Below are two political maps: the Human Development and Human Security Indices of the Mekong River basin, by country. The countries, though Lao PDR, Cambodia, and Myanmar are all on the UN Least Developed Countries List and they score last in the rankings of both maps. The analysis of the individual maps can be found on the maps themselves.
*Please contact me if you want printable versions of these maps.
The Xayaburi Dam is controversial for what it represents, moreso than the dam itself. Development of resources for economic development. In fact, Xayaburi gets more attention than the upstream cascade of planned and dams under construction by Sino-hydro or the lignite plant that will destroy the environment for miles being constructed right near to the Xayaburi construction site. From my trips around the Laos countryside, I'd say the country is in a bit of an advanced state of exploiting natural resources - huge shaved mountainsides, illegal wildlife trade at the market, in excess of 30,000 traps in the forests on the border with Vietnam. Laos has only 6 million citizens. Most of these folks live by farming or hunting, fishing, and gathering from the forest. The mining of Laos' natural resources is thanks to neighbors China & Vietnam (and now Thailand is in the game with the water project). Political will of the Lao government also plays a part, but the government is left with a choice - remain in poverty and allow citizens to suffer malnutrition and illiteracy, or develop the population through trading the natural resources.