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Laos: A final frontier for ICTs

February 7, 2011

The work of local artisans is for sale in a gallery tucked behind the magnificent temple of Vat Inpeng in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Their products have all been fashioned from recycled material — a shopper can buy a mirror framed in salvaged rosewood or a statue made from bicycle chains. But there is no need to go to Vientiane to browse through the furniture and handicrafts; they can be viewed on the gallery's Web site.

On the city outskirts, the owner of a flourishing recycling business sells scrap paper, discarded bottles, and old metal to China, Thailand, and Viet Nam. Udone Chanhthavongisi has no computer to keep track of inventory. When asked about how he markets his scrap, he laughingly answers: "by bamboo telephone."

These two recycling initiatives reflect much about the status of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in Laos. The little e-commerce that has developed is aimed primarily at tourists. The country's 20 Web sites are all in English, a language few Lao people can understand. And less than 1% of the country's 5.6 million people uses computers. According to the Digital Review of Asia Pacific 2003-2004, "the application of IT (information technology) in Laos is only at the infant stage of development compared to other countries in the region."

Yet there are signs that ICT use is taking off among the country's youth. Private computer training schools are busy, and at a post secondary school computer lab in Luang Prabang, a city in northern Laos, a mouse wears out in a year because of heavy use. At the new E-Way telecentre in Luang Prabang, almost half of the first 52 people who came to use the Internet were high school students. "If I had a computer, I would use it always," says Litter Silatikoun, an 18 year old student and user of the telecentre.

Conquering the divide

The E-Way telecentre is part of an ambitious project to turn Laos' digital divide into a digital opportunity. The project's broad objective is increase ICT accessibility and improve basic ICT skills at four levels: the national government; the provincial government based in Luang Prabang; the National University of Laos; and community members in and around Luang Prabang.

To understand how the project is addressing the country's ICT needs, one needs to consider the context. Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world — the average annual income is US$320. Subsistence agriculture accounts for half of the Gross Domestic Product and 80% of total employment. The mountainous terrain of the landlocked country makes travel and communication difficult. The road system is rudimentary — less than 20% of the 24 000 kms of road is paved — and there is no railway.

In the 1980s, the government began to introduce market oriented economic reforms and later developed trade links with the West and other Asian countries. In 1997, Laos became an ASEAN member and has now applied to join the World Trade Organization. As the country looks to define itself in the new global economy, its ICT infrastructure is not up to the task. E-Readiness Assessment in the Lao PDR, a report prepared by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 2001, noted that IT "literacy" is low in Laos, with a shortage of skilled IT professionals and a general lack of awareness of ICTs within the government and among the Lao people. So where to start?

Finding a way forward

In 2001, IDRC initiated an extensive needs assessment and consultation process to help develop a project that would tackle these problems. The Centre built on previous involvement in the country's information sector. In 1987, the first IDRC supported project in Laos improved scientific and technical library services. IDRC also helped STEA to start up the first public Internet connection for email service in 1996.

A priority of the new project, which began in 2002, is to increase ICT use among national government employees. This is being addressed by providing ICT infrastructure and training. Web and email server systems have been installed at STEA, which is responsible for the National Internet gateway. The servers enable STEA to host several government Web sites, as well as that of the National University of Laos (NUOL). Moreover, government staff are now able to have their own email accounts.

STEA's newly equipped computer laboratory offers training to government and academic institute staff. "Staff from various ministries... have applied their new knowledge to support Linux servers, perform network maintenance, and to design/enhance Web pages," writes Phonpasit Phissamay, director of STEA's Information Technology Centre and one of the IDRC project leaders. STEA is also responsible for bringing connectivity to NUOL, where there had been only limited Internet access. Now, 500 computers in six laboratories are hooked up to the Internet through a wireless connection between NUOL with STEA. The university has also set up its own Web and email server.

Beyond Vientiane

At the provincial level, STEA has boosted the ICT capacity of the Luang Prabang Provincial Administration by installing new equipment and providing training on computer network systems. The Administration now has a Local Area Network as well as a dial up connection to the Internet through STEA's office in Vientiane.

E-Way, the project's telecentre, is also located in Luang Prabang. An important regional centre, the town draws people from throughout northern Lao PDR. Poor rural families, for example, often educate their sons by sending them to one of the many monasteries in the city. The town is a UNESCO World Heritage site — designated for its fusion of European colonial structures with traditional Lao architecture. The same blend of old and new is seen in the E-Way telecentre, where Buddhist monks are signing up for computer training courses.

Such courses were the telecentre's first priority. "Most people here have never seen a computer before," says Sombath Somphone, the director of PADETC. The courses have proven so popular among young people that there are waiting lists. E-Way also offers English classes for children on the weekend, based on the idea that a basic knowledge of the language opens the door to learning about other subjects through ICTs.

This highlights one of the major constraints to ICT use in Laos: the lack of content in the Lao language. E-Way staff planned a Web site with local content for young people, but the lack of a Lao character set delayed their work. In April 2003, they identified a potential solution — a Lao script for Windows developed by an Australian. Work on Web pages is now underway, as well as the production of electronic books and interactive learning tools.

Needed: more local skills

The lack of local expertise has also hindered the project. STEA, for instance, required external assistance to deal with advanced computer networking technologies in Vientiane.

In Luang Prabang, adults have not yet embraced ICTs, perhaps because of the language barrier. E-Way staff have therefore decided to focus on introducing ICT learning tools to schools. Students will be encouraged to develop local content as part of their homework assignments. The young people could then act as "agents of change," helping to bring the benefits of ICTs to their elders.

These students might come to reflect the view of Ping Huangsanaxay who "discovered" the Internet three years ago through a friend. After studying computer science, he began working at one of the six Internet Service Providers in Laos as a technical support specialist. He uses email and chat lines to communicate, especially with his sister in Australia. "Communications, learning... everything is information technology," says Huangsanaxay. "It is necessary for life in the future."

Jennifer Pepall is a senior writer in IDRC's Communications Division.