A most satisfactory visit with Savong.

A few weeks back I admitted to being somewhat apprehensive about this year’s visit to Cambodia. My last journey had not gone particularly well, and the agenda for this year – a set of business meetings to help get better systems and steer the growth of Savong’s NGO appeared to me to be fraught with risk. Put bluntly, I’m expecting Savong – who started the project 9 years ago with no more than a high school education – to adopt a full western-style operating system in order that donors and sponsors can satisfy our own authorities – inland revenue departments for example – about the validity of our gifting.  We live in compliance-driven economies, with huge office towers of graduates devoted to accurate book-keeping. It’s our business culture. How quickly can we ask Cambodian organisations to ramp-up?

Well this journey I’m filled with optimism. For a start, I’ve never seen the school better organised. A couple of original staff members have moved on this last year, but with their replacements has come fresh energy and commitment. Sovannarith, one of the first teachers and widely accepted as the most professional and well trained, is now the senior teacher and in charge of upskilling the others.

Exams are well organised, authorised by the Ministry of Education (a move established some years ago by good supporter Colm Power from Ireland) and close attention is paid to who has passed and who needs to try again. When I visited results were just being posted, and students were flocking, excitedly, to see whether they had passed or missed out. Most of those who missed out had only attended language or computer classes for a few months – so (at least the ones I spoke with) were keen to enrol again for another shot.

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The photo here of Savong’s School was taken on a holiday, so it looks rather empty, but teachers are expecting at least 500 enrolments this new year.

An excellent part of the story at this school is the work put in by scholarship winning students who, after studying at University in the mornings, come back to the school in order to teach or conduct admin duties. They give something back, and they act as mentors for the existing high school students. I’d recommend the practice to any other school.  The enthusiasm of these scholarship winners is palpable (there are more than a dozen – soon to be joined by at least half a dozen more.) The first wave of these scholars will complete their Bachelors degrees a year from now.

When I asked Savong whether his objectives had changed over time he restated the same dream he outlined to me in 2004 exactly nine years earlier: to proved free education in order that poor students can reach their potential.

Along these lines we explored the development of the scholarship idea – assisting students not just through post-high-school university support, but through other career guidance pathways as well. This has been something I’ve been mulling over and was raised also by Amir and Dilshad, the supporters who bankrolled the school library. I met them while on this journey and we visited the library together  – it is a mutli-purpose building with offices, library, computer class-room and meeting/room (come classroom) and to my mind the heart of the school. Amir and Dilshad suggested that a career-guidance focus might be extremely useful not only through sending great students through university, but to support through sponsorship, expertise, good connections – students who wish to train in other vocations. A big part of that is the need to to simply open the eyes of our students to the vast array of career possibilities by bringing in guest speakers, to talk with our rural students and explain what their jobs entail, and how to go about training for that job.

A few years ago almost every student I met wanted to be a “tour guide.”  That made sense in tourist driven Siem Reap. This time when I asked students I found a couple who wished to be engineers, a number who wish to manage their own businesses, and a few who would like to be in a trade – such as electrician or mechanic.

That was the career choice of young Buntheourn whom supporters have sponsored since 2008. (Below)

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He is now almost fully trained as a mechanic, and a year from now will be capable of earning something like $300 a month – unheard of money compared to his parents who struggled on something like $40 per month to support their son. His is one of those great leaps forward we can help local students achieve. Buntheourn is as delightful as ever, by the way, now a young man and completely at ease his profession.

Savong and I had much to talk about. Goals and objectives. Measuring KPIs. Budgeting (12 monthly rather than ad-hoc monthly forecasting) and the need to sharpen up the volunteer experience. A charge will now be imposed for this experience,  to filter out those who rock-up, interrupt the students and all they do is take photos for Facebook without even making a token donation. NGOs in Cambodia are getting mighty wary of these gap-year Facebook volunteers.

However good volunteers are still a necessary part of the story. They help bring expertise, knowledge, encouragement and yes – financial or business resources (good contacts) to the project. As Savong told me at the end of one meeting: “I fully realise how important our supporters are.”

What I found was a school in good heart, and functioning well: a school that is delivering on its objectives.  I’ll discuss in another post the work at the children’s home. Systems-wise it is still a couple of notches behind the school, but making great progress. A day trip with 6 new students to visit their parents 40kms away proved one of the richest experiences I’ve had in my 58 years. Stay posted.

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2 thoughts on “A most satisfactory visit with Savong.

  1. Wonderful to hear how the school and student projects continue to evolve Duncan. It is a testament to your commitment and tenacity that you always strive to support and improve, regardless of the challenges that exist. It is amazing to see the huge improvements that have been made in just the few short years I have been involved. A great team surrounds Savong and the children, and a far improved future ahead for them all.

  2. Thanks Lesley-Anne. You’re so right about a great team: and that includes the talent that Savong has been assembling around him in Cambodia. We’re all helping nudge things along. One of the the subjects Savong and I discussed was the advantage he’d gain if he had a board of directors (or advisors) that he could meet with (by Skype?) on a regular basis. We talked a lot about how by consciously addressing the innate concerns of volunteers and donors (is this place effective? Is this place well run? Does it show the love and concern for the students and young children that we expect?) we can unlock more willing support.

    In 2004 when we set up we had a simple choice to make. Should the NGO be foreign run or locally run? Us foreigners would have got systems going a lot sooner, but in the long run – how would any of us feel if we had foreigners barging in to OUR countries and sorting out our social issues THEIR way? I felt glad on this trip that we chose the other path: to support Savong as he grows into the task and, ultimately to ensure that the NGO operates through the eyes and ears and hearts of locals.

    Nudges are still useful though. I think one thing we need to urgently address at the SOC children’s home is the dental care of the children. Their teeth are in a typical state for Cambodia (lack of flouride, sugary diet, lack of clean running water etc) – in other words quite seriously bad, but not in a way that locals especially notice. A mix of local and foreign viewpoints is quite advantageous!

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