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The many facets of poverty

Nationwide poverty distribution patterns mapped for the first time in the Lao People's Democratic Republic

Researchers from the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) North-South have succeeded in creating an atlas mapping 70 facets of poverty distribution in the Lao PDR in high geographic resolution. The atlas gives policy-makers in Switzerland and decision-makers at local level a tool for optimizing the management of development projects.

There are many visible facets of poverty, including disposable income and literacy levels. In the Lao PDR, poverty can also be measured by the type of material - grass, wood, bamboo, corrugated zinc or tiles - used to construct house roofs.

Neighbouring countries' impact on development
As part of the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) North-South that is being funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, researchers have collected this data for the 10,500 villages in the Lao PDR and compiled a map. The map shows that a majority of the households in the south-western part of the country adjoining the border with Thailand and along the country's trunk route between Phongsaly and Vientiane can afford to roof their houses with corrugated zinc. In large parts of the north and south-east, however, most people can only afford grass. Bamboo and wood are used relatively rarely, and then only in the north and a small area of the south. This is surprising given that 41% of the country is covered by forest. For Peter Messerli, project manager of the NCCR North-South the roofing material patterns clearly reflect the influence of the Lao PDR's neighbours. For instance, he attributes the widespread use of corrugated zinc in the northern and southern parts of the country primarily to the easy availability of the material in Thailand and China.
Development policy management tool
The map is part of an atlas in which researchers have for the first time succeeded in measuring some 70 factors of poverty in the Lao PDR and recording detailed patterns of poverty distribution in relation to population density, infrastructure and natural resources.

The atlas will help provide policy-makers in Switzerland and decision makers in the Lao PDR with a tool for deciding where development projects can be implemented to maximum effect in a country that is in one of the key regions of Swiss overseas development efforts. However, just consulting a map is not sufficient. Although the spatial pattern of roofing material usage gives a good indication of what proportion of poor people live where, the needs of a specific project dictate that other socioeconomic factors - such as the absolute number of poor people living in a particular place - be taken into account too. This is because there are fewer poor people in the particularly impoverished south-eastern part of the country than in the comparatively wealthy west. Accordingly, every map reflects just one facet of poverty in the Lao PDR. Only when taken together do the maps provide meaningful information on the diverse range of living conditions in the various regions of the country, which - despite being located in one of the most dynamic economic areas of south-east Asia - is still one of the world's poorest countries, according to the 2008 United Nations Human Development Report.

Dr Peter Messerli
University of Berne
Centre for Development and Environment
Hallerstr. 10
3012 Berne
Tel.: 031 631 30 60
National Centres of Competence in Research (NCCRs)
The NCCRs are a promotional tool set up by the Swiss National Science Foundation eight years ago. They aim to encourage a greater level of general and interdisciplinary networking among researchers and find ways of applying the results of their work in real-life use.

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