Life in Vientiane, Laos—Development and Aid

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had its own provenance and its own destiny…

Sixty years ago, President Harry Truman gave a speech where he called for an end to the old imperialism—the exploitation of those who have less so that those who have more can become even wealthier.  What Truman envisaged was a program of international development and aid that was based on the concept laid forth by Plato:

All men are by nature equal, made all of the same earth by one Workman; and however we may deceive ourselves, as dear unto God is the poorest peasant as the mighty prince.

This is a belief and a concept that has been laid bare.  Yet, it has been forgotten by many who have been blessed with the good fortune of living a life of comfort and ideological bliss.  They leave behind those who have little possessions but even more questions.  These people live with a vacant reality, saying we cannot understand Plato because we do not have an education.  They question their existence, and ask, “Why do they have wealth and we have so very little? Are we not God’s children also?”

It is in this paradoxical dilemma that I currently find myself, lost somewhere amidst the city of Vientiane, Laos.  It is a city full of juxtapositions—wealth lavishes some, and utter poverty lashes others.  Heavily influenced by French colonization, the city vibe has a European zest, but locals cling to their Asian customs and cultures that define their history and their character.  It is full of life and exuberance.  It has its own provenance and its own destiny.  The future awaits this lost city, and I long to see its final destiny.

As I patiently wait, I also seek to find my own destiny amidst the contradictions that life confronts me.  I was inspired by the words of former Sen. Robert Kennedy when he said, “Few men will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”  I am idealistic, and I believe to this day that we, as young men and women, have an obligation to help our brothers and sisters.  I feel strongly that our faith dictates our actions, and while we may be saved by grace, this grace is costly, and it impels us to act for the good of others.

So I decided to come to Laos, a country that is steeped in poverty and overwhelmed by a tragic history.  Few people realize that Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world (per capita).  It is a sparsely populated, with more than 150 distinct ethnic groups.  Most Laotians live up in the hills and mountains and are confronted with the challenges of shifting cultivation.  This means that their very livelihoods are dependent upon an agricultural system that ultimately leads to the long-term destruction of their local ecosystem.  But the people ask, “What other option do we have? Are we to trade our livelihoods for the preservation of our land? Did God not provide this land for us to feed and sustain our children? How dare you judge us!”

Amongst these development dilemmas, I find myself overwhelmed by the smallness and insignificance of a single life – my life.  The decisions that we all make are so infinitesimal, yet in the whole, our decisions shape the world.  They cultivate our present existence, and they lay the foundation for our cumulative future.  I have been heavily influenced by the words of Kennedy, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Truman.  I felt that I could in some small way make a difference in this world, but how can I make a difference?

When a single person is confronted with the challenge of trading a single day of nourishment for the long-term preservation of their ecosystem . . . the choice is easy.  You do what you have to do to survive.  So when an international development expert from America or Europe confronts the local villager and says their long-term livelihood is vulnerable, the local villager will respond with utter contempt, “What about my short-term livelihood? How am I supposed to live to see tomorrow if I can’t survive today?” These are the dilemmas that face Laos at the moment.  These are the real dilemmas that make an impact on the future.  And although the old imperialism that Truman talked about may be dead, it hasn’t faded completely.  It is still a greasy stain left in the minds of many locals by the visiting experts who come with their grand ideology

Therefore, I will try to challenge myself and prevent my own fall into the pit of arrogance.  I will continue to struggle next to my fellow brethren in Laos, and in these struggles, perhaps my small actions will create a ripple of hope that may someday topple the very walls of oppression and resistance that Kennedy mentioned in his speech to the people of South Africa.

Like the city of Vientiane, a city that is striving to find it’s very provenance and destiny, I too seek to find mine.

—–Scott Rawson

I’d like to give a special thanks to my guest blogger, Scott Rawson, for taking time from toiling under the equatorial sun to pen this post for my readers and myself.  We all live with the question Scott is trying to answer – How do we make a difference in this world?  This is how he is answering it.  How are you? Scott has been an inspirational friend to me since our introduction.  God Bless.

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