A mountainous, landlocked country, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) is one of the most sparsely populated countries in Asia. Its predominantly rural, 7.2 million strong population lives in over 10,000 villages – most of which have but a few hundred inhabitants – in remote, ethnically diverse areas. Due to remoteness, people in these scattered communities face challenges to access essential services.
In recent years, Lao PDR ranked as one of the fastest growing economies in East Asia and the Pacific, but the benefits are not evenly spread across regions. Lao PDR has seen a decrease in poverty, but despite these improvements, nutrition and food insecurity remain a persistent problem, especially among low-income families in rural areas. Almost 20 percent of the population already experienced moderate to severe food insecurity before the COVID-19 pandemic, with a higher incidence in rural areas and the central region.
Three quarters of families are engaged in agriculture. Whether in irrigated paddies in the valleys, or in rainfed upland fields, rice is cultivated by 90 percent of farmers and constitutes the main staple food. Only one third of farmers grow additional crops. Coupled with the declining availability of forest foods due to deforestation and unsustainable gathering methods, the diets of vulnerable communities lack diversity.
Together with deficient infant and young child feeding practices – including limited breastfeeding – low education levels and difficult access to basic health and nutrition services, this contributes to malnutrition remaining a serious challenge in the country.
Vulnerability to climate change - manifested particularly through drought, floods and typhoons - is also a driver of food insecurity, combined with declining land availability, volatile prices, low agricultural productivity, difficult access to markets and lack of diversified livelihood options.
Having established a presence in Lao PDR in 1975, the World Food Programme (WFP) is supporting the Lao Government’s vision of “a prosperous country, with a healthy population, free from food insecurity, malnutrition and poverty”.
In its approach, WFP is gradually shifting from the delivery of services to building the capacity of both institutions and communities to address the challenges of food insecurity and malnutrition.
As the population is scattered over vast areas where access can be difficult, WFP’s main strategy is to strengthen the self-reliance of communities to build resilience. WFP aims to improve the nutritional status of vulnerable people throughout their life cycle, as well as their resilience to seasonal and long-term shocks and stresses. This happens by supporting the production of local nutritious crops, providing agriculture-skills training, building community assets such as fish ponds and improving road infrastructure, working with the private sector and advising on safe policies for the sale of food, enhancing communities’ ownership of initiatives such as school feeding, as well as promoting positive changes in people’s behaviour by providing education to improve infant and young child feeding practices and diversify diets.
What the World Food Programme is doing in Lao PDR
WFP has been working in partnership with the Government of Lao PDR on promoting access to nutritious food for school-age children for two decades, especially in remote and ethnically diverse areas. The transition from implementing an integrated package of support in schools towards incorporating it into a government-led and community-driven food safety net, is ongoing through technical assistance, policy, and fundraising support, as well as strengthening the capacities of Government and communities.
To address all forms of malnutrition in line with national targets, WFP focuses on women and girls of reproductive age (between 15 and 49 years), school-age children and children under 5. WFP works to positively influence health and nutrition behaviours by providing a package of nutrition services and strengthening institutional capacities, to create an enabling environment for better nutrition. Together with its partners, WFP explores local production of fortified staple foods, promotes evidence generation on drivers of food choices, and advocates for emerging nutrition issues, such as overweight and obesity.
Targeting vulnerable people in disaster-affected or at-risk areas, WFP works on building the resilience of communities to enhance food and nutrition security all year round. Communities are capacitated to mitigate and manage risks associated with climate-related disasters and other shocks. Additionally, WFP supports the development of institutional capacities at national and sub-national levels to manage climate and disaster risks.
WFP provides nutritious food and cash assistance to help meet the essential needs of crisis-affected people when needs exceed the Government’s capacity to respond. Vulnerable groups include people affected by disasters, seasonal food insecurity or loss of income and livelihoods due to health and economic shocks.