Money flows: Who’s investing in Laos, and what problems do they present?

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: Singapore

Publishing organisation: Kontinentalist, in collaboration with Open Development Mekong

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 2022-05-26

Language: English

Authors: Writers/ Pei Ying Loh & Zenn Wong


Pei Ying co-founded Kontinentalist in 2017. Wearing many hats, she leads the company in achieving its overall business and editorial goals, making strategic business development plans, and managing partnerships.

Zenn is a data scientist with a penchant for all things urban. She is fascinated with the use of smart city frameworks and open data in promoting development.

Project description:

A nation disadvantaged by geography, Laos has turned to intense infrastructural development and foreign direct investments to accelerate economic growth. As the landlocked nation opens its doors to foreign money, who is it inviting, and what troubles lay ahead?

This story deep dives into an extensive dataset on foreign investments into infrastructural developments in Laos in the last few decades, and explores the patterns and nature of these investment networks.

Impact reached:

Laos is a country often overlooked in the media landscape in Southeast Asia. It is amongst the poorest, landlocked, and at present, most vulnerable to debt traps.

This story was initiated via a collaboration with Open Development Mekong, who wanted to do a “follow-the-money” type story, tracing financial inflows into Laos, and the impact it’s making not just on the country’s physical landscape, but how it’s also shaping and influencing larger society.

Our story spurred interest from the non-profit, research focused sector, with some journalism newsletters spotlighting our work. It was mentioned in Asia Undercovered, and the author, Pei Ying Loh, was also interviewed about it on a Data Journalism podcast.

The story also received 1,326 unique page views with an average reading time of 4 minutes and 9 seconds. On Instagram, our post reached 7,713 accounts, being shared 230 times and garnering 281 likes.

Techniques/technologies used:

In analysing the data, we utilised Google Excel, R, and Flourish. In executing the story, we used Mapbox, D3.js, Flourish visualisations, and unique SVGs.

The cover art is illustrated in-house, and designed specifically to allude to the idea of Laos being vulnerable to geopolitical pushes between its neighbours.

Context about the project:

The data collection for this by far, was the most challenging, gruelling part of this story. It is also probably the most data intensive project Kontinentalist has ever worked on.

Collating and matching the data across several data sources took almost a year, and was done between two persons whenever we had pockets of time. We wanted to create a fairly comprehensive picture, and while there were several decent sources to refer to, not all of them were comprehensive. For example, they either focused only on hydropower projects, or when more general, they left out smaller investments.

Pulling this data together was simply step one of the plan. Step two involved creating a list of companies and organisations that have links or investments in these projects, and create a dataset out of them that included their origins, and type.

A lot of time was spent cleaning data, ensuring that spellings and names of projects and companies are standardised throughout. Once that was completed, we could properly match companies to projects to create a detailed network analysis, which we featured in the story.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

This story exemplified two things. The first is the importance of collaborating with regional partners in sourcing and collating much-needed data, or supplement desktop research with on-the-ground qualitative insights. Our partner, Open Development Mekong, was instrumental in assisting us in the data process, and helping us understand which sources to look at.

Secondly, the story highlights why it is important to invest in data-intense, longform pieces of journalism. While infrastructural developments and investments in Laos may not be immediately attractive or popular to read, the longer-lasting effect of this story is in it’s support to researchers and other non-profits trying to understand the financial and debt landscape of the country.

Project links: