U.S. Ambassador to Laos Karen Stewart joined the International Republican Institute (IRI) and Lao civil society leaders for a roundtable discussion on the direction of civil society in Laos and the challenges facing new civil society leaders. The discussion took place at the Learning House, a central hub of civil society activity in Vientiane. The participating nonprofit associations (NPA), pioneers among Laos’ emerging civil society, are dedicated to a number of different missions, including women’s rights, sustainable agriculture, environmental conservation, health initiatives, programming for disadvantaged youth and general community development.

I want to see Lao NPAs become sustainable, to build capacity to reduce poverty by cooperating with the government, INGOs [international nongovernmental associations] and other NPAs,” said one NPA leader. “We must find ways to overcome a lack of funding by international donors, low capacity of Lao staff, and poor English language skills.

At the conclusion of the roundtable, Ambassador Stewart made the Lao NPAs aware of small grant opportunities available through the embassy.

The roundtable discussion was a part of IRI’s program to strengthen Lao civil society which focuses on nonprofit organizational and financial management, grants administration, proposal writing, and monitoring and evaluation. IRI has also developed Lao language manuals on setting up internal accounting systems and grants management and procurement.

In April 2009, the Prime Minister of Laos issued a Decree of Associations, which for the first time codified the registration process for civil society organizations. With NPAs struggling to navigate the cumbersome registration process and now beginning to conduct activities, IRI is providing critical skills training to Laos’ first independent civil society activists to equip them with the tools necessary to catalyze positive grassroots change.

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