Sombath Somphone: Farmer, Scholar, Scientist, Community Developer
Sombath Somphone, the eldest son of a poor farming family from Ban Don Khio, Khammouane Province, knew about poverty, hunger, and insecurity first hand. In the 1960s, to escape the Indochina war raging between the revolutionary Pathet Lao and the Government forces, Sombath’s family had sought temporary refuge in Thailand. Only eight or nine then, it fell on Sombath’s shoulder to paddle a boat alone across the treacherous Mekong several times a month to get rice from relatives in his home village in Laos to feed the family, since food was short for refugee families in Thailand.
When the family was able to return to Laos, Sombath had to leave home again to continue his primary and secondary schooling, living with relatives in Thakek, Savannaketh and Vientiane. By dint of hard work, he managed to obtain an exchange scholarship and in 1969 Sombath found himself in Wisconsin living with a family and attending senior year of high school there. Another scholarship from USAID in 1971 took Sombath to the University of Hawaii where he studied Education and Agriculture.
After completion of his studies, Sombath decided to return to Laos in 1979 against the advice of friends who warned that the political, social and economic turmoil following the end of the Indochina war in 1975 and the formation of the new socialist government in Laos, could jeopardize his future career. However, Sombath was not deterred; his only desire then was to return to his home country and use his knowledge and skills to improve the lives of poor farmers and peasants like his parents and relatives.
In 1980 he started the Rice-Based Integrated Farming System (RIFS) Project with the approval of the government and supported by foreign grants. Through this project he trained farmers in improving food security through use of low-cost and eco-friendly technologies. He also trained scores of women and government employees in participatory planning for integrated rural development as a means to tackle rural poverty and to address the needs of not only farmers, but also other groups such as small entrepreneurs, women, and young people. It was through this experience that Sombath came to believe that to alleviate poverty, development approaches must be multi-dimensional and multi-sectoral. And, in the case of Laos where more than 50% of the population are below the age of 20, Laos future hinged on engaging and building capacities of the Lao youth to find appropriate solutions to the development challenges confronting their community and society.
In 1996, Sombath founded the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC), which extended his earlier work in agriculture and rural development to include a range of projects for promotion of organic farming, sustainable energy, waste management, and rural handcrafts. In order to improve the livelihoods, PADETC also supported establishment of small and medium enterprises, especially for small rural and urban producers through training in business planning, product development, marketing, and access to micro-credit. Saoban is one of the projects developed under PADETC’s small and medium enterprise umbrella. The main aim is to add value to existing local produce, encourage cultural and environmental sustainability, and provide increased income for rural communities, and promote fair trade practices.
More importantly, in all projects, young people are involved first to learn, then to participate, and then to lead. Teams of youth volunteers are trained in basic community development concepts, problem identification and analysis, mobilization skills, and leadership skills which they then use to spearhead activities in schools and communities. The emphasis as explained by Sombath is to get the young volunteers to “learn to think, to plan, to act, and to lead”. Bandith Ladpakdy, Saoban’s Manager, is a clear example of how the young volunteer program works. He was a “PADETC Young Volunteer” and now uses the skills learned to run the Saoban handcrafts enterprise. Over the years, many young leaders like Bandith have emerged and are leading others to make a difference at their workplace and their communities. Sombath hopes that through such participatory and experiential learning, a new generation of leaders will emerge to lead Laos towards a more equitable and sustainable future.
In recognition for his tireless effort “to promote sustainable development in Laos by training and motivating its young people” to become leaders, Sombath Somphone was awarded in 2005 the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership. Often called Asia’s Nobel Prize, the Magsaysay Award applauded Sombath’s contribution to Laos’ development through grass root mobilization and for his conviction that a nation’s future ultimately rests with harnessing the potential and creativity of its young.
Sombath Somphone disappeared on 15 December 2012 in Vientiane, Lao PDR and has not been seen since. A website has been set up to help facilitate his return. www.sombath.org
Further information about PADETC