For a generation, U.S. national interests in Laos have focused on three main issues: reducing the cultivation of opium through law enforcement, crop substitution and infrastructure development; finding the remains of U.S. MIAs; and assisting in the removal of unexploded ordnance.
All three of these "heritage issues" continue to be important. The long-term U.S. interest is to encourage a transition to representative government with a significantly improved human rights record and a viable, market-based economy. The United States also has a humanitarian interest in addressing the effects of the country's extreme poverty by providing assistance to improve health and income generation in rural areas.
The aim is to help the impoverished people of Laos without helping or lending credence to the one-party Communist regime. The crop substitution programs, particularly those involving sericulture, serve the dual purpose of poverty reduction and opium poppy eradication.
Laos is one of the poorest and least developed countries in East Asia. In 2001, the World Bank estimated that Laos' 5.6 million people had a per capita income of just $330.
Agriculture remains the economic mainstay, contributing 53% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employing over 80% of the labor force. Social indicators in Laos, among the worst in the world, are comparable to those of sub-Saharan Africa; e.g. infant mortality in Laos is 93 per 1000 births, compared with an average of 92 in Sub-Saharan Africa. Life expectancy in Laos is under 54 years.
According to the available information, Laos currently has a low level of HIV/AIDS. However, systematic and nationwide surveillance for HIV is not yet in place so the future course of the epidemic is uncertain.
With Laos being surrounded by countries such as China, Thailand, and Vietnam that have significant numbers of HIV infections and with the current levels international migration, it is very likely that the epidemic will continue to spread in Laos in the absence of appropriate interventions. A significant HIV epidemic would have a serious impact on development efforts in Laos.