News from Vientiane Times of August 04-06, 1998

Philanthropist promotes better education with foundation : By Anoulack

HUMAN resource development is something that most people in Laos are concerned about, but who is really willing to do something to make a real difference? One Lao businessman is doing just that. By pooling some of his own personal resources with other business people to form the Foundation for Promoting Education (FPE), he aims to bring Lao children, especially those who are poor and are living in remote areas, out from the dark shadow of illiteracy.

Mr Somphiene Saiyadeth, the President of the FPE, feels it is necessary that people work together to help give talented students from poor families the opportunity to fulfil their dreams and realise their potential.

Mr Somphiene, who is also the president of garment manufacturer Aporn Lao Co Ltd and the managing director of Lao Garment Co Ltd, decided to donate what little he had, together with the generous donations of friends and donors, .to establish the foundation.

He told the Vientiane Times that the foundation had been originated from a group of businessmen who really wanted to see quality education in Laos.

"Before the establishment of the foundation, many of us had similar ideas-feelings of a lack of competition and challenge amongst students and teachers. Many students had been given scores to pass the examinations or had cheated to pass them. Although some students had been selected to study in foreign countries, their abilities were still low and below the level of their foreign counterparts," -Mr Somphiene said.

"When we had chances to meet with each other, we often expressed our wishes to each other and found out that many of us had the same ideas--that is, wanting to improve the quality of education in Laos. So we decided together to establish this foundation."

In the early stages, FPE defined its objectives with four duties: providing funds for extremely successful students who have been selected through an administered test; providing educational funds to the best students who are exemplary but in great need of financial assistance; providing and awarding teachers for excellent teaching, as well as for being exemplary; and providing funds for building schools in remote and poor areas.

This year, the foundation's executive board decided to add one more objective, aiming to help university students who are talented academically, but lack financial resources.

In this case, we can choose the people, location or the subjects. For example, a construction company can provide its assistance to students of the architecture faculty.

"We also feel there is a need to support students from other provinces who live in dormitories with a per diem of only 10,000 kip per month," said Mr Somphiene.

He continued to raise some questions. "How can they survive with this amount of money, how can they buy some necessary studying materials, what should they do when they want to visit their home town during the holidays?"

When asked how the foundation would be able to recognise a student truly in need, Mr Somphiene said that the committee would look at the student's biography and other sources from the school, and the assistance would be in the form of materials instead of cash.

"More than half of the students who receive assistance from us are orphans," said Mr Somphiene.

He explained further that if the foundation gave cash to students, they probably would not use it for educational purposes or their guardians might keep all the cash received.

However, cash is provided to students who exceed certain set criteria of the foundation. For example, a student can receive only one third of the total amount of cash plus interest since they have a three or four-year term of study. This means that each term, students can withdraw their money from the bank to buy school materials. Students can also leave their money in the bank to gain interest without withdrawing.

Since the foundation is still young (established last year), it can only contribute its budget to students in Vientiane municipality. But according to its plan, the foundation will expand its activities to five major provinces, and further to ten provinces if it has enough funding.

The funds awarded to excellent students, exemplary teachers and financially lacking students on July 16 were the target of the foundation's second fund distribution. The first one was organised last year when more than three million kip was given to 20 students who were in financial need, six excellent students and six exemplary teachers.

This year the foundation already provided more than 30 million kip to 18 excellent students, 18 exemplary teachers and 60 poor students.

"These numbers will be constant for Vientiane municipality, but for the other provinces the number may go up or down depending on the amount of money collected from donors," he said.

About 120 million kip is needed every year by the foundation in order to cover the number of students throughout the country.

Mr Somphiene believed that such amount of money would not be very difficult for the foundation to find since many people see the importance of the programme and some have already been involved in it.

"It is impossible that nobody will be involved in this programme," he said.

"Mr Vanseng, the owner of the four storey hotel in Khammouane province has already proposed to provide funds to students in his province."

Intent on improving education in his own country, Mr Somphiene wants to recognise publicly the best teachers in the country to bestow honour on those helping to shape the minds of the future generation.

Mr Somphiene and his friends hope to gather as much support as they can from individuals and companies who really want to see improvement in the state of education in Laos.

"We (FPE) would like to appeal to all honourable persons, friends and business people as well as people of all nationalities,to contribute generously to our foundation so that it can survive and achieve its role," he said.