The only landlocked country in Southeast Asia, Laos sits between Thailand on the west and Vietnam on the east. In 1975, the Pathet Lao (Lao Nation) ended six centuries of monarchical rule when they triumphed in the revolution that established the Lao People's Democratic Republic. Since the revolution, isolation and economic deprivation have plagued the country, which is now one of the poorest and least developed in the world.

Despite its dramatic mountain ranges and unspoiled tropical forests, little of the land in Laos is arable and only 5% is used for the subsistence farming that employs 80% of the population. Dominant crops include rice, corn, tobacco and coffee.

In 1986, the Lao government began to allow privatization, which has yielded slow but steady economic development. Despite recent attempts by the government to attract foreign investment however, more than three quarters of Lao people live on less than US$2 per day. In rural areas, electricity and drinkable water are all but nonexistent—signs of an extremely fragile national infrastructure.

Population 7 million
Land area 237,000 Km2
National language of instruction Lao
Launch of operations 2005
Room to Read office Vientiane
Regions where we work Salavan, Savannakhet, Vientiane, Xayabouly, Oudomxay

Educational Landscape

Historically, only one ethnic group, the Lao Loum, relied on formal education. Consequently, most other groups had no written language, with education taking place in Buddhist temples and catering exclusively to male students. During the French occupation, a secondary education system was established with French as the language of instruction—producing a small group of elite, well-educated Laotians. Later on in the 1950’s the Pathet Lao began to provide instruction in the Lao language. A government-led effort simplified the language in an effort to render it more accessible to all Lao people.

Today literacy in Laos is on the rise, although often short-lived due to the scarcity of available reading material. Insufficient instruction time can also be a problem, as many teachers are forced to seek supplementary income outside of school that limits their availability. Insufficient classrooms, unavailability of textbooks, limited teacher training and lack of libraries are also major roadblocks to delivering quality primary education.

While primary and secondary education are free for both boys and girls, pressure to do farm work and contribute to the family’s income have left female literacy rates lagging 17% behind their male counterparts.

Programs & Results

Infrastructure improvements and access to quality learning materials are at the heart of Room to Read’s work in Laos, as the lack of adequate resources and facilities continues to plague the country's most underserved areas.

Our local team began in 2005 by implementing three programs—School Construction, School Libraries and Book Publishing, and have since grown our operations there to include Girls’ Education and Reading & Writing Instruction.

In 2011, Room to Read Laos signed a new, five-year Memorandum of Understanding with the Lao government, outlining our plans to continue operations in the country and expand our programs.

Key partners of Room to Read in Laos include: Action with Lao Children (ALC), District Education Bureau and Sports, Villager Communities, Participatory Development Center (PADECT), Provincial Education Service and Shanti Volunteer Association (SVA).

Cumulative results
Libraries established 1,164
Book titles published 144
School construction projects 243
Girls' Education participants 2,396

Results updated annually

Meet our local staff: Somphet Phongphachanh, Country Director

“My mission is Room to Read’s mission – to help the children of my country get an education and change their lives,” says Somphet, who enjoyed a successful career in medicine before leaving the field in 1998 to focus full-time on nonprofit work.  

Having served as country director since 2005, Somphet says her favorite moments have been visiting our completed projects in the field—witnessing the impact of our programs up close and learning how to improve them year to year. In her spare time, Somphet likes to listen to music and spend time with her kids.

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