Its 9:00 in the morning of 7 August 2014 and here I am at the Northern Agriculture and Forestry College (NAFC) on the outskirts of Luang Prabang in Laos. The first job fair of the college kicks off with opening remarks, followed by job-seeking workshops, alumni presentations and culture shows like traditional ethnic and break-dance. There are booths set up by organic farm enterprises, development projects or state small companies who are hunting for graduates, and a few hundred participants ranging from state officials to students are visiting the fair. Nobody would think that five years ago, some school buildings were in still ruins, there were only two classrooms, no teacher’s rest room or other basic teaching infrastructure.
The job fair is this year’s highlight and was initiated by the project of Support to the Reform of the Northern Agriculture & Forestry College (SURAFCO). It is a joint-project between the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF), implemented by NAFC with the support from HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation in Laos started in 2009. Major activities are funded by Swiss Agency for Development & Cooperation (SDC). During its four year pilot stage, it aims to install basic school infrastructure and emphasise curriculum development with a focus on vocational and field training, and empower teachers and ethnic students from eight poorer Northern provinces. In 2010, the formal school was upgraded to a college, and now the whole campus accommodates more than 500 teaching staff and students majoring in associate degree programs in agronomy, livestock production, agro-business and forestry. Practice fields were also put in place such as a medicinal plant garden, fishing ponds, and fields of upland agriculture and forestry.
Talking with Ms. Soutthida Moungkhounsavat, office manager of the project, students at NAFC often feel under-privileged and less confident then ‘city-boys or girls’, when in fact they have great potential to be extensionists as they are coming from the rural villages and know the innovation needs of the traditional upland production systems. They shall learn the technical know-how from the college and bring changes to their perspective villages.
Looking at other development projects, which bring momentary workforce and money, Ms. Soutthida feels anxious about the project ending its second phrase in 2016. Teachers might not keep their still-improving teaching ethics or passions if their basic salary can no longer be supported, since most of them receive a living allowance of less than 50 euro per month and complete a large chunk of their work via volunteering. Volunteer teachers are common in Laos, as teaching experience also counts as part of the accumulating years for a government position. Many of the academic staff work hard in the hope of leaping to a permanent position in the government system that offers promising pensions and benefits.
There is a recent article written on ‘Why volunteer talent leaves’ that echoes how important it is to provide professional workplaces for the talent employees. Education needs great compassionate teachers who are not staring at returns, but with the willingness and capacity to give. SURAFCO has been working in this area to strengthen teachers’ technical, methodological, behavioural skills and try to link the curriculum to enterprise-building capacity of students.
The job fair was a success, as it gives the third years a glimpse of what a job-market is about and it means a lot for the overlooked and undervalued talent pool to know that there is ALWAYS a chance out there. In my short visit, I feel a sense of community and belonging at the college. Very soon the college will celebrate its 25th anniversary and I truly hope both the students and teachers will recognise that they have gone far to reach today’s success and that they all will be leading the torch to carry on, even if the day comes when the project will no longer be there to support.
My brief visit to the college has stirred up plenty thoughts about the system of volunteerism of the ‘yet-to-be’ government staff in Laos. Teachers at NAFC are the lucky ones, as their resources are valued and being transformed to something that would be beneficial to the underprivileged students, and help young people to gain a foothold in the world of work.
Not only in Laos, but also worldwide there are countries capitalising on practical training for the youth and education. Click here to hear successful stories of Helvetas’s country project in Nepal and here to check out training women teachers and schooling girls in Afghanistan.