Handicrafts & Livelihoods Development
Although its economy is developing, and urban areas in particular are modernizing rapidly, Laos is still a relatively poor country. In 2010, the GDP per capita was estimated at about US$1,000, and the country was ranked 138th out of the 187 countries on the Human Development Index.
Ethnic minority communities living in rural areas make up the poorest sector of the Lao population. Recognising the unique obligations of a museum working with these communities, TAEC runs an innovative livelihoods development program based on traditional handicraft skills. The overwhelming majority of handicraft producers in the program are ethnic minority women, who studies have shown spend their income on their family’s food, health and education needs.
Currently the program supports over 500 handicrafts producers and their families in 12 provinces of Laos. The program is a window into the breadth and diversity of traditional crafts practiced throughout Laos: the wood carving of the Ta Oy people of Champassak, heavy handspun cottons dyed a rich natural indigo by the Lanten people of Luang Namtha, colourful appliquéd toys made by Akha women in Phongsaly, and the intricate bamboo basketry of the Lamet people of Bokeo. TAEC works closely with handicraft producers, providing small loans and payments upfront, training in product design, quality and small business practices, and logistical support. According to fair-trade and sustainability principles, the sale price is divided evenly between TAEC and the producer.
In addition to the obvious benefits of extra income, the program also fulfils TAEC’s broader mission of promoting interest and investment in ethnic minority cultures. In gaining a monetary value, as well as their value as a symbol of identity and culture, traditional handicraft skills are revitalised and continue to be practiced. The production and sale of new craft products also discourages poor communities from making a one-off sale of their antique family heirlooms, which often results in the memory of how to make them being lost.