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Former Deputy Prime Minister calls for Australians to help Laos

Somphanh never got to see what his country looked like before it became one of the most bombed places in the world.

Born in northern Laos in 1973, his entire life has been lived in the aftermath of a war that ended 45 years ago – a war in which I, and many other Australians, served.

Between 1964 and 1973, more than 2 million tonnes of ordnance was dropped on Laos in an attempt to block the Ho Chi Minh trail. Effectively, one bombing mission took place every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. Almost a third of those bombs failed to explode on impact and today litter the countryside, lying in deadly wait for a local farmer or curious child to make one false move.

The effects on families like Somphanh’s today are far-reaching. Their livelihoods have been constrained by the limitations of having vast tracts of land contaminated by unexploded ordnance (UXOs) – land that could otherwise be used for cultivation, for schools and hospitals, for new roads and infrastructure.

The father-of-three often spends five days at a time away from his family, toiling on a corn farm near the Vietnam border. The farm does not produce enough income to provide quality food for his children. As a result, when his oldest daughter, Oudai, was 11 years old she was the weight of an average Australian eight-year-old and feel ill so often she had to repeat Grade 3.

Somphanh’s second oldest, 11-year-old Khamsawei, complains about headaches and stomachaches and says she’s unable to concentrate in class because she is so tired. This is a common complaint from children who do not get the proper food and nutrition they need. Not only do these children miss out on a childhood filled with laughter and joy, they can become locked in a cycle of poverty that will ultimately affect their children, and future generations.

Somphanh’s is a farmer in northern Laos, one of the world’s most bombed places

Improving living standards for families in Laos, which is one of the poorest countries in Asia, is only possible if children are given the opportunity to reach their full potential. Research has shown that adults who were stunted as children can expect to earn 20 percent less than adults who grew up with a healthy diet. This loss of productivity, coupled with the expenditure incurred in treating preventable disease, is a major hurdle as Laos tries to climb out of the ranks of the world’s least developed countries.

I urge Australians to do their bit by supporting organisations that are working in Laos to address the hunger issue in a very practical way. While governments work at the top level, organisations such as ChildFund Australia are on the ground working in direct partnership with communities like Somphanh’s, who live each day trying to provide enough food for their children.

In Nonghet district, Xieng Khouang – a province in Laos with some of the highest rates of child hunger – ChildFund has begun nutrition programs in a number of villages. These community-based solutions include practical steps like ensuring healthcare workers have enough equipment to measure babies for signs of malnutrition. ChildFund is also working directly with mothers to ensure they know which foods their children should be eating, as well as the best ways to source and prepare these foods. Meanwhile, the slow process of UXO clearance will over time release new tracts of safe agricultural land.

In the last 45 years we have already seen two generations affected by the war and its aftermath. Now is the time to ensure children in Laos can reach their potential and end the cycle of hunger and poverty.

Tim Fischer AC is a former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia and a current envoy for ChildFund Australia.

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