A view of Sombath and PADETC in Laos

The small landlocked region of Laos is one of the world’s poorest nations. Not so long ago, wars and revolution drained away many of its educated people and resources. Even thirty years after the establishment of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in 1975, the country’s 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 non-profit 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. Poverty, violence and starvation were daily challenges. He eventually escaped by winning a scholarship to the University of Hawaii, where he earned degrees in education and agriculture. He returned home in 1980 to help launch the Rice-Based Integrated Farm System Project, to assist Lao farmers in achieving 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. It is the only officially recognized organization of its kind in the country. The organization emphasizes eco-friendly technologies and micro-enterprises 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, 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 9,000 people. As they do so, Sombath makes certain that they are also learning to think, to plan, to act, and to 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 these children 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 level. 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-six-year-old Sombath presides unobtrusively yet energetically 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 2005, Sombath received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership  in recognition of his hopeful efforts to promote sustainable development in Laos by training and motivating its young people to become a generation of leaders. He often serves as keynote speaker at international conferences in Asia on educational approaches by the UN and by other Asian and governmental organizations.

PADETC web site: www.padetc.org

A chance convergence by the Mekong

Orijyn began with a chance meeting with Sombath Somphone on my first visit to Laos in 2001. Over a cool beer on a steamy day in Louang Phrabang, Sombath explained to me the goals of a non-profit school, PADETC, he had started, which prepares young people to become future community and business leaders. I was riveted by the passion with which he told his story, his philosophy and approach to education and the opportunities it presented. His stirring ambition and the worthiness of his cause inspired me to participate. Sombath asked me to teach a few classes in entrepreneurial thinking, marketing and business plan writing to his instructors at the school in 2005.

Since then I have focused on helping an extension of the school, Saoban (village) Handcrafts, build sustainable businesses in silver jewelry and silk weaving. The goal is to develop these "Fair Trade" businesses as a teaching platform and a means of revenue for the crafts people and school. Orijyn is the first US based online business to support these efforts.

Your purchase provides the school with revenues to help build future options for communities and youth in Laos. The donation is used to fund various handcraft programs for teaching self sustaining business practices to students and crafts people. This will help the communities adapt to a rapidly changing world, help keep their craft and culture alive, and provide better opportunities for their families and communities.

Mark Sloneker, Orijyn