U.S. Ambassador to Laos, Dr. Peter M. Haymond, discusses the past successes and future goals of the U.S. Lao Comprehensive Partnership.
Before becoming the U.S. Ambassador to Lao PDR, Peter Haymond first worked in Laos in 1997. As part of his work for the U.S. Embassy at that time, he became interested in the Plain of Jars, and he also helped launch the first project in Laos funded through the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP).
“I’m happy to say I had a small hand in the first project under this program, which was some assistance to a Huaphan Province site called “Standing Stones,” which is a beautiful series of megalithic sites in one part of the province: Tall, thin stones which were erected two or three thousand years ago.”
Now, twenty years later, Haymond is the U.S. Ambassador to Laos and is part of another AFCP grant to help preserve an important Lao cultural site: the Plain of Jars in Xieng Khouang, the very same site that first interested him. In an interview with Laotian Times, he discussed the past five years of partnership between the United States and Laos, as well as the plan for this AFCP grant.
Since 2016, when American President Barack Obama and Lao President Bounnhang Vorachit announced the Comprehensive Partnership, the United States Embassy has supported the Lao government through programs focusing on nutrition and health, mitigating the harm caused by UXO accidents, and preserving both intangible culture and important cultural sites. While COVID has presented many challenges to these programs, the Ambassador remains hopeful for the future of the partnership, citing the potential for technology to help overcome COVID-related challenges.
According to Ambassador Haymond, the U.S. government has expanded its USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) Laos Mission through an increase in in-country staff, as well as an increased budget for development assistance to Laos from about USD 6 million to over USD 30 million per year since the historic visit by President Obama in 2016. USAID has mobilized these resources to support the Government of Laos’ development efforts through programs spanning from mother and child health, nutrition, education, people with disabilities, economic development, and rule of law.
This has included supporting the Lao government in their agenda to counter illegal drug trafficking and drug abuse. Through the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime), the U.S. is assisting Lao authorities in treating drug addicts and working with customs and police to target drug smugglers and producers. By helping opium farmers in northern Laos switch to farming other crops, the United States is working to provide economically sustainable alternatives to those who have depended upon the drug trade for their livelihood.
Another program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture is the support of farming more sustainable, profitable crops throughout Laos, including coffee, cabbage, and sacha inchi. This diversification of crops will increase dependable, sustainable agriculture, and also help the economies of areas that have been economically impacted by COVID.
Other initiatives have included a focus on nutrition, particularly for children.
“Nutrition,” said Haymond, “is a key area for any society, because it has its greatest impact on the young, on their health, and even on their learning capacity as their brains develop, so it has implications both for direct health and for education and potential for performance in the future.”
U.S. nutrition programs in Laos have included an in-school nutrition program providing food for students which has been active for more than a decade, as well as a more recent USAID nutrition program which began after the start of the Comprehensive Partnership. The U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition program has been active in Laos for more than a decade with active projects providing school meals to more than 320,000 school-age children.The Lao-American Nutrition Institute, a nutrition center built by partners including the Lao Ministry of Health and the U.S. government, serves as headquarters for these nutrition programs, which include a training program led by Purdue University and Indiana University, leading American institutions that will train health and nutrition research professionals, practitioners, professors and university students from around Laos.
Along with a continued commitment to helping Laos clear unexploded ordnance, the U.S. Government has been working to help the Lao government provide assistance to areas most heavily affected by UXO from the Indochina War. Ambassador Haymond highlighted a project named Okard, which means “opportunity”. Okard operates in the areas of Laos most heavily affected by UXO to offer “assistance on health, rehabilitation and economic empowerment to persons with disabilities” whether the cause of disability is genetic, from birth or caused by accidents including road and UXO. USAID also supports income generation through the Lao Microenterprise activity that assists farmers in Xieng Khouang province – an area affected by UXO.
Cultural preservation has been another important aspect of this relationship. Ambassador Haymond discussed how the United States has supported the preservation of Lao culture through projects to document the oral histories and song traditions of ethnic minorities, to safely store historical photographs of Luang Prabang, and to protect important temples from weathering and erosion, including addressing structural issues in the so-called “Watermelon Stupa” at Wat Visoun in Luang Prabang.
The newest cultural program for the U.S. Embassy is supporting the preservation of Laos’ most recent UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Plain of Jars, through a grant from the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation. This grant will allow for training personnel, for more advanced mapping of the famous stones, and for the conservation of damaged sites.
The Embassy is working closely with the Lao Ministry of Culture to determine how best to move forward with this project. The Ambassador pointed out that the decision of whether to “let the [jars’] damage remain in a picturesque manner or to try to avoid their deterioration” must ultimately be left up to Laos, and went on to discuss the future of tourism in the area.
“We expect a lot more tourists, more attention, and training of the personnel to deal with the influx of people and taking care of the site in a way that will sustain it for generations of Lao people to come.”
While the current COVID pandemic has posed new challenges to the partnership’s programs, the Ambassador discussed the lessons it has provided, saying that COVID has caused an uptick in virtual training, virtual education, and virtual health consultations, which could prove especially helpful in remote areas. He also praised the Lao government’s handling of the crisis, saying that “I credit the Lao government for their strong and effective work in protecting the Lao people from COVID-19 .” The U.S. government has supported vaccination efforts through its role as the biggest donor to the World Health Organization’s COVAX initiative and through donations of Johnson and Johnson vaccines, which are uniquely helpful for vaccine uptake in rural, harder-to-reach areas of Laos. The United States has also provided more than US$10 million in pandemic support to Laos.
“We were extremely pleased to be able to bring Johnson & Johnson vaccines here: the vaccine is both quite stable and easy to handle. It doesn’t have the special requirements that the mRNA vaccines do, and it is a single shot.”
In addition to addressing the COVID impact on the health system, Ambassador Haymond stressed that the United States is standing with Laos to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on Laos’ economy, the educational system, and other development challenges, all of which are to help Lao PDR build back better and more prosperous beyond COVID-19.
Ambassador Haymond stressed the necessity for partnership and cooperation in dealing with the pandemic by quoting a truism of U.S. President Biden: “Until everybody is safe, nobody is safe from COVID.”
Story by Bridget. E. Dooly
Photos: U.S. Embassy in Laos