PRAM Laos: Information by and for poverty reduction programme volunteers

The NEW PRAM website by davidgriff
March 18, 2011, 5:09 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Jade and I are pleased to announce the completion of the new PRAM website. Our goal was to create a webpage where anyone could go and easily understand what the PRAM initiative is all about and begin to see the impact taking place. The new website will also have a blog component so that Jade and I can continue to provide updates on the PRAMs current situation. There are already three updated blog entries on what has been going on the last few months. We are planning to move all entries from this blog over to the new webpage soon. For those wishing to see firsthand the PRAM’s effect on poverty reduction, check out the audio slideshows that have been posted on the new site here.


*Note: The new website is not 100% complete. Jade and I will continue to upload more content about the PRAM as time goes on. The Resources tab on the new website (for example) has no content as of yet but we will soon contain documents that can be downloaded as pdf’s for those who want more detailed information about the PRAM.


Student Assessment in Khammuan Province and Bolikhamsai Province by Jade Grimmius
November 16, 2010, 2:49 pm
Filed under: culture, meetings, people, places, projects

There is so much I want to write, but so much I have to do now that I’m back. David took such good care of the kids and the house and yard was immaculate when I got back. Also, apparently they didn’t hardly ask about me which makes me feel so relieved. I talked to David once about three nights into the trip and asked if the kids missed me. He paused for awhile and was like, “I’m sure they do…” He was afraid to tell me that they had hardly said a word about my being gone, but in fact I was so glad to know that they weren’t crying and pining after me.

The purpose of the trip was so that the Thai teachers and the Lao teachers could go visit their PRAM students in their villages and evaluate their projects. Each student must do four major projects and over the past few months, they had been working on their first two.

They are real, working projects that must address the needs of the community and help reduce poverty in some way. The students are agricultural extension officers (government) and each student chose certain families to work with in their village, based upon desire, ability to learn, and level of need/poverty.

The students are divided into two groups: animal husbandry and fisheries. To be honest, most of the projects I saw blew me away. And it was really amazing to hear the villagers talk about how it had improved their lives. This one woman said the best part about having a fish pond was that her relationship with her husband had improved, due to the fact that he had stopped going out drinking at night because he wanted to save their money to buy food for the fish.

This man said they now had a monthly income because his fish pond was doing so well, and that he was well-respected in his village for his new skills. He had never raised fish before a few months ago and it was easy to see his confidence and pride at what he had accomplished.

We also crossed the Vietnam/Lao border and spent twenty minutes or so at a really cold, run-down market that didn’t have anything interesting. The coolest part of crossing the border was that I didn’t have a visa. One of the Lao students had a friend at the border that offered to help us cross, but of course when the Vietnamese soldiers saw me in the van, they stopped us for 15 minutes and looked menacingly at me. They took my passport and I was worried I wouldn’t get it back, but after a few phone calls, they gave it back to me and waved us through. My half-hour in Vietnam didn’t leave me with the best impression.

Visit from Cambodian Fisheries Administration by davidgriff
November 15, 2010, 1:43 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized



I had a wonderful opportunity to help facilitate a visit by representatives of the Fishery Administration from Cambodia who came to Savannakhet University to learn more about the PRAM. Fortunately, the workshop on ‘lessons learned’ was conducted a week before. Many of the ‘keys to success’ of the PRAM were firmly affixed in our minds and easily came to mind during the visit.

We had to use a ferry to get to the villages where the projects were being done.

I was extremely impressed with the group of 20 Cambodians in total, who came to check out the PRAM. The first day I was told by Bountong that I was going to be given three hours in which to give a presentation about the PRAM and facilitate a discussion with the visitors. Rather then give a long presentation giving every piece of information about the PRAM, I decided to keep the presentation to 20 minutes worth of visible content. However, I began my remarks by firmly stressing that I did not want this presentation, or even their visit, to be where we talked and they listened. I told them that we wanted to hear their questions, impressions, and ideas about the PRAM. The whole group took this to heart and asked many thoughtful questions throughout the presentation, which stretched the conversation through the total three hours.

Loading into the trucks to get to the PRAM student's projects.

We also had an opportunity to take the Cambodians to visit some student’s projects in the field. Here the visitors again showered us with questions and comments. Bountong and I had our hands full trying to field questions, translating them from English to Lao and back again. I am really grateful for this opportunity for two reasons. First, it really helped me practice my Lao. Second, it gave me the opportunity to ask PRAM student’s questions I would have never thought to ask them and get tons of interesting information from them.

Viewing a plastic fish pond project. We saw a total of three projects. Two were plastic fish ponds and the other was a 'earth pond' where fingerlings were being raised and sold. It was great for the visitors to see all fish projects because so many of them were specialists in fish raising.

‘Lessons Learned’ Workshop by davidgriff
November 12, 2010, 4:56 pm
Filed under: meetings, projects, Uncategorized

On Monday, October 18th I travelled with Nick and Serm to Savannakhet for a workshop involving the various stakeholders of the PRAM initiative. The purpose of the workshop was to distill the key lessons learned and processes developed since the PRAM’s inception. For a description of this workshop see the following link. Also a report of the workshop will be available soon.

This workshop was a wonderful opportunity for me to learn more about the PRAM especially from the viewpoint of the different stakeholders involved. This information will be particularly helpful as Jade and I begin to develop an official website for the PRAM. The website will have both an external and internal purpose.

Before the workshop began, I met with the Thai professors as well as Dr. Tawat from UDICAD. We discussed the workshop's purpose and spent some time talking about some of the lessons learned from the different teachers perspectives. Once you get these guys started on anything PRAM, it is hard to get them to stop. They are just so excited about it and have so much to say. We were a little late to the workshop because we were having such a good time talking about why the PRAM is so unique.

The external purpose will be to provide a destination online where anyone interested in the PRAM can go and learn everything there is to know about it. Currently there are many sources one has to go to online to gather information about what the PRAM is and how it came to be. But more then just provide information on the PRAM our goal is to develop content and present this content in such a way that external observers can clearly see what makes the PRAM a unique and effective capacity building program. Jade and I feel that because the PRAM is so unconventional, it is difficult for external observers to ‘get’ what exactly it is. There are many people intrigued and interested in what the PRAM is doing and they want to learn more, but the truth is that the various components which make the PRAM so distinctive are also components which are more difficult to grasp if viewed through the lens of traditional development work.

Frequently throughout the workshop, we would break into groups and brainstorm various lessons learned from the PRAM as well as recommendations, challenges, and opportunities. Each group was given a different topic to discuss. Some of my group's topics were: Developing Partnerships, Curriculum Development, and Quality Assurance. Our ideas went onto giant sheets of butch paper. At the end of the workshop, all the papers were collected and they then formed the basis of the report that is soon forthcoming.

The website’s internal purpose will be explained in more detail at a later time. The essential idea is to have tools, which PRAM participants (teachers, students, government officials, etc) can use to submit data, search content, collaborate, and communicate.

Savannakhet University, September 22-24 by Jade Grimmius
October 2, 2010, 1:51 pm
Filed under: language, meetings

A new building at Savannakhet University.

To be honest, this post has taken me forever to write, almost entirely because I’m certain I won’t get the facts straight. We are still learning about the PRAM and figuring out what role(s) we will play, in addition to the fact that even though Lao people seem to understand me when I speak Thai, I understand maybe 20% of what is said in Lao.
Freed by this disclaimer, I can now explain what I’m pretty sure happened during the meetings at Savannakhet University (SKU).

Preparing for the meeting. The snacks probably had a shelf-life of decades. The hot chocolate was fantastic.

On Tuesday, Sept. 21, Nick took us and our boys in his car for the five-hour trip to Savannakhet to attend a PRAM conference at SKU. The purpose of the meetings was for the major stakeholders – officials from the Lao government, officials from SKU, and teachers from Lao and Thai universities – to get together and decide on a method of student assessment.

Meetings were to start Wednesday morning and we asked once or twice about the itinerary so we could figure out which of us would be watching the boys and when. But Nick didn’t really know the schedule until Tuesday night. David and I were surprised – I think we kind of thought Nick was in charge of everything – but seeing that he was just a facilitator was the first of several refreshing revelations we had during our time in Savannakhet.

David and I switched off attending the meetings and took notes so we could talk about what the other had missed. A lot of my notes looked like this:

“Ask Nick what the balding man in white was saying excitedly…”

The discussion starts to pick up...

There was an animated discussion in one of the meetings about qualitative vs. quantitative data. This discussion occurred naturally and is a key issue in terms of how students (and programs) are assessed.

Until now, the method of assessment has been based on the Logical Framework Approach which is mostly – if not entirely – quantitative by nature. However, it is clear that quantitative data paints only part of the picture of a program’s effectiveness or a student’s performance. So in the weeks and months prior to this conference at SKU, Serm and Bounthong worked tirelessly to adapt a qualitative method of assessment called “Most Significant Change” for use with the PRAM.

Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning were devoted to describing the Most Significant Change (MSC) method and David even gave a presentation on it.

What is Most Significant Change, you ask? Stay tuned.

There really is so much more to write but I am afraid I will never get this posted if I don’t do it now.

One of the many signs on the campus of Savannakhet University.

Hello, from David and Jade by Jade Grimmius
September 30, 2010, 2:04 pm
Filed under: people

We are the new volunteers/interns and will be taking over the blogging duties that had previously been so well performed by Anna and Arden.

David and I have learned Thai over the course of several years living in cities throughout Thailand. We have been married for six years and have two boys, ages two and four. I have a B.S. in computer science and David is in the middle of a master’s of public administration program.

We both love SE Asia  and are really interested in development work. We are here on two fellowships David received through the U.S. federal government (an NSEP Boren and a Fulbright).

We have been here in Udon Thani for one month and just came back from a trip to Laos, where we were able to see the administrative side of the PRAM up close (see tomorrow’s post).

meeting with Catherine Raymond at Udon Provincial Hall by Anna
July 20, 2010, 8:00 am
Filed under: culture, meetings, people

Meeting participants in the Office for Strategy Management at Udon Provincial Hall.

Yesterday, we attended a meeting organized by UDICAD featuring Catherine Raymond, who is a professor of Southeast Asian art at the Northern Illinois University and the director of their Center for Burma Studies. There were 15 attendees, including Nick, Serm, Dr Tawat (Rajabhat University), and several government officials affiliated with arts and culture development in the province. The goal of the meeting was to gain Professor Raymond’s expert opinions on the redevelopment of Udon’s provincial museum.

Prof Raymond opened the discussion by informing everyone that she has travelled many times to Udon, which is of interest to her as an archaeologist and art historian because it is the site of the most ancient culture in the region. In fact, the first thing she teaches her graduate students about is Ban Chiang. Communicating the importance of the region to stakeholders is critical, as also earlier emphasized by Nick, because often locals do not realize the cultural and historical value contained in their home region, which is (or would be) of international interest.

Prof Raymond was presented with the two main problems currently faced by the museum.

Firstly, they want to dig in front of the museum but are having problems getting permission because there are regulations against such digging near old buildings. I wondered if she would have anything to advise given that this question seems to require expertise of the local regulatory framework, but she smoothly inquired into the purpose of the desired digging. We learned that it was to improve visibility of the museum, but also (and more importantly) to create more space for displays and to improve access. Next she inquired into the archaeology of the proposed digging site: what is in the ground? We learned that site surveys have been conducted, but that actually the primary concern giving rise to the regulatory impasse is of flooding. Udon has in the past had trouble with flooding, and an underground display of valuable items could be risky. Prof Raymond recommended having a temporary exhibit that could be relocated during potential flood seasons.

Secondly, Prof Raymond was asked what she thought they should put in the museum. This, she acknowledged, was the critical question. Rather than providing a list of answers, however, the professor turned the question around by asking to hear an articulation of the museum’s purpose and vision. It was established that the museum should demonstrate local culture, for people who come to Udon Thani and want to know what’s in the province. Ancient murals, for example, depict donkeys carrying salt, evidencing that the region was part of an early salt-carrying route. (Prof Raymond had mentioned that she is interested in murals because they provide clues as to early culture.) It is also worth looking into alternatives, she said, to purchasing antiques for the museum, which can be very expensive. She had already had this conversation with Dr Tawat so she didn’t elaborate for us on potential alternatives, but I’m guessing they include borrowing from private collections and eliciting donations.

Udonthani City Museum

Someone came up with the idea of going to the museum for a tour, so impulsively, we all piled into the shuttle bus that somebody coincidentally already had, as well as a private vehicle, and made the short trip. The museum is housed in a beautiful 1920s mansion beside Nong Prajak lake, and features displays on everything from regional geology and archaeology to great regional Buddhist monks and the omnipresent royal family. I was particularly interested by the displays of ancient money, including long canoe-shaped coins and round imprinted ones, and the displays of old books, which are hand-written on palm leaf and bound together through the centre – the pages are about two inches across and two feet long.

Udon Thani has more than sex tourism to share with the rest of the world. With the help of UDICAD, perhaps the region can harness the existing cultural and historical richness to offer curious travellers a reason to visit as well as locals another reason to be proud.