The Experiences of Development Practitioners and Challenges in Community Engagement in Laos
Poverty alleviation is a top priority of the global development agenda. Laos is still on the list of Least Developed Countries as measured by the United Nations. Poverty in the Lao context is socially and culturally unique. The Government of Laos works collaboratively with development partners and non-governmental organisations to overcome poverty through development programmes throughout the country. However, the universal development and poverty definitions, including the development and poverty interventions which are influenced by such definitions, do not necessarily match the local contexts and practices. This thesis examines development practice and community engagement in the Lao context through exploring experiences and perspectives of development practitioners who have worked in and engaged with community development in Laos. The thesis adopts a qualitative approach, drawing upon a social constructivist epistemology and a postcolonial framework. Semi-structured interviews, a form of qualitative methodologies, were employed for data collection. The interviews involved thirteen participants from both governmental and non-governmental organisations, and included both local development workers and expatriates. The focus of interviews was to investigate experiences of and opinions about their development practice and community engagement in Laos. The findings reveal that development practice in Laos requires sufficient time to understand and learn about communities and their actual problems. Development discourses have conceptualised understandings associated with development and this has shaped how governments, donors, development partners, policymakers and development practitioners perceive mainstream development. The conceptualisation was mainly influenced by Western ideologies and was undeniably a legacy of colonialism. Participatory development approaches have been recommended by all research participants as one of the most effective approaches to bring about success and long-term sustainability. The findings also suggest that participation is required from the beginning of the development process, including in problem analysis, planning, monitoring and evaluating stages. In short, a sense of belonging and ownership needs to be present throughout the entire process of development. Furthermore, it is important for development practitioners to thoughtfully recognise and reflect critically on their roles as to whether they are insiders or outsiders when working on the ground. This can determine development outcomes. This research recommends local people be employed more to work as part of development projects in their own communities. By using these approaches, community development can be more effective and meaningful in a sustainable manner and truly respond to the real needs of communities. This can also contribute to a new phase of participatory development practice.