The First Hmong Lawyer in Laos [Gaille Energy Blog Issue 52]

The First Hmong Lawyer in Laos [Gaille Energy Blog Issue 52]

  • Posted by scottgaille
  • On October 25, 2017

Yah grew up in the mountains of northern Laos, a member of the Hmong ethnic group.  The nearest elementary school was a two-hour walk through the jungle of a national park.  He rose at dawn, marching bare-footed through the darkness.  Yah suffered seven bites from giant red centipedes and two from tree vipers—just to reach his school.

When Yah completed elementary school, his family put him to work on their poppy farm.  It wasn’t for him.  He had learned enough to know that his destiny lay elsewhere.

Yah ran away from home at eleven, eventually being taken in by a Buddhist monastery.  The monks continued his education and eventually helped him secure a scholarship to the university in Laos’ capital.   When the scholarship was exhausted, Yah took a weekend job working in a rock quarry.  The quarry paid $5 per ton of rock.  On a good day, Yah managed four tons over eighteen hours of grueling work.  His perseverance paid off, though.  Yah managed to put himself through law school and score in the top 10% on the Laos bar exam.

Last month I had the opportunity to accompany Yah on a journey into his mountain homeland.  We delivered pallets of pencils and note pads to an elementary school — receiving smiles and cheers from its students in return.


Unfortunately, elementary school marks the end of educational opportunity for most of these students.  I’ve witnessed the same dead-end in so many villages around the world.  Access to education often ends too early.

Energy companies are increasingly sensitive to the needs of local communities impacted by their projects.  A typical example is Chevron Indonesia’s PRISMA program:

“[The] PRISMA (Promoting Sustainable Integrated Farming, Small Enterprise Cluster and Microfinance Access) program provides small grants, capacity-building training, technical assistance and access to loans through microfinance institutions to local farmer groups, small businesses and cooperatives in 11 regions throughout Indonesia. In total, the program supports more than 1,500 beneficiaries and offers assistance in 36 sectors, including agriculture, fishery, processed food commodities, weaving and batik making, and eco-cultural tourism villages.”

While income from economic development programs may enable more families to afford education, energy companies also can directly advance education:

  • Student loans. By working through local banks, energy companies can contribute a small percentage of their earnings toward establishing student loan endowments.  These lending funds can eventually become self-sustaining—so long  as the interest paid exceeds the default rate.
  • Work-study programs.  The higher wages of energy companies often change the life paths of talented young people, pulling them away from education and into lower-skill natural resources jobs (that may not last forever).  Energy companies can require that younger employees participate in work-study programs, with (i) reimbursement of tuition and (ii) continued advancement toward a degree being a job requirement.
  • Family tuition support.  For  employees with children and grandchildren, the energy company can offer tuition stipends for secondary school and loans for higher education.  After all, energy companies routinely pay the private school tuition for dependents of their expatriate employees.

Advancing education in the developing world also mitigates the political risk faced by energy companies:

“Across countries, education and democracy are highly correlated . . . . In our model, schooling trains people to interact with others and raises the benefits of social participation, including voting and organizing. In the battle between democracy and dictatorship, democracy has a wide potential base of support but offers weak incentives to its defenders. Dictatorship provides stronger incentives to a narrower base. As education raises the benefits of civic engagement, it raises the support for more democratic regimes relative to dictatorships. This increases the likelihood of democratic revolutions against dictatorships, and reduces that of successful anti- democratic coups.”

Edward L. Glaeser, Giacomo Ponzetto & Andrei Shleifer, Why Does Democracy Need Education?, HARVARD UNIV. (Oct. 2005)

Then there is the human element.  Many of these children now have some access to the Internet and aware of the academic opportunities they are missing.  Their laments stay with me: “You were lucky to have been born in America and not here.”

About the Gaille Energy Blog.  The Gaille Energy Blog discusses issues in the field of energy law, with weekly posts at  Scott Gaille is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Chicago Law School, an Adjunct Professor in Management at Rice University’s Graduate School of Business, and the author of three books on energy law (Construction Energy Development, Shale Energy Development, and International Energy Development).

Images available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.


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