects to accelerate the reduction of stunting in Laos.

The US$37 million Reducing Rural Poverty and Malnutrition Project will focus on nutrition-improvement efforts that are expected to benefit around 85,000 people.

It expands the government’s Helping Hand conditional cash transfer programme, which started in 2021 in 12 poor districts in Xieng Khuang, Huaphan, Phongsaly and Oudomxay provinces, to an additional 13 districts in Savannakhet, Saravan and Xekong provinces.

Cash is transferred to families in need who are listed on Laos’ first social registry, a database of socioeconomic information that will allow government programmes to better target poor and vulnerable households.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry has overall responsibility for coordinating rural poverty reduction programmes in Laos and will manage the project, while the Ministry of Planning and Investment will lead coordination, monitoring and evaluation of Nutrition Convergence to support the National Plan of Action on Nutrition for 2021-25.

World Bank Country Manager for Laos, Alex Kremer, said “Undernutrition in a child’s first thousand days affects physical and cognitive development for their whole lives, costing the Lao economy around US$200 million a year, or 2.4 percent of GDP.”

“Cash transfers to families in need are a direct and effective way of alleviating poverty, improving diet, and encouraging improved health. This project will significantly increase the number of vulnerable people receiving assistance.”

In a World Bank survey carried out earlier this year, 81 percent of households said they were affected by inflation, with over 60 percent reporting eating less food in response.

As a result, malnutrition rates, already high in poorer areas of the country, are at risk of rising.

In 2017, about 33 percent of Lao children under five were stunted (excessively short for their age), 21 percent were underweight, and 9 percent qualified as wasted, meaning they were too thin for their height.

Malnutrition particularly affects the poor, ethnic groups, and children in rural and upland areas.

In northern Laos, average stunting rates are close to 50 percent and are even higher among some ethnic groups, with no sign of improvement since 2017.

The government has set a target of reducing stunting to a rate of 25 percent by 2025.

Initial results show the first phase of the convergence programme has been effective in mitigating the negative effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on child nutrition, improving the diversity of children’s diets, and boosting services such as growth monitoring.

Stunting and wasting among children under two in target areas would have been 7.7 and 3.4 percentage points higher without the programme. - Vientiane Times/ANN

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