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Posted by Stewart Auyash at 2:36PM   |  33 comments
English Class

The greatest asset in Laos is the people. According to our hosts at the Lotus Villas Guest House in Luang Prabang, a town on the Mekong River in north central Laos, the Lao people are what helped them decide to move from their native Australia to make Laos their home. 

 Laos is also one of the poorest countries in the world with a average annual income of about $1800 a year.  Life expectancy is about 60, though “healthy” life expectancy is about 47. Infant mortality is high at about 75 deaths per 1000 live births and the people spend about $85 per year on health care.  There is not much health care available.

 Luang Prabang is a designated World Heritage City by UNESCO and was the old capital of Laos until the mid 1500s. There are dozens of wats (Buddhist temples)  filled with monks. Each morning at about 5:30am, they walk through the streets and are offered alms of different foods mostly sticky rice, which is their daily diet.  They proceed single file opening their baskets for food. All is quiet except for calm drumming and the occasional click of a tourist’s camera.  As we offered alms, we sat either on chairs or mats.  We were expected to serve from below their height. Their simple life made ours seem far overburdened.

 One morning, we went to an orphanage supported by Andrew Brown, one of the owners of the guest house.  Deak Kum Pa Orphanage houses over 500 children, though only 80 were there at the time (during the summer months children are often sent back to spend time in their villages).  We asked Andrew where the children came from and why they were orphaned.  He said that life expectancy is very low in the villages partly because there is no infrastructure and no health care. So a parent who falls ill from pneumonia or develops a bacterial infection that could be easily treated with health care, will often die instead.

 Andrew is very culturally aware about his engagement with the orphanage. He knows that the directors are suspicious of a white foreigner offering help to young children. They are concerned about exploitation and pedophilia. So Andrew always go there with someone else and recently he hired a Lao woman to go with him and assist in organizing activities. We observed an English class that happened to be discussing using helmets on bikes and scooters, a subject about which I have research and personal experience. When asked, I was happy to tell a short story about how my helmet saved my head once.

 Their kitchen is basic. The small concrete cooking space is fired with wood scraps. They were cooking chicken and green bean stir-fry in the largest wok I have ever seen. We were offered at taste and it was good and spicy.

 The orphanage is a substantial campus with numerous buildings and many needs: food and supplies, art and recreation activities, and teachers, lots of teachers.  The orphanage is officially run by the government, but it is held together by locals who either work or volunteer their time there, like Andrew. I will try to develop their situation into a class project for my International Health Class this fall.

When we read news stories or blogs like this that inform us about the plight of the less privileged, we feel sympathy or something stronger and may be compelled to contribute. When I see the situation on the ground and go to an orphanage or any site where help is needed, there is a compelling difference. It is in front of me, present for my eyes and ears to capture.

 At one level, I feel like a wayward tourist, taking in the poor as my object and acting as a “helicopter” helper: handout some toothpaste and soap, drop a few dollars, and go back to my air-conditioned suite at the guest house.  When I observe, hear, and participate, however, I am also aware of what I’m doing and I know that steps must be taken no matter how small. Bigger steps will follow.



Wow, hard to believe that people can get by on $1,800 a year. We take so much for granted in this day and age.


i can not even imagine what the people of Laos must go through each day. My heart goes out to them. It's a shame that the world isn't as perfect as movies such as Singing in The Rain. However, it is comforting to know that people such as Andrew Brown are stepping up to the plate to try and help the children.

After reading the conditions of Laos, all I can think of is what caused their situation. I blame capitalism. The global corporations that take over Third-World countries, such as Laos, are exploiting labor and hoarding resources. the sad thing is that the majority of the First-World population is not aware of this, due to large corporations being in charge of the media and news we watch, therefore excluding corporations' harm to society from the media. Unfortunately, this is the first time I am hearing about Laos' condition and it bothers me.

On another note, I don't understand why, with the technology we have today, such as water purifiers and advanced medicine, that people are still living like this? We are one world, we are all human beings. I just don't understand why certain people are living at a higher or lower standard than one another.

If capitalism causes several social problems, what are some of the factors that prevent our society from changing this corrupt system for the better?

To be honest, I had never really thought twice about Laos before reading this article. Perhaps I had learned where it was located and and how large it is once in history class, but to me it was just a random country to which I would never go. However, this article made me realize that there are so many places and cultures with real problems that I know nothing about because of my sheltered upbringing in the suburbs of America. What I did learn just now is disheartening to say in the least.

I was shocked to read that their life expectancy is "about 60, though "healthy" life expectancy is about 47" (line 8). It seems bizarre and tragic that people in this country die from diseases that are easily cured here in the U.S. As I continued to read about the need for volunteers and aid in the many orphanages of Laos, I felt the need to do something for these people, and for al people whose sorrows and needs go unheard in the rest of the world.

One of the most helpful things that anyone can do for a cause is to spread the word and raise awareness. If somebody made a documentary or even just a public service announcement about Laos and aired it around the world, I honestly think that they would receive the aid they so desperately need. Even if people hear about this cause and only want to be a "'helicopter' helper" (line 46), at least they are helping and making a difference.

I have been abroad in Asia twice, i went to thailand and cambodia and witnessed situations like this up close and personal. It really appears as shocking as it sounds. Myself and other volunteers would spend time with children at the local orphanages, teaching english, donating things like educational board games, markers, food, etc... the important thing i learned from all of this is it dosnt matter what we did because the food will run out, time will pass, and they still need help. What the children did was provide so much for us volunteers. They gave us so much love because they had so much to offer, its such a special thing to give but what you get in return is unbelievable. I hope articles like this really open the eyes of people around the world so these kids can get all they need.

Before reading this article, I have never heard of the country Laos. Its heart wrenching to read how those poor children are thrown into orphanages due to the lack of health care in Laos. It upsets me to see how curable illnesses such as pneumonia lead to the death of so many Lao people due to there being "no infrastructure and no health care". My heart goes out to the people who are suffering in this poverty induced country, and its good to know that people like Andrew Brown are taking action to resolve this problem once and for all.

It is so upsetting to hear of places like this, where children are orphaned because the health care isn't that great,etc. I have never encountered anything close to what you have, but i feel sympathy for them all! At the end of this blog you said "steps must be taken no matter how small, bigger steps will follow". I agree completely, little acts of kindness can lead a long way.

It appears I must begin my response with my feelings of sorrow for the people of Laos, but really this is taking place all over the world. Which leads me to my actual point. Social media is now being created to help change the world as a whole. Organizations like EngageMedia, which is specifically in the Asia Pacific, are working towards making these issues more well known and in the early stages of change information is the most important resource. Even this article is a form of social media, as shown by the responses where people actually just state that they had no idea about the situation in Laos. To sum up, basically social media such as this is extremely important in this day and age and organizations like EngageMedia are vital to the advancement of society.

Often when I read stories about aid in impoverished communities, I think of a quote from Tracy Kidder’s book, Mountains Beyond Mountains which says “The world is full of miserable places. One way of living comfortably is not to think about them or, when you do, to send money.” While there are many arguments for and against international assistance, it is difficult to go to an orphanage, such as Deak Kum Pa, and not feel compelled to contribute in some way. “Helicopter helpers” do make a difference but providing knowledge to empower individuals is longer-lasting. Sadly, there are many economic, political, social, and cultural obstacles preventing positive transformations from happening. I am sure the children and the administration greatly appreciate volunteered time and financial donations but what Laos really needs is sustainable change, as a Katie Shapiro commented above.

Another comment that struck me was the one made by Samantha. She wrote, “If somebody made a documentary or even just a public service announcement about Laos and aired it around the world, I honestly think that they would receive the aid they so desperate need.” I, unfortunately, find this extremely hard to believe. How many news stories, documentaries, and fundraisers are there about places just Laos? Many. Yet, how many people pay attention? Few. Haiti is still in shambles, Sudan still faces genocide, HIV/AIDS still doesn’t receive enough funding, and Laos still can’t provide it’s children food, education, and basic health care. We are all guilty of changing the channel when a sad commercial comes on the television asking for money to build a school or a well or a health care clinic. EngageMedia and MajorityWorld are just a two of the many organizations which provide valuable information to those who seek it out. Maybe I am pessimistic but I think it is overly idealistic to assume that informing the public will do much in the grand scheme of things, especially considering that many of the readers admit they had never heard of Laos when all the information is there, you just have to pay attention and seek it out.

It is always terrible to hear stories like these about other countries! Has there ever been talk about maybe making a documentary about the conditions in Laos? With an annual average income of $1800 a year how is it that more people do not know about these awful conditions. Also, are there are aids or reliefs people can donate to?

An easy answer and response would be pity and sadness about Laos' economic and social situation. Aid would help the hurt for a short time, a band-aid on an ever growing wound but sooner or later the band-aid becomes useless just as aid keeps the population dependent on it. We need to instill wealth-developing programs in countries like Laos to build the infrastructure and give these people an opportunity to pull themselves out of the poverty trap. We need aid programs that reward entrepreneurial effort. These local entrepreneurs are the people that will bring wealth and healthy sustainability to these countries. Not more aid.

I have had a similar experience when I went on a medical missions trip to El Salvador. The group I went with stayed there a week and provided medical aid to the local populace who could not afford the health care there. In the grand scheme of things, there wasn't much impact made on the national health status of the people. If anything the experience put in my mind the reality of the situations the people of other countries face. It put real faces to real problems and made the poverty and sickness of the people a personal experience. Although I doubt the United States is going to fly in and save the people of Laos from poverty and death, I believe that every little bit helps. If a documentary or a story on Engage Media would raise awareness and help the people of Laos, then i would encourage it. However, we can't be expected to save the lives of all the poverty stricken nations, we can only do our best to help.

When I first think of the country of Laos, I do not think of the extreme poverty, the lack of healthcare, the high infant mortality rate, or even the orphaned children who lack essential resources such as food or education. I think of my family friends the Dodanes. Growing up my neighbors were Laotian, and their daughter, my classmate, was a first generation Laotian-American. I grew up eating their delicious ethnic meals, such as spring roles dipped in homemade peanut sauce or soy sauce, never with a thought of the country they left behind.
We often hear of countries that are in dire need of aid, supplies, and change, but I believe that I will never fully understand these struggles until I see them. I do however, believe that awareness through education is crucial and the first step for change. Take for instance Andrew Brown, a supporter of the orphanage. Andrew had to first be educated on the struggles endured by the country of Laos, before he chose to take any action. He was most likely then given the opportunity to travel to Laos, and after his travels he decided to make it his home. It was the impact of the country that Andrew experienced first hand before he began his contributions for change.
I truly believe that I am privileged as I continue to learn about countries such as Laos, and I feel that I can play a small role now by spreading awareness. However, I hope to someday take my education and actually make contributions to countries such as Laos. As I continue my academic endeavors in becoming a physician assistant it is my goal to someday reach out to impoverished countries and provide health care to those who need it most.

As I read about the health care (or lack of health care) in Laos I cannot help but feel discontented for the large number of orphans in Laos. A child is more likely than not to become an orphan. If I think about a member of my family becoming ill with something like pneumonia, I am not really concerned, because I know that in our country my family and I have access to health care and the proper treatments that are needed to get well. In Laos, if a family member comes down with pneumonia or develops a bacterial infection, the most likely outcome is death. Pneumonia is an illness that is simply treated, but with no health care or infrastructure, there is no way for a person to receive care.
I feel saddened about the amount of orphans there are here, and I have trouble thinking about what these young children have to go through. I am pleased about the resources this orphanage has to offer. I am sure the children enjoy the large amount of teachers, food and supplies, art and recreation activities. These are motions that can engage a child and make them feel like they are cared for. I admire the people who volunteer their time to help out at orphanages. I know that if I had the opportunity to travel to this country and offer my help and give supplies; I would. Reading this makes me think of what I can do to help, and how I could make steps to provide aid to people who need it way more than I do. I do not think I will ever truly be able to comprehend the struggles that the nation goes through until I see it with my own eyes.
I am sure a lot of people out there do not understand the needs that other countries so desperately entail. After reading about Laos and the extreme lack of health care, I try and look back to my previous knowledge about Laos. I find myself thinking too hardly about Laos and if I have ever been educated about this country. I do not think I have ever heard about the troubles that they face. Now I think about what is being done to make this issue heard around the world, and nothing really comes to mind. If we had awareness of this problem and more education programs in wealthier countries on how to help out others who urgently need care, there could be more programs that allow us to travel, like Stewart has done, and become more aware of the needs, which can hopefully lead to those needs being fulfilled.

Before this class I have never heard of the country Laos. I also hate to admit that I have become in some way desensitized to the troubles other countries face. However, I always get emotional when I hear about the affects all the troubles have on the children in any country, because they are too young to even know how to help themselves or understand why they are in the situation they are in. The relationship between orphanages and health is not normally examined or discussed. Reading that parents die of conditions like pneumonia, which can be treated and cured is upsetting. Not having health care in Laos and having parents die and leave their children behind is also upsetting. Although the orphanage has many teachers, I hope that all of these teachers actually care for these children and want them to learn. It would be great to find a way to send aid or supplies (etc) to Laos. I think the biggest issue here is that these children are left in the orphanages because of the lack of health care their parents had. Health care would even improve the number of infant deaths (75 deaths per 1000 births). There should be some sort of “Doctors without Borders” program in Laos. Somehow the people in Laos need accessible health care. It might be a start to improving the lives of the children. Although the biggest problem is health care, I do believe small steps still matter. Sharing the story about the helmet, giving toothpaste or even soap are small steps, but steps nonetheless. It helps them know that there are people who care and will try to help out as much as they can.

Before reading this, I knew two things about Laos: its location, and the fact that it is a poor country. I have met and have become good friends with several people all over Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Burma (Myanmar), Indonesia, and Vietnam. I have not, however, gotten an insider's look on what it is really like in Laos. I'm not sure if it is because people do not talk about the country as much as other countries, or my ignorance; maybe it's a combination of both.

After reading that there is a vast amount of children living in poor conditions (many of them orphans), one must feel sympathetic towards them. However, just by reading the passage, you could tell that the orphanage is a great place for them. At least there is something relatively positive about Laos.

People spend about $85 on health care there, on average, and Laos doesn't have much health care available. Putting it in perspective for me, that's half of what my monthly orthodontic bill costs. With very little access to health care, and not a lot of income for individuals, it is not surprising to find that parents die from pneumonia. It's tragic to know that there are still some parts of the world where people can die from bacterial infections and other infectious diseases that can easily be cured due to lack of resources.

The biggest health concern, like many other countries in Laos's position, is poverty. Living off an income of $1800 per year makes me wonder how there hasn't been many relief efforts. One sizable donation from the United States government could probably change Laos for years! The government could work on building the infrastructure and acquiring more supplies for a better health care system. Think about all the people who would survive from the conditions we think are simple… like pneumonia.

In conclusion, it is a relief to know that there are orphanages that offer a great amount of support. Even the small things like sharing stories, giving the kids soap and toothpaste, and donating a couple of dollars from your own pocket can make a huge difference in their lives. It is acts like the latter that give a country hope to resolve the problems the people (especially the children) of Laos are currently facing. Hopefully, we will see something different (and a lot more positive) come out from the upcoming generation of Laos. In the meantime, we need to continue to raise awareness on the struggles Laos are facing.

This blog post reminded me of something very familiar. As I volunteered in an orphanage in central Costa Rica last summer, it’s easy to place your description of the orphanage, its managers, and its children into a scene which I already know. Volunteering in a foreign country, especially one which is considered “underprivileged,” certainly does bring about a whole range of thoughts and emotions. I understand your feeling of being a wayward tourist or a “helicopter” helper, but I think that mere exposure to these environments changes us as people. Although it may seem like a small deed to hand out toothpaste or to donate a few dollars, it is through the interaction with these individuals that you develop an attachment to helping others. Like you said, being on the ground and seeing these situations before your own eyes makes the needs of the people so very realistic.
While the orphanage you saw may be thousands of miles away from the one I know, many of their needs are probably the same. I think that having first-hand involvement with the lives of those less privileged can motivate people to contribute to international relief funds or public health organizations. That seems to be an important theme to our class; while you may be half way around the world from people in need, your contributions can still make a huge impact on their life. If more people began to adopt this philosophy, I think that relief efforts could be much more successful and international health could be improved, one community at a time, in many places around the globe.

After reading this blog, I also feel that first hand involvement with helping the less privileged is vital to the motivation of improving international health. Its one thing to read about it, or even to watch documentaries or the news, but seeing and experiencing it first hand, or hearing the stories from friends and family who did, those are the messages that will stick with you for a lifetime. Its easy to forget about an article or a tv clip, but you can't ignore your memories, or the people you met while being abroad. You carry them with you forever. And if more people had the experience to gain this motivation, I think we could improve word heath, one small contribution at a time.

The end of this post really hits the core of Auyash's message. As observers, how much can we do? How do we get beyond the sympathy and actually create change? I liked the last line: "When I observe, hear, and participate, however, I am also aware of what I’m doing and I know that steps must be taken no matter how small." Until you are actually in the midst of such a situation, it is hard to have a sense of understanding. I can relate to this struggle between helper and community member. I spent time volunteering at poor school in Quitlipi, Argentina, a poor rural town. The way of life is drastically different and instilled a sense of guilt in me for being so fortunate. But there are many Quitilipis, many Laoses; we must remain conscious of this.

Thanks for helping the kids out. I can't wait to go back to Laos and help out. Im going to be teaching my cousins about computers so they can open up a computer shop/ wifi cafe, so the local kids can surf the web and attain all the knowledge they want. Best way to help is to teach them so they can learn and share the knowledge to others.

"I know that steps must be taken no matter how small. Bigger steps will follow."

This idea is an intriguing one to me. As mentioned above, there is a definite difference between hearing or reading about poverty, disaster, and terrible conditions, and seeing it for yourself. I have never personally seen an area such as Laos, nor experienced anything like their daily lives.

I live in a bubble. An extremely privileged, expensive, ungrateful bubble. And it's hard, sometimes, to see beyond this bubble and into other worlds where they may not be as fortunate as I am. This is illustrated by the fact that I find it astounding that people can survive on $1800 a year; to me, this is a tiny sum.

So then the question is how can we burst this bubble, so to speak? How can we reach out to people such as those in Laos? Or better yet, how can we be motivated to do this? If, to quote the age-old adage, seeing really is believing, then how can we get past our lives to realize that there are others struggling with problems far bigger than ours? I don't have clear answers to these questions. But I hope that in the future, as stated above, I will be able to take a small step, and hopefully lead to a bigger one.

Steps do need to be taken. For some, Laos may be too far to go help. However, that doesn't mean people shouldn't get involved with the less fortunate. People all over need help and if everyone helped out one person in the world then we could probably lessen the amount of poverty in the world.

Wow. Its crazy to think about how much we take for granted. I couldn’t fathom living that kind of lifestyle, knowing that if you came down with a common sickness there may be a good possibility of death. You would live a life or constant stress and cautiousness. Knowing that your child can get sick and couldn’t do much to save them? That’s a harsh reality. That’s a wake up call for change. 1800 dollars a year? Come on now… the rent is too damn high!

There are so many other places in the world that are less fortunate than the United States. The majority of us live in such grandeur compared to the rest of the world. I believe it is our duty as human beings to reach out and help those less fortunate than ourselves. We have such amazing resources and technology that could easily be used to give aid. I read somewhere that it would take half as much money as americans spend on ice cream each year to solve world hunger. I do not know if this is true or not, but I do know that there are small things that the majority of us could easily cut back on that would end up helping others. I know that especially during the holidays it is easy to think about all the things that one (myself included) wants, instead of taking time to be thankful for what one has.

Thinking about Lao people's living, I think of Chinese's living as well As 85% of Chinese are farmers, they live in a very poor condition. Some of them risk working in the city to learn a living. Their jobs are either miners or labour workers. Some of them suffer from serious hearing loss due to long time working in factories. Both their condition keep reminding me that I should be grateful. When I encounter difficulties, I would think of them; despite how poor their living and learning condition is, they still try their best to overcome the limitation brought by their environment and to strike for their future.

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