Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has approved a project worth over 1 trillion VND (47.6 million USD) to improve the living standards of four disadvantaged ethnic groups: the Mang, La Hu, Cong and Co Lao.

The 10-year project aims to set up essential infrastructure to lift the groups out of poverty, improve their material and spiritual life, preserve their cultural values and protect their environment.

According to statistics from the Committee for Ethnic Minorities, the four groups have a combined population of about 17,800 comprising 3,500 households in the provinces of Lai Chau, Dien Bien and Ha Giang.

Most of them live along the border in remote mountainous areas; poor households account for over 60 percent of the population, 50 percent are illiterate in national language of Vietnamese, and the rate of child marriage stands at 80 percent with an average age of 15-17.

The groups hardly have access to fresh water and electricity.

The newly-approved project aims to provide transport, electricity, water supply systems and schools to 70 percent of the villages within the next five years. Half of the communes' healthcare centres willbe staffed with more doctors and paediatricians.

Chairman of Ha Giang province's Committee for Ethnic Minorities Long Huu Phuc said that over the last five years, the province has been supporting the local minority population under another project aimed at helping ethnic groups with a population of less than 1,000 each, including the Si La, Pu Peo, O Du, Brau and Ro Mam.

"The support helped raise ethnic people's awareness about education, healthcare, agriculture production and environmental protection," he said, adding that their methods could be replicated to great effect in the new project.

An official at Lai Chau province's Committee for Ethnic People told Vietnam News that the project will attempt to get ethnic minorities involved in major economic sectors.

However, limited funds pose a challenge to the success of the plan. For example, Phuc said, each pre-school ethnic child was given a monthly allowance of 30,000 VND (1.5 USD) and each household received about 7.4 million VND (350 USD), sums that were too small to create real change.

The province, where this project was implemented, is home to about 14,600 people from Cong, La Hu and Mang groups, who are concentrated in Muong Te and Sin Ho districts.

Some remote ethnic villages are as far as 200-300km away from the districts' centres, making transport and communication extremely difficult, especially during the rainy season.

"Transport infrastructure is the key to improving living standards for ethnic groups—electricity, education, and economic progress will follow," she said.

Every year, each commune willselect one student to continue on to high school and beyond, she said.

However, those chosen few have found it challenging to keep up with others in lowland areas, and have urged more investment in the early stages of education. /.