Culture plays a big role in the way NGOs are run


The thoughtful 2009 book, Roads to Development, is one I found – very gratefully – at Siem Reap airport’s excellent little bookshop before I flew out. I’m always thirsty for insight regarding modern Cambodia and how westerners like me need to interact; so I found this book based on 70 interviews with a wide variety of community and NGO stakeholders in the Southern district of Sre Ambel to be particularly informative.

The text was researched and written by two people; Meas Nee who is a Cambodian who studied for his Doctorate at LaTrobe University in Australia, and Wayne McCallum who is a New Zealander – also a PhD – who has worked in Cambodia since 2003. They studied the various pathways for development of Sre Ambel district, and reflect on how different philosophic approaches succeed or fail in the Cambodian context. The book is instructive, and helps make sense of the messy gumbo of “development.” In this context I worry about the big Chinese investments that effectively serve big business, but disenfranchise locals from their own land. The numerous land rights issues in Cambodia are an ugly facet of the nation’s “development.”

I found one particular chapter by Meas Nee particularly eye-opening. He describes how Khmer people see development through a particular local lens. Characteristics of this view include:

  • The notion of the “patron leader” in each community. Rather than a “voice of the people” approach, Cambodians often delegate issues upward to a patron who ‘will look after us.’
  • Problem-based rather than issue-based thinking. The tendency to see problems that need a band-aid, rather than an issue that requires an underlying change.
  • Activity focus rather than strategic focus. Hence what gets measured (number of injections) is often out of step with the real issue (is disease being reduced – is the real issue the poor water quality?)

Meas Nee suggests that one of the root causes of the latter two outlooks is the type of education in Cambodia’s schools: which do not stress critical thinking and problem solving. But for sure, his three sets of characteristics are often at the heart of misunderstandings between supporters of NGO’s (us folk in the west who require strategic focus, KPIs, accountability) and the local managers.

The book has given me a concise understanding of some of the frustrations I’ve sometimes felt in the past, and some of the frustrations Savong has felt with me. Culture: it often influences us in surprising ways.

4 thoughts on “Culture plays a big role in the way NGOs are run

  1. Duncan, I am loving hearing about all your experiences in your most recent trip. Thank you for so many thought provoking entries. I love being able to keep up with what is going on at the SOC and the school!

  2. Thanks for the encouragement. I’m probably over-posting at present – but trying to capture my thoughts after a successful journey in which Savong and I discussed many things – strategies, objectives and actions for his NGO. One big challenge or opportunity for us is to expand the university scholarship program. These are making a direct difference to more than 20 families now and hits the button in terms of family goals: to ensure their children get a good education. (In turn those students will support their families once they find employment.) A good, crystal clear “investment” for supporters.

  3. I grew up in Australia … middle class but my father had to work hard in his own business because he had 8 children…. I trained and became a qualified electrician ..also developed many other skills My wife was a qualified teacher We earned good money BUT we could not give our parents funds as we had to make way in our own life… family (one son) 2 cars and our own house And even later having to spend considerable on moving to find work We could only contribute to our parents funeral !!
    So how does anybody believe that the youth (in Cambodia) WILL get good jobs and be able to support their parents Specially when they too follow the stupid principle of pushing out kids as soon as they are married (now even before marriage) First thing these people should learn is about relationships and sexual intimacy Instead of their useless videos about romance
    And do not worry ; N.G.O.s have their own cultural (belief) system

    • Judging by the young Cambodians I’ve met, there’s going to be a sudden drop in the birth rate in that country. They talk about having 1 or 2 kids, maybe 3 – but no more than that. This will occur especially in the cities. The upward help given to parents by their kids is especially strong in Asia, and in Cambodia the assistance either comes trough staying on the farm and helping out, or finding a good paying job: for which there is a fast growing supply. The economy in the cities is charging ahead and young Cambodians seem to have the ability to live on meagre budgets while sending money home back to Mum or Dad. Right now the educated youth have got a fairly open career window; and their prospects are light years away from those of the generation who lived through Pol Pot or the gruelling years of poverty be6tween 1979 and the UNTAC run election of 1993.

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