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 "week-end 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.