Explicit promotion of human rights is not the central focus of CSO work in Laos. Nevertheless, most Lao CSOs do address issues of rights, vulnerability and discrimination. Most do this with an approach that could be characterised as service delivery to particularly poor or vulnerable categories of citizen. Very few Lao CSOs explicitly adopt a rights based approach, which focuses on raising awareness and strengthening the capacity of rights holders and duty bearers to improve respect for rights. Nevertheless, many Lao CSOs perceive their current way of working as incorporating some elements of both service delivery and rights based approaches.
In a recent survey, almost 60% of the non-commercial CSOs said that their organisations attach a ‘high’ or ‘very high’ importance to “helping people in society [with] less rights and […] not equal to others people, for example, some women, children, ethnic minorities, disabled people, and very poor people […]to understand their rights and to feel equal to others.
Equity and justice would therefore seem highly important to Lao CSOs. Indeed, they would seem more important than has been assumed in many previous surveys of the sector. The failure of external observers to recognise the mixed service delivery and rights-based focus of the CSO sector may relate to difficulties in understanding the discrete and non-confrontational approach taken, or the moderate position and modest expectations of most CSO staff with regard to government policies.
The restrictions of the Lao political economic structure obviously limit the opportunities for a Rights Based Approach by CSOs. But this is not the only obstacle to serious work on human rights, discrimination and marginalisation. CSO directors and staff are recruited from a middle class milieu, quite close to the ruling bureaucracy, either by family ties or through employment in the civil service. This creates political, economic and cultural constraints. CSO staff mostly explain their engagement in altruistic or charitable terms. They are comfortable with the concept of empowering vulnerable citizens to be more active, self-confident individuals, who can negotiate better outcomes within the prevailing social, economic and cultural norms. But they mostly don’t question their own class privilege, or oppose the paternalistic attitudes in Lao society. Most CSO staff also share the widespread Lao Buddhist feeling of cultural superiority with regard to ethnic minorities, particularly anamists.
Most CSOs focus on one or more disadvantaged or discriminated category of citizen’s ethnic minorities and women. A majority provide focused support to ethnic minorities, either as a conscious mission or because ethnic minorities are overwhelmingly represented among the poorest and most vulnerable sections of the population. Most CSOs also provide some type of focused support to women. Only about 15% provide focused support to the disabled, and these are mostly organisations with disability as their central focus of activity. Despite the high significance of land rights in the Lao context, very few non-commercial CSOs address this theme.
The low absolute numbers and restricted field presence of rights-focused CSOs is not simply a reflection of government and community leader reluctance to register or tolerate Lao CSO engagement in the promotion of human rights. It also reflects the social and cultural priorities of the society, particularly those middle class layers of society that are most active in the CSO sector. By Lao standards they are a rich and very highly educated group. This milieu is highly dependent on the state, with many family members working as civil servants or recently retired from Party-State service. Most CSO staff and directors express frustrations with disequilibrium and injustice in society, but do not perceive themselves as members of groups denied their rights. The main exception to this characteristic of the sector would be the minority of CSO staff who are of ethnic minority origin.