Our Founder: Sombath Somphone

The eldest son of a farming family from Ban Don Khio, Khammouane Province, Sombath Somphone knew about poverty, hunger, and insecurity first hand.  In the 1960s, when Sombath was eight or nine years old, his family escaped the Indochina war between the revolutionary Pathet Lao and the Government forces and sought temporary refuge in Thailand.  Several times a month, Sombath’s family relied on him to paddle a boat alone across the treacherous Mekong to get rice from relatives in his home village in Laos to feed the family, since there was a severe shortage of food for refugee families in Thailand.

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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, Savannakhet and Vientiane. Through hard work, he managed to obtain an exchange scholarship, and in 1969, Sombath found himself in Wisconsin living with a family and completing his 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 completing his studies, Sombath returned 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. Sombath was not deterred, however. He was committed to returning to Laos, where he could use his knowledge and skills to improve the lives of poor farmers like his parents and relatives.

In 1980, with approval from the government and supported by foreign grants, Sombath started the Rice-Based Integrated Farming System (RIFS) Project, a training program that helped farmers improve food security by using low-cost and eco-friendly technologies. Sombath further 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.  In Laos, where more than 50% of the population are below the age of 20, Sombath realized the country’s progress hinged on engaging and building capacities of  Lao youth.

In 1996, Sombath founded the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC), which consolidated his work agriculture and rural development and became the organizational umbrella to promote projects in organic farming, sustainable energy, waste management, and rural handcrafts. Through PADETC, Sombath initiated programs to  support the establishment of small and medium enterprises, especially for rural and urban producers.  By delivering training in business planning, product development, marketing, and accessing micro-credit, PADETC sought to increase livelihood opportunities for marginalized groups.  Saoban was one of the projects  developed under PADETC’s small and medium enterprise umbrella. Saoban’s primary goal was  to add value to existing local products, encourage cultural and environmental sustainability, provide increased income for rural communities, and promote fair trade practices.

In his work with PADETC and Saoban, Sombath focused on youth. Youth in communities were encouraged to learn, to participate, and to lead.  Teams of youth volunteers were trained in basic community development concepts, problem identification and analysis, mobilization skills, and leadership skills, which they used to spearhead activities in schools and communities.  The emphasis, Sombath explained, is to get youth to “learn to think, to plan, to act, and to lead.”  Sombath hoped 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 referred to as 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.