- Sombath Somphone’s early life took place amidst uncertainty and turbulence as Laos was swept into the Indochina War. He eventually escaped this by winning a scholarship to the University of Hawaii, where he earned degrees in education and agriculture.
- Sombath has led it to emphasize eco-friendly technologies and micro-enterprises and to enhance education-by introducing fuel-efficient stoves that spare women hours of daily labor collecting wood; by promoting locally produced organic fertilizer as an alternative to imported chemical fertilizers
- Sombath also ensures that PADETC’s young volunteers become media savvy. They learn to use colorful story boards to reach children with lessons on hygiene, life skills, and caring for nature.
- The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “his hopeful efforts to promote sustainable development in Laos by training and motivating its young people to become a generation of leaders.”
The small landlocked nation of Laos is one of the world’s poorest. Not so long ago, wars and revolution drained away many of its educated people. Even now, thirty years after the establishment of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in 1975, infrastructure, industry, and public services remain rudimentary. More than half of the country’s population is under twenty. For these three million young people there are few opportunities. Social problems are on the rise and many look for better lives abroad. Yet these young people are the country’s best hope, says Sombath Somphone. As executive director of the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC) in Vientiane, he is preparing them to build a better future for Laos.
Sombath Somphone’s early life took place amidst uncertainty and turbulence as Laos was swept into the Indochina War. He eventually escaped this by winning a scholarship to the University of Hawaii, where he earned degrees in education and agriculture. By 1980, he was home again. That same year Sombath helped launch the Rice-Based Integrated Farm System Project, to help Laotian farmers achieve food security. The ensuing years exposed him intimately to the world of rural Laos and to the complex obstacles awaiting development workers in its remote scattered villages.
Drawing on these lessons, Sombath founded PADETC in 1996 to foster sustainable, equitable, and self-reliant development in Laos. Up till now it is the only officially recognized organization of its kind in the country. Sombath has led it to emphasize eco-friendly technologies and micro-enterprises and to enhance education-by introducing fuel-efficient stoves that spare women hours of daily labor collecting wood; by promoting locally produced organic fertilizer as an alternative to imported chemical fertilizers; by devising new processing techniques and marketing strategies for small businesses such as organic mulberry tea and brown rice and sun-dried bananas, pineapples, and berries; by initiating garbage recycling in the capital city; and by organizing stimulating extracurricular programs for the youth. Today, PADETC is designing new child-centered lesson plans for primary schools.
Although Sombath heads a full-time staff of forty-three, much of this work is carried out by teams of young volunteers and trainees who exemplify his commitment to participatory learning. In any given week, these volunteers-cum-trainees reach as many as nine thousand people. As they do so, Sombath makes certain that they are also learning to think, plan, act, and lead.
PADETC’s high-school-aged “weekend volunteers,” for example, lead grade-schoolers in content-rich games and learning activities and write children’s books and plays; at the same time, the Centre mentors them in leadership, teamwork, and gender awareness, and coaches them in writing, speaking, and teaching. PADETC’s university-level volunteers, called Green Ants, promote organic foods, recycling, and environmental awareness and are taught to conduct surveys, write reports, and to plan and manage projects. The Centre’s post-graduate trainees conduct fieldwork in drug abuse prevention, human trafficking, HIV awareness, and micro-enterprises, and gain practical hands-on experience at the grassroots. Sombath also ensures that PADETC’s young volunteers become media savvy. They learn to use colorful story boards to reach children with lessons on hygiene, life skills, and caring for nature; to write and broadcast youth-oriented radio shows; and to produce effective videos on good farming practices and urgent social issues.
Fifty-four-year-old Sombath presides unobtrusively yet restlessly over PADETC’s many projects. His hopes rest with the young. He urges them to remain mindful of their country’s traditional values even as global forces grow stronger. Development is good, he assures them, but for development to be healthy, it “must come from within.”
In electing Sombath Somphone to receive the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes his hopeful efforts to promote sustainable development in Laos by training and motivating its young people to become a generation of leaders.
The honorable Chief Justice Hilario Davide, trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, distinguished guests, fellow awardees, ladies and gentlemen, good evening.
It is a great honor for me today to be here receiving the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, and I would like to sincerely thank the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation and its board of judges for conferring on me this important award.
This award is not just for me or for my staff in PADETC. This award is also for our young Lao volunteers and youth leaders, who have demonstrated to us, the adults, that they have the capacity, and indeed the right, to claim the space to determine their own and their community’s development pathway. I believe that it is their passion and their hopes and dreams for a better future which are recognized and celebrated through this prestigious award today.
For me and my organization, PADETC, this award is a major encouragement and validation that there are critical roles in the development of Lao society for indigenous civil-society action groups like ours. I hope the award will further give confidence to other Lao-led organizations to develop and thrive.
What I have accomplished so far is only a small beginning. To have long-term impact, we will need more coherent and comprehensive development approaches that place human dignity and economic and social justice for all at the center of development. To achieve this, it cannot be just the work of a few organizations or a few committed individuals; it should be a sustained movement that involves everybody: the government, the private sector, and people from all walks of life and from all age groups, and especially our young who comprise more than half of our population.
Measured in terms of Gross National Product or GNP, Laos is poor and we are constantly reminded of this by mainstream development specialists. Laos may be cash-poor, but we are wealthy in many other ways. We have a rich tradition and a wealth of indigenous knowledge and local experience; our communities are known for their strong sense of social solidarity and cohesion. And we have a vibrant and young population who are still relatively unspoiled by mindless consumerism and commercialization. We should turn these attributes into our development capital and not trade away our precious heritage by adopting development models which emphasize economic growth but jeopardize social and environmental sustainability. We have to chart our own development pathway and balance our development strategies to strengthen self-reliance and avoid the mistakes that mire so many developing societies in debt, social disintegration, disease, and environmental degradation.
PADETC’s approach to development has always been to balance the development lessons from outside Laos with our local experiences and knowledge. We seek such a balance through broad-based consultation and the involvement of young people at the forefront of the development movement. These measures have worked and we have gained increasing support. We believe that through our own efforts and with the support of our well-wishers, we can build a socially, economically and environmentally balanced society which ensures stable livelihoods for all, and for future generations.
SOMBATH Somphone was born on February 17, 1952 in Done Khio, a village along the Mekong River in southern Laos. His parents named him Bath, which in English means to faint or to pass out. Though Buddhism had a presence in Done Khio, the indigenous Lao were still basically animists, and, as their firstborn was fragile in infancy—“a weak and sickly baby”—his parents believed that the spirits would spare him if he were given an inauspicious name. “Som” would be added to his name much later, when he was already a thriving adolescent, to form the more respectable Sombath, which means wealth or heritage.
Done Khio and its neighboring villages were, at the time of Sombath’s birth, undeveloped economically and politically. The land was largely communal. Indigenous Lao could claim land where they wanted. “Just as long as you had the labor to open up new land, you could have as much land as you could,” says Sombath. If one wanted to till an already opened plot of land, he only had to seek permission from the one who had cleared it previously.
Sombath was from a family named Thepsomphone (his father dropped the first syllable later). The Thepsomphones were, like most of the villagers, subsistence rice farmers and gatherers, hunting for game in the wilds surrounding the village, and fishing on the Mekong and the small lakes that dotted the landscape. Sombath’s paternal grandfather, one of the village pioneers, had a relatively large property, where all his eight children and their families lived and worked.
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