There is currently substantial focus in Lao PDR on poverty alleviation and rural development in order to reach the global Millennium Development Goals by 2015 and also implement the National Growth and Poverty Eradication Strategy by 2020. However, there is no specific national youth policy that would help achieve these goals. Where reference to youth occurs, it is general and does not reflect the differences between rural and urban youth situations. There is a great need to develop a strategy to benefit rural youth.
This report reflects the findings of a study looking at how rural youth, and thus rural communities, are missing out on development opportunities more readily available to urban youth and what can be done to turn the situation around. The research was conducted through interviews with relevant officials, surveys and group discussions with youth in seven villages in two provinces and supplemented with a literature search. For the purpose of the study, the researchers adopted the LYU definition of youth as anyone aged between 15 and 30.
Lack of or limited education remains one of the primary obstacles to the development of rural youth. This includes lack of options or access to vocational training. Improving access to basic education and to vocational training is critically needed.
The findings indicate that rural youth are interested in agriculture endeavours - if it is not subsistence agriculture and cash income is possible. There is considerable potential to use agriculture to improve rural youth's livelihoods if they are taught new techniques, how to grow new crops and how to sell crops locally. This requires improving the knowledge and skills of agricultural extension staff, improving access to vocational training centres with a curriculum that includes agriculture subjects and even providing alternative training options, such as farmer-to-farmer approaches.
Rural youth are open-minded and have ideas on how to improve the current situation - if financial aid and transfer of knowledge were provided. But they need basic support and improved knowledge and skills to begin their development.
The lack of access to credit and markets discourages youth farmers from intensifying their production; the further lack of knowledge regarding production intensification and the lack of extension services consequently hamper general development in the rural areas. Promoting and improving rural youth's access to funds and microfinance for investment in agricultural production, either through bank loans or revolving funds in villages, are recommended approaches to addressing the challenging situations outlined in this report. Improving female farmers' access to credit and other financial services are also highlighted as needed elements to develop rural communities.
Given their exposure to modern life through the media and the limited employment opportunities in the countryside, more and more rural youth are opting to migrate to urban areas for work and a better life. However, due to their limited education, they often end up in low-paid jobs, such as in the construction sector, in garment factories or in prostitution. Human trafficking is also a growing problem in Lao PDR, with more and more youths ending up as victims. Young girls, especially those from rural ethnic groups, are most vulnerable to human traffickers.
Different government and international organizations in Lao PDR do not adequately address the needs and situations of youth, especially rural youth, in their policies, programmes and projects. There are agencies implementing specifically targeted programmes to address some of the critical concerns challenging rural youth. And these programmes offer valuable opportunities. However, more explicit focus on rural youth in the development and implementation of projects is needed, as youth are not a specific target group for any organization implementing agricultural and rural development activities in Phongsaly or Vientiane provinces or across the country.
Among the concluding recommendations of this report is the call for more institutions and international organizations to look specifically at rural youth and target their needs and development. This includes policies aimed at keeping youth in their rural communities.
The recommendations also suggest that youth be included in international organizations' development activities in the early phases of projects when they can express their needs and thus develop ownership of the activities. During group discussions for this study, rural youth noted that creating youth interest and management groups with specific emphasis on animal rearing, crop production, fishponds, handicrafts, etc., would greatly benefit the implementation of development activities.
Rural youth have considerable potential as a workforce and a willingness to help develop their rural communities. But they need good income-generating opportunities to remain in the rural areas. This requires that government, institutions and agencies respond with specific policies and programmes directed at rural youth.