Sombath Somphone worked for 30 years to promote sustainable development
through training and educating young people in Lao PDR.
In 1996, he founded Participatory Development Training Center (PADETC), which he headed until mid 2012. In 2005, he received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership (Asia’s Nobel Prize) for his work.
On 15 Dec 2012, he disappeared in Vientiane, and is believed to be abducted. His family & friends have appealed for his safe return.
Sombath filmed this interview with Pamudi Withanaarachchi, Producer of TVE Asia Pacific, in September 2008 for Saving the Planet Asian TV series. This is an unedited transcript of that interview.
Question: Everybody is talking about 'sustainable development' but few seem to know how to achieve it. In Asia we have models like Bhutan's Gross National Happiness (GNH) and the Thailand's 'sufficiency economy' concept. How can other cultures and economies evolve similar philosophies of development?
Sombath: I think with the rise in price of oil and the financial collapse in US at the moment, I think globally we are reviewing, people are questioning the pattern of development that we have been following. Everyone knows that it’s not sustainable but the decision needs to be collective and this is where we are…how do we get to the point that the decision can be collective.
But it could be both collective and individuals, I think the condition is that people want some alternative and what alternative is available…the only thing that I see available is Gross National Happiness philosophy and also “sufficiency economy” of the Thai King…these are alternatives. But I think every culture will have to find its own adjustment but there’s a need for adjustment. The same pattern, the traditional pattern of development is not sustainable…that’s recognized.
And even economists -- top economists in the West from England to US -- also recognize it but they are looking for alternatives also. I think small and developing countries like Laos and Bhutan, and even Thailand, should show the lead and be leading in this area. I think it can be done!
What is your vision for Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in the developing country context?
I think the word ESD -- education for sustainable development -- sums it all up because it shows the interdependency between education and sustainable development. The two are interdependent. If you have good education, only then you can get sustainable development. And sustainable development as being practised, it’s also showcase for education. So the two are helping and building on each other. So if you have good education and good development, it builds itself up. It feeds on each other…yes.
You work in Laos, one of the least developed countries in Asia, placing special emphasis on empowering youth and investing in digital technologies. Why these emphasis?
Actually the young people are victims of the media. And the young people are (also) potential agents of change -- the media penetrate every corner of our life. If you put the two together and bring out the positive side of each of these two components, I think the combined force would be very strong agents of change.
You’ve been advocating the creative use of mass media and taking advantage of digital technologies. Can you elaborate?
|“Actually the young people are victims of the media. And they are (also) potential agents of change!”
- Sombath Somphone
There are lots of good practices of sustainable development in the world and also within different countries…developed or developing. The problem is that we are not linking the dots of these best practices and digital technology can play a very important role.
For example, it can communicate or demonstrate that a good practice in one place can be captured digitally and replayed or shown in other places. And they can set up a network of these best practices that they, the people, the local people can actually record and do their own films so that there’ll be a system of sharing of information, even without going through the airwaves, which is being monopolized. So that people can share these CDs and the DVDs for example…DVD players are available quite cheaply, quite affordable. And most people know how to use it.
And therefore, the conditions are right to accept that the educators and the development people are not using these tools as well as entertainers or commercial people who are making millions or billions of dollars out of entertainment and business promotion. We the educators and development workers should know how to use these tools. At the moment, we are being used by these tools instead of the other way around!
But can a best practice used in one place be replicated in another place exactly as it is? What about context?
People should not be given only one set of information. When digital technology is readily available at affordable price, I think people can look at examples of different places and that is like the database for them to tap on and select what’s appropriate for them. And, of course, technology is only a tool -- but we need the people with the ability to screen the information for the most appropriate and use it wisely.
I think we need to go hand in hand. It’s not a substitute of human beings but it’s a tool… a very important tool and development. And we should be using it for both education and development.
Especially where television and video are concerned, how can we in developing Asia use these audio-visual media more creatively to promote teaching and learning?
Young people should be more informed in creating the media and also disseminating the media, whether radio or television. I am saying that because the media right now, as it is, is a one-way communication tool and it’s literally a weapon of mass destruction. And it’s available in every household! Therefore, we can turn this “weapon of mass destruction” -- as it’s being used now -- to something very positive.
|“Young people are really the key, communication is the tool they should use,and education is the channel or the structure for change…”
- Sombath Somphone
If…the new generation can regain the airwaves and then take over what contents to be disseminated out…I think they are the one who are the agents of change…we should give them this tool for change. Right now, the tool is being used not for change in a positive way, but for change for…more destructive -- because it promotes greed or consumption to the point that Mother Earth cannot support. And we continue to consume!
And to tame this greed, I think if we make the young people realise that what is left from this generation’s consumption would be available for the next generation and the new generation has to take greater participation in preventing the depletion of these resources, I think that would motivate them.
And I think the young people are really the key and communication is the tool they should use and education is the channel or the structure that this young people can be part of and bring about education that’s more for sustainable development.
How practical is this vision of engaging youth in creating and disseminating content…particularly in the developing world context?
I have tried out giving a video camera to illiterate young people in very remote areas. with proper guidance and coaching, I can see that they can become camera-literate very quickly and once they know what the camera can do they get so motivated and only not them but the whole community participated…so becomes like a big festival. And when they see the thing captured and replayed, the pride and happiness in the face is very rewarding.
And we should continue to have the young people and the disadvantaged people be their own stars rather than relying on Hollywood or Bollywood stars. It’s possible, we have demonstrated and also we have given small camera, a digital camera, with the DVD movie feature on it and let the teachers and when the young people facilitating it, the teachers practice the best lessons and with the best teaching style and approach, they can share DVDs of these, what you call, tutoring films for teachers.
And the teachers are also so motivated and we can go on. The radio programme also…we have young people airing their own programmes and with the young people wanting to hear the voice of their colleagues or their friends they zoom in and listen to their friends and instead of listening songs and music from far and from abroad. So it has been proven here in the Lao context that it can be done. The question is how do we do it systematically so that there’ll be integration, streamlining so that our strength will be more than the sum of one and two.
What is your message for everyone working on Education for Sustainable Development?
We should not wait for education for sustainable development to be given to us or managed by somebody from outside. We should start from within, from the own society and individuals are very important.
|“You should not only expect others to practice, but you start with yourself. Be the change you want to see -- like Gandhi said.”
- Sombath Somphone
You start with yourself and you see “OK. This is a sustainable lifestyle”. You should not only expect others to practise but you start with yourself. Be the change you want to see, like Gandhi said and I think it’s still very relevant.
But to get young people to come to the point or making the decision of changing their behaviour, I think you need very…kind of…stringent or rigid initiation. And I do that initiation by getting the young people to the temple, let the monk - the monk has been trained also to communicate with young people – let the monk talk to them of their interests.
For example, Lao kids want to know does ghosts exist, does heaven and hell really exist. And the monk – the trained monk – will relate these issues to the real life. If you do bad things now, you will suffer in this life – it’s not the next life.
So that they make the connection between bad behaviour and the repercussion that we get in this life so that we change the behaviour, become calmer and less being driven by the commercialization by the mass media. So that they are more self-confident. Basically before you want to change others, you have to start changing yourselves…
Interviewed by Pamudi Withanaarachchi in Vientiane, Lao PDR, on 17 Sep 2008.
Excerpts were used in Saving the Planet: It’s Alive! released in August 2009
Full interview released online on 4 January 2013
We join friends everywhere calling for Sombath’s safe return
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Photos courtesy: sombath.org website, facebook page
TVE Asia Pacific Image Archive