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Friday, April 06, 2007

If The World Bank Can Help The Poor, What Else They Can't Help With?

In a small district in central Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR), the villages of Mahaxay lie along the bank of the Xe Bang Fai River, with small dirt roads lined with houses and shops that have been set up to sell everything from chickens to telephone cards to traditional Lao textiles. In one of those villages lives Mrs. Bakeo, a 50-something year old widow who traditionally weaves beautiful Lao textiles. Shortage of money, however, made her unable to buy materials until last year when a new opportunity came her way.

“When my husband died, I stopped having any income and for some time I didn’t have enough money to buy materials to weave,” she explains. Mrs. Bakeo was one of the women who made a lasting impression in February of 2005, when then-World Bank President James Wolfensohn visited Mahaxay to take part in local consultations as part of the Nam Theun 2 (NT2) project. Mr. Wofensonh promised to find ways to help these women.

“These women were so candid, and they were eager to be able to continue to weave and contribute to their family’s income,” explains Country Director for Lao PDR Ian C. Porter. “Mr. Wolfensohn thought ‘there must be a way we can help them’ and through the Community Connections Fund, the Bank has been able to make a very positive difference in their lives.”

As a result of Mr. Wolfensonh’s visit, a year later, in February 2006, the World Bank’s Community Connections Fund—a nonprofit corporation organized for charitable purposes—granted the Mahaxay Women’s Handicraft Group a US$4,000 grant. Fifty-seven families in four villages benefit, including Mrs. Bakeo. The money is administered through a revolving fund that the women can draw money from to buy materials they need to weave such as silk, cotton and bamboo combs; interest paid goes back into the fund.

Fifty-seven families in four villages benefit from a US$4,000 grant. The money is administered through a revolving fund that the women can draw money from to buy materials they need to weave such as silk, cotton and bamboo combs.

“With the money, I have been able to buy materials and I sell everything I make to my neighbors and people around my village,” explains Mrs. Ni Boan, who also lives in Mahaxay. “I can make around 3 sinhs (traditional Lao skirts) per day and sell them at $2 each […] almost all the income in my family comes from my weaving.” Mrs. Ni Boan has four kids and they all attend school. A more experienced weaver, she is able to make large textiles with more complicated patterns that she sells in the nearby city of Thakek for up to $50 each.

Complementing the work taking place

The Mahaxay women are also benefiting from training on improved weaving techniques such as natural dying, as part of the Nam Theun 2 (NT2) hydroelectric power project. Due to increased water levels in rivers in areas around Mahaxay—part of what is known as the “downstream areas”—a livelihood restoration program is in place to mitigate potential project impacts and develop new alternatives of living.

“The money was not given in isolation,” explains World Bank Country Manager in Lao PDR, Patchamuthu Illangovan, “it actually builds on activities taking place on the ground, so basically we are not duplicating efforts or working in silos but looking at the wider picture.”

The training on weaving techniques led by the NT2 project developer, the Nam Theun 2 Power Company, is taking place in various villages, but the women in the four villages in Mahaxay that benefit from the World Bank grant are seeing increased returns. “The women in these villages can see the difference,” explains Ms. Keota, President of the Lao Women’s Union in Mahaxay district, responsible for administering the revolving fund. “They have more materials because they have more money than the other villagers due to the World Bank grant.”

Lack of markets, however, remains a major obstacle. “Dealing with traders and linking with new markets is still hard,” explains Ms. Keota. “A shop or something more stable would be useful. That would save me transportation costs and the time I spend trying to sell the sinhs,” adds Mrs. Ni Boan.

Market availability also came up when East Asia Vice President Jim Adams visited the Mahaxay weavers in February 2007. He assured the women the World Bank staff would work alongside the Women’s Group to asses the opportunity of using the remaining grant money to set up a shop.

“Thank you very much,” said Mrs. Bakeo. “Weaving is helping me buy rice to eat and with the extra money I can even support my grandchildren.”

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