An ethics question for volunteers.


Any volunteer to Cambodia goes in with their eyes wide open, I hope. Our radar is on and we’re monitoring what we see and hear in order to answer two questions.

  1. Am I doing the right thing here? Am I making a positive or a negative impact?
  2. Is the program I’m involved in a good one: is it making good use of its human and capital resources?

As a part time co-ordinator of volunteers to Savong’s project I get to hear feedback from visitors, though never as much as I’d hope. Many volunteers move on and their busy lives consume them. However most feedback is very positive and the number of referrals from one volunteer to others is testimony to how those two questions are being answered.

However I do hear criticisms as well and they are a reminder to me of how every conversation, everything we hear and everything we witness goes into our evidence gathering in order to ask those two questions. I pass on criticisms to Savong in order that any issues might be dealt with.

When criticism is negative and somebody’s had a less than stellar experience the feedback also comes framed with other criticisms. For example once a volunteer told me: “did you see Savong’s watch? Is this where the donations go?”  (Yes, I’ve seen the watch – a mid-priced Olympic – because I bought it for him as a gift of friendship. He calls it an “old man’s watch.” Another kind group bought him a practical G-Shock watch,) Others have said: “Have you seen what he drives? It’s a Lexus 4WD – is this where the donations go?”

The green Nissan Tundra semi-pick-up. Sometimes he drives his father’s second-hand Lexus. In Cambodia the nation is crawling with highly paid officials and NGO heads driving around in shiny new Lexus vehicles. I suspect that these were donated by Japan en-masse, as part of an aid program that also sorted out Toyota’s vehicle surplus. I might be wrong. But they’ve become a symbol of misdirected funds. Administrators who drive up to a village, measure the poverty and then drive away in air-conditioned comfort. You can imagine.

But when I asked Savong about the vehicle he was quite curt with me.  He asked me if I felt he needed a vehicle to do his job which involves daily commutes 14kms each way between Siem Reap and the school. “Yes,” I replied.

“So why do you mind that I drive a Nissan.”

“I guess it’s the look,” I said. “It looks like the school money goes towards your vehicle.”

“The money came from my work as a tour guide. It came from the business I run to earn an income. So why do people judge me? Do they want me to drive an even older car? Would they be happier if I walked?”

I think he has a point. Westerners are happy to volunteer, but we seem much happier – much less judgmental – if what we witness is poverty. Poor students without pens even, and without paper.  Barefoot teachers who do the best with what little they have.

Yet the moment we build-up the resources, and equip the local people (which is surely what we’re trying to do) we become much more judgmental. Schools, have come a long way from being without stationery. They have computers, and broadband. Savong’s School was given, very generously, a video projector.  So these thing… or the watch?  We don’t mind progress but THIS much progress?? We’d be happier, it seems, if the school was poorer, or the watch was a nasty throw-away: one that – to be honest – we’d not want to wear ourselves.

I think we tread a fine line when we ask ourselves whether programs are making good and fair use of human resources and capital in order to do the job they’re designed to do.  The question is a perfectly fair one, and it needs constant asking.  But we have to be careful that we apply consistent yardsticks when we assess the evidence. If a program director needs a car, then for goodness sakes, equip him or her with a car that goes. A second-hand 4WD shouldn’t get us steamed up. (A stretch Hummer, well that would be another question.) We shouldn’t wish for two standards: a standard we apply to programs in our own countries, versus a “lower” standard in Cambodia.  And we shouldn’t assume that what we see – the watches or vehicles – come out the mouths of the hungry. In this case they haven’t. We need to be vigilant, for sure, but not too quick to judge.

More on volunteering.

Teaching in Cambodia is different, different – but same.


Monks in the classroom – they add another dimension to the Cambodian teaching experience.

Yesterday Savong sent me a dozen lovely photos taken recently at the school near Siem Reap.  These photos reminded me of the cultural collisions that subtly occur when a volunteer like me stands up in the Cambodian classroom.

At first, (for 45 seconds) culture shock threatens to overwhelm the experience, but as soon as you start asking questions as well as answering questions from the students, the ice is broken. For any volunteer the first few minutes are spent answering questions about your age, your family, your marital status and your country. I pointed to New Zealand on a map, last time I was in the classroom, and told the students that I swam all the way to Cambodia. There’s an international look on young people – a kind of polite “aww bullshit” expression which I recognised, and at once the ice was broken and the students knew not to take anything I said at face value.

There are little cultural tips about teaching here. Don’t point at students with your forefinger (as my mum always told me: it’s rude to point), and take your shoes off at the door.  Again, last time I was there I took off my sandals and this revealed that one of my feet is missing, thanks to a wayward lawnmower, two toes. A girl in the front row nudged her classmate. “Landmine,” I heard her whisper. I felt a bit humbled, because my accident was such a first world problem by comparison. Later when students asked me about my foot I explained that “this big tiger had attacked me.”  Again I got that familiar “aww bullshit!” look.  I clearly lack credibility.

As the photo indicates, there are likely to be monks in the classroom also, and at Savong’s school this is likely because of the local monastery 1km away at the Rolous temple, site of the first of the Angkor temples, almost 1,000 years old. Many of the monks are teenagers, though some are older guys.

At first I wasn’t sure how to relate to them. One expects a kind of Zen-ness about the demeanour, but actually they proved to be just a group of teenage boys: conspicuously sitting in the back row (like I used to do at that age) and not above writing on their desks. For female volunteers there is simply the added instruction: don’t physically contact a monk – either by shaking their hand, or – worse – patting their head. 

After a few minutes in the classroom I’m overwhelmed by the sense that really, this is the same as teaching in a local school. A few years back I wrote a young adult fiction novel, The Whole of the Moon, and this occasioned me to to visit several dozen schools in New Zealand to discuss writing and offer students encouragement. Really those classes were the same as the Cambodian classes. Smart girls sit up the front and whisper. Bad boys sit at the back, legs kicking, eyes gazing out the window.  Students everywhere laugh at the same jokes and take especial delight in proving the teacher wrong.

In Cambodia I taught one class hangman, the word game, and they took special pride in beating the gallows, two guesses away from their fateful end. My word was a biggie: VOLLEYBALL but the moment one boy asked the letter “L” the whole class could smell the teacher’s doom.  They jeered knowingly.

Later on I felt awful for another reason. Was “hangman” a little too close to the Pol Pot experience? Was it culturally insensitive?  Not to worry, Savong assured me. In Cambodia they have a similar word game where you draw steps that, lead, step, by, fateful, step, to, a, crocodile. Snap snap.

I miss these students, and I can’t wait to swim over to Cambodia once more.





A simple dream I had last night


Let’s nurture a free press in Cambodia. It might start locally at Savong’s School.


I’m getting excited, now, about my impending journey to Cambodia. This last week I’ve had good conversations with Savong, but also a skype call with one of the students Kadeb whom I really look forward to seeing again. He has one of those smiles that light up any room, and I’m dying to see him after almost two and a half years.

I’ve also been wondering what I’d like to bring the classrooms I meet at Savong’s School. I’d like to introduce something new; something which leaves an ongoing impact. This morning I woke up with answer.

Since the Cambodian elections which rocked the sitting government by demonstrating the widespread distrust with which they are held by the public, there has been a lot of discussion about the role of a free press in Cambodia. I think the Phnom Penh Post do a great job of bringing in-depth and searching stories to public light, and I praise the role of the widely listened to Voice of America broadcasts which have a wide following and – in contrast to their work during the 1960s when Nixon and Kissinger were treating SE Asia with such disdain –  they are working hard to bring balanced but searching news coverage as well. They are trustworthy, whereas the National Television news service acts more like the voice of the party in power. It pulled coverage of mass demonstrations for example, because such stories would have been ‘biased against the government.’  So according to TV 50,000 Cambodians did not turn up at a recent protest – while the rest of Cambodian knew about it anyway.

The free press. Where do students consider the role of such a thing, and how do students get to practice their interests in such a vehicle? This morning I woke up with a simple idea: to start a school newspaper at Savong’s School.

Now disclaimer. I used to edit a school newspaper when I was at high school, and it was never much of a crusading voice under my helm. Later at University I got involved with the student newspaper “Nexus” and learned a number of good lessons including a basic tenet: the truth is no defense in a  libel case. We pilloried, and rightly so, a history professor. He sued.

But later again I ended up freelance writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, and contributed articles more recently to magazines as diverse as Auckland Metro, Management, Renovate, Hospitality and a host of others. Writing has been a core interest of mine since high school and those early pieces I used to so earnestly write.

So a school newspaper. That’s what I’d like to begin. Through such a medium local students may experience the joy of seeing their names in print; the agony of seeing their typos light up the sky with shame, and may consider the debates about whether an article is fair, is true, is worthwhile: three quite different things. I can’t predict what the outcome will be, but I do hope that just as I saw a colleague editor of Nexus pursue a career in journalism that has led him to the BBC Foreign News Service (Tip of the hat to Paul Clark) so too, one day, I’d love to see a student or two from Savong’s School in time doing what good journalists do: helping society by illuminating its stories, both good and bad.

Exam time at Savong’s School


The stress of exams. The pressure to do well. A number of students here will win a Savong School 4-Year University Scholarship as a result of their hard work.

Examinations were held this last week at rural-based Savong’s School – just ahead of the Cambodian Pchum Ben holidays in which families honour their ancestors. Many children took part in the exams which are held to an officially recognised standard thanks to input from a local university and authorization by the Ministry of Education. For the senior Grade 12 students these examination provide the opportunity to gain a full four year university scholarship and laptop computer so there is a lot at stake here.

Results will be announced in late October after the Pchum Ben holiday season, which of course means plenty of marking for the teachers. Good luck everyone!

Naturally, if you’re reading this and wish to find a truly amazing way to support a student to realise their dreams and potential, you’re invited to take part in this programme.