A healthy dose of ambition
This Laotian lady originally wanted to become a doctor, but public health issues brought her to a life of development work that includes identifying the ills that hamper people’s quality of life and providing a cure through investments that inject benefits
Ask Phoxay Xayyavong what development issue should be prioritized first, and she says, education. “Once people are educated, other things will follow.”
The senior social sector officer (health) of the Lao PDR Resident Mission (LRM) was recently in Manila, along with LRM colleague Theonakhet Saphakdy, for a week of training at the Maynilad Water Academy. She learned about the water supply distribution process, nonrevenue water management, and other aspects of water utility operations, which are all crucial for one of her ongoing projects, the Small Towns Water Supply and Sanitation Sector Project.
Phoxay, whose name sounds like a cross between fossil and bonsai (fo-say), is not an engineer; nor is she a water expert. She studied medicine for her bachelor’s degree in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and she took a master’s degree on public health at Monash University in Australia. She points out, “Water supply does directly link with health, especially safe water. That’s why when this project came I suddenly have an opportunity to work on this connection, and sector.”
Phoxay often talks of opportunities, and the more she shares her story, it becomes clear that she is grateful for hers. Studying abroad, for instance, was not common unlike how it is now thanks to the country’s more open stance and the border shared with PRC that makes it easy to go and study there, she explained. During her time, it was a scholarship from the Chinese and Australian governments that gave her an opportunity to widen her horizon. “I was one of the lucky ones,” she says.
From then on, what followed consisted of working with an assortment of development organizations, such as the Japan International Cooperation Agency (three years), World Health Organization (two years), and some non-government organizations and other consultancies.
In ADB, she currently works on three other projects in addition to the Small Towns project: one on health that is about to close; another on SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary systems) that has components in Lao PDR and Cambodia (she’s responsible for the Lao side); and another on a regional tourism project covering Lao, Viet Nam, and Cambodia, where she focuses on the Lao portion.
For Phoxay, at the end of the day: “Real development should really not only be about the infrastructure or hospitals built, but you want to see what benefits people get to improve their lives, and you specifically look at the women, children, and ethnic minorities. How will they benefit from our interventions?” Below is the rest of our interview with her:
“I think development is an opportunity to give something back. It's your responsibility to do that. That's why once I had this opportunity, I do my best.”
Senior Social Sector Officer (Health)
Lao PDR Resident Mission
When and why did you join ADB?
Phoxay: I joined ADB in May 2011, about 7 years exactly. Before joining, I did some research and learned that it was a big funding organization. I felt that if you work here you have more opportunities to contribute to development. Because before this, I worked with UN agencies and some NGOs, and with UN agencies they had some limitations in terms of financing. With NGOs, there is a difference with scale. Their scale is very small. It’s mostly working at the community level. They have a lot of limitations and one of those is financing. So when I looked at ADB, it was a big bank, and their vision is poverty reduction—so why not join this organization?
Tell us a memorable moment you’ve had since joining ADB.
Phoxay: I think that would be one of the health projects funded by JFPR, the Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction. That focused on capacity building at the community level, but was managed at the central level. When you go to the field, you experience how to build water supply for the villages. You contribute to build a health center, and you go there and see how many people benefit from the project. It makes me very proud. Without ADB, that project wouldn’t have happened in that isolated community. To me, it feels like ‘wow, I’m proud and happy to be part of it’. When you see the people, they never dream to have that kind of water connected to their house. Before they had to walk for a long, long distance to get water from the river, and women especially had to do that. This project changed their life. When you see it, I can say that’s the project I've been involved with. I contributed to that, along with government counterparts who made it happen for the community. It’s something. It’s not just money for me to work in ADB. It makes me proud of myself and proud that I am able to help my country, a poor country. It's a reminder to do something, and that it’s part of my responsibility.
Why are you focused on health?
Phoxay: In my country, because we lacked many things – and still do in the rural areas – health has been a top priority. Also, at that time, people were choosing to be engineers, accountants, or doctors. My mom is a doctor so I felt very close to the field. That’s why I studied medicine, even though after I didn’t have the chance to work in a hospital. I’ve shifted to public health and development work, and it has gone so well.
What inspires you? What motivates you to work for development?
Phoxay: I think development is an opportunity to give something back. It’s your responsibility to do that. That’s why once I had this opportunity, I do my best. And like I mentioned, people in my country still need a lot of help, so as Laotians, one of Lao people, if I don’t do that, who else will help them you know? I was fortunate enough compared to other people to have an opportunity to get educated abroad and when I came back, I thought why not do something for them, who are not fortunate to have that same opportunity.
How would you envision a livable city in your country? What would it be like?
Phoxay: I think this is where planning is needed. It should happen in advance, because now we’re starting to have urbanization. We have a small population compared to other countries but people are starting to migrate to the city for jobs, education, and other things. Vientiane and other cities will need urban planning, or else if you leave it too late, it’s very difficult. Once people start to build houses and have their own things, compensation will become very expensive if the government wants to rearrange buildings and spaces. We have to do master planning now.
I think for a city to be livable – because I’m more close to nature, I don’t like, sorry to say, these high buildings and shopping malls – it should make people feel close to nature, like trees and rivers. The natural environment should be well protected and their current status kept. In Lao, even in Vientiane, you still see a lot of trees. I think we would like to keep that status. But it’s very, very difficult and challenging while keeping up with development. It’s a trade-off. Oftentimes the environment will be destroyed amidst different projects. We need more strategic planning. We’re discussing with a colleague from SEUW [Southeast Asia Urban Development and Water Division] on having something on a master planning for cities for a next project in the pipeline. Hopefully something can be started in 2021 or 2022. I hope to be part of that even though I’m not an engineer! From my experience, I can provide some insights.
How about you, what are your next goals?
Phoxay: Just to continue my work in this area and do my best. I also have my personal life goals. I have a 12-year-old daughter and part of my energy and time are dedicated to her. My goal is that she will grow and be able to look after herself and contribute to the country like what I do, in her own way. That’s my long-term goal in life.