This interview with Shui Meng was held at the KontraS (The Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence) office in Jakarta on 12 September 2013.
The definition of poverty used in Laos by international agencies and institutions is very much based on a measurement of cash income or gross national product (GNP) that is based on products and cash. It does not emphasise social and environmental capital. International agencies and institutions talk about cash capital and material capital, which is basically what comes from industry not from natural products. So in using that criteria yes, Laos is a “least developed” country and based on this criteria Laos is considered “poor”.
But the poverty here and in other countries is quite different. Poverty here is basically cash poor; social services are poor – education and health care services do not reach many people – that is “poor”. But the natural social capital and the indigenous social capital is quite high. For example, people really care about one another, they help one another and in this sense, I think we are quite wealthy. In terms of the environment, we are lucky that we are not very populated and nature can provide a lot of things that makes us kind of easy-going. This should be seen as a capital, it is our national wealth.
But in the World Bank and the mainstream economic system of measuring poverty, these factors are not considered and Laos is seen as “poor”. From the Western point of view, it is seen as a disadvantage if you are not competing against each other.
Sombath Somphone, in Watershed Vol. 7 No. 2 November 2001 – February 2002
This video was made by PADETC in preparation for Sombath to receive the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2005.
This film, created in 2012 by PADETC, shows the impact of Sombath’s development concepts in a process of participatory problem solving in a village in Pek District of Xieng Kuang Province. The process is led by high school student volunteers involved in the ‘Youth Development for Drug Prevention in School’ project of the Ministry of Education and Sports. Students collected information about conditions in their communities using Sombath’s sustainable development framework with the four balanced pillars of social-cultural preservation, environmental harmony, spiritual well-being, and economic development. During the process, villagers agreed the issue of land boundaries was a priority problem that urgently needed to be solved. The film shows the process of problem solving, beginning from the root causes that are determined by the people themselves, and that brings hope to the community. You will also feel the warmth of Sombath’s heart towards his own country and listening to the people’s voice.
The above video was shared on Facebook by Sombath’s niece, along with the following message:
This film is worth watching. He [Grandpa Yiaheu Chiatua] will make you smile with joy.
Uncle Sombath Somphone is the director of the film, to promote local knowlege of Laos.
First implemented as PADETC’s project many years ago, in cooperation with MoE [Ministry of Education], now it’s government policy that local knowledge content is included in 20% of national core curriculum of Laos.
Uncle Sombath has done so much for his own country. May his good work bring him back home safely as soon as possible.
Sombath has been missing for 114 days, but his words, his ideas and his inspiration are still with us.
In 2012, Sombath was an adviser for a video called ‘Happy Laos’ that was shown at the closing session of the Asia Europe People’s Forum (AEPF). Here is what he says in the film:
What are we developing for? We develop because we want happiness, but we see happiness as material things. We develop to reach our material goals but actually that is not true happiness.
We do not deny the economy is important but it has to be balanced. The economy, society, environment and the human spirit… these four factors have to be balanced, and then we will find happiness.
A few months ago, Sombath was involved in the making of the Happy Laos video, which you can watch here:
Today, Chistina McMellon, one of the researchers who was involved in Happy Laos, has shared details of her interview with Sombath. Here are some of the things he told her in May last year:
Happiness is about understanding how connected we are and how temporary everything is…about sharing good times and sharing the pain…it’s about giving…
Deeper happiness comes in creating an environment or conditions where everyone can be happy.
The future is always going to be changing, it will never be what you expect and you should not expect it to be the way you would like it to be.
You can read Christina’s blog, including more details of her interview with Sombath, under the heading ‘Unhappy Laos’.