In a remote part of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, nestled between mountains, the school grounds of Khang Village in Sanamxay District have become a haven of excitement. Women arrive on foot or motorbike from nearby villages, many with newborn babies on their backs. The centre is the school canteen.
Every two months, clerks from Unitel, a Lao telecommunication company come to the village to provide cash transfers to beneficiaries of the Mother and Early Childhood Grant (MECG) pilot programme. The pilot is led and implemented by the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare with support from the UN as part of the UN Joint Programme “Leaving No One Behind: Establishing the Basis for Social Protection Floors in Lao PDR”.
“I am from a poor family,” explains 21-year-old Bounmy who has just delivered her second child. “I rent a small piece of land from other people and farm it. As payment, I receive only rice. But with this cash transfer, I can buy more and better food. I feel so happy when I hold the money.”
In another province where the MECG pilot is being tested, Duangsengkhom, a local nurse says that more women have been visiting her health centre since the pilot started. It is one of the places where beneficiaries can register. “Nong District is very rural. Many women still give birth at home and only visit the health centre at the last moment, for emergencies. Due to this grant, they come for health checks more regularly and I can advise them to eat nutritious vegetables or take the recommended vaccines for their children.”
“Over the past two and a half years, we have been working together with the Lao Government to build a strong, sustainable, and well-structured social protection system that would truly leave no one behind”, notes Sara Sekkenes, UN Resident Coordinator to Lao PDR. “This is something that requires the combined efforts of all. That is why a wide range of stakeholders have been part of the Joint Programme, from national, provincial and district authorities to civil society, academia, and different parts of the UN Development System.”
Under the leadership of the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, the Joint Programme brought together the technical expertise of the International Labour Organization (ILO), UNICEF, and the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF). Financial support was provided by the Joint SDG Fund and the Government of Australia.
“It has not been a very easy task”, continued Sara Sekkenes. “Lao PDR is in the very preliminary stages of building its social protection system. This implied the need of setting up the coordination structures, purchasing equipment and putting infrastructure in place, training staff and volunteers, and perhaps most crucially, encouraging a shift in mindset from seeing social protection as an externally funded handout for the poor to an intrinsic element of a nationally funded and nationally-owned system that contributes to socio-economic development.”
The Joint Programme has achieved some important milestones. In April 2020, the first-ever National Social Protection Strategy was adopted, building on previous work of the UN in Lao PDR. And in December 2021, a high-level National Social Protection Commission was set up with the primary responsibility to coordinate, oversee and monitor the implementation of the Strategy. The Joint Programme has supported the Lao Government and newly established Commission in two main ways: first, by building capacity and establishing the foundations of the system and second, by continually testing the system through the piloted MECG . The systems, infrastructure and procedures established as part of the Programme can provide important learning on designing and scaling up social transfers in future.
About 70% of the Lao population live in rural areas and the vast majority, estimated at almost 90%, work in the informal sector. Now, in 2022, as the country is learning to live with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is faced by yet another major economic crisis marked by rapidly increasing cost of living, including food and fuel. Such crises affect the poor and vulnerable most, whose resilience was already weakened by the pandemic.
In this context, it is essential to continue the technical and financial support to the Lao Government, so that it can continue the work of building the national social protection system and avoid losing the gains made over the past two and a half years. Recognising this, in 2024, the Government plans to amend the Social Security Law—with one of the objectives being increased coverage of the informal sector, and introduce a new Social Welfare Law—which can solidify the right to social protection for all, including the poor and vulnerable.
“In the Lao context, it remains vital to align efforts and reduce duplication”, concludes Sara Sekkenes. “Only by working with and through national structures can the support lead to sustained impact at scale. The National Social Protection Strategy serves as a foundational framework to do this.”
While the UN Joint Programme took a meaningful step towards building a nationally owned and inclusive social protection system, much more needs to be done to achieve the SDG target 1.3 aimed at providing basic social protection coverage to all Lao people.