Opt-In. A fund raising idea for Savong’s School


So there I was, drooling over a $4,000 bicycle when the idea hit me…

This year I have set myself a challenge. I’m 58 and within sight of that ‘retirement’ finishing line which, mysteriously, is coming up more quickly even as I’m slowing down. The challenge is to set up a fund-raising ‘machine’ that continues to operate, and prosper for the sake of the rural students we support, even if I’m run over by the retirement bus.

Fund raising. I wonder who enjoys it? I think one reason I don’t enjoy it – despite having a great cause to support – is that it fundamentally leads to a lot of people losing face. By asking you for a thousand dollars I risk that awkward moment of having a friend or acquaintance saying, “No, sorry.”  They feel awkward, I feel awkward.

A second problem is, I think, the way requests for money are framed. An out of the blue request for $50 seems like an imposition: an unexpected expense. Yet if you were buying a new car and the salesman said, look – the sports-styled magnesium cup holder will cost an extra $50 – then, well to hell with it! What’s an extra $50 when you’re already investing $40k? It’s nothing.

I recently visited a bicycle shop near where I live and it was there I had an insight flash. A way to fund-raise that removes the face problem and the framing effect. A bicycle had caught my eye. It got me reminiscing about a great 800km journey I’d completed with friends 20 years ago and I was seduced by the weight (about 3 nano-grams) and appearance. Just beautiful. And it could be mine for a mere $4,000 which itself was a discounted price. You could buy 45 children a new bicycle each, for the same amount in Cambodia.

Yet the person who buys the $4,000 bike is not a bad person. They may be a dedicated triathlete perhaps. Or a weekend road-warrior with the dream, simply, of sailing downhill on a summery afternoon after completing a personal challenge.

So if I were to accuse them of being selfish (“How dare you buy that bike when there are needy children in Cambodia!”) I’d myself be offensive. And both of us would lose face.

But if I were to ask that bike purchaser this offer: “Hey, you’re buying a fantastic bike – instead of paying $4,000 – how about contributing an extra $50 to make a child in Cambodia equally delighted?”  Now we’re talking. What’s $50? It is 1.25% and about a sixth of the price of the Italian leather saddle. And a lot more comfortable. Now the purchaser can easily opt in or not – and the amount, when framed this way, really doesn’t seem like a terrible imposition.

So there it is. My big fund-raising thought for 2014. Now I’ve got to find a few opt-in partners – starting with the bike shop. It needs to work for them too. But which bike shop can you think of would not want to spread the joy and benefits of cycling not just amongst the well-heeled west, but through the villages and muddy roads to the schools of rural Cambodia?

Cambodia’s Curse – a timely book by a top level journalist


January 2013 and Cambodia is in a political crisis. I’ve stayed clear of the demonstrations in Phnom Penh which have been in part a protest about unjust wages paid by the fashion industry sweatshops in Cambodia, but to a larger extent have reflected a bottled-up anger in the face of too many years of Government corruption under the governance of Hun Sen, the Prime Minister.

Joel Brinkley is no stranger to Cambodia’s situation having first reported on the desperate refugee crisis in 1980, bought to the world’s attention by the landmark movie The Killing Fields.

San Francisco Chronicle, April 16, 2011
“As a young reporter, Brinkley won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for his coverage of the Cambodian refugee crisis. Returning to the region 30 years later, Brinkley – now a professor of journalism at Stanford – chose his subject well…[he] admirably…demonstrates that Hun Sen’s administration has been a disaster for many Cambodians.”

In his more recent book, Cambodia’s Curse, Brinkley traces the emergence of post-Pol Pot Cambodia and he is frankly aghast at what he sees. It takes very little scratching to uncover corruption and an abuse of power at every turn – whether it is in land development (and displacement of farmers,) or the unreliable justice system where the rich and powerful can, it seems at will, circumvent justice through connections or simple exchanges of money.

The broad picture leaves Brinkley pessimistic, and he spends much of the book tracing why the situation is so bad; drawing on cultural and historical strands in an attempt to explain the deep-seated and systemic corruption. The book also serves as a powerful, and easily readable recent history of Cambodia.

Joel Brinkley is careful in his quest to build his argument. He has been a professor of journalism at Stanford University since 2006 after a 23-year career with The New York Times. There, he served as a reporter, editor and Pulitzer Prize winning foreign correspondent. At Stanford, Brinkley writes an op-ed column on foreign policy that appears in about 50 newspapers and Websites in the United States and around the world.

While published in 2011, and therefore quite up to date, it would be interesting to hear Brinkley’s take on events since the 2013 elections in which:

  • For the first time in recent electoral history massive 50,000 person anti-Government protests took place and anti-Government sentiment was overtly expressed.
  • Hun Sen’s majority was significantly diminished. Independent reports raise flags about the clean-ness of the elections with more votes in doubt (voters disallowed, double voting and other problems) than the margin of victory.

These have helped fuel a much more vocal anti-Government sentiment since the elections, and the response by the Government, to openly fire (and kill) protesters has brought international condemnation.

Brinkley, for his part, is not fully convinced that international assistance for Cambodia is all that effective. He isn’t impressed with UN driven aid to Cambodia (much aid money goes unaccounted,) and his feeling is that it props up a bad Government rather than contributes to social justice.

Well worth reading and reflecting on.

For more about social justice and the growth of the Cambodian economy – click here.

And two other book reviews that may be of interest to you: Destination Cambodia, a Travel Writer’s take on modern Cambodia and A History of Cambodia by David Chandler.

The impact of school fees on poor families in Cambodia.

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Free education? In Cambodia it is supposed to be free – but widespread charging of ‘fees’ is hurting attendance of poor rural children. Many call it corruption.


A key philosophy of Savong is that all schooling provided by his organisation should be free of charge. This is to ensure that the poorest families can still gain a good education for the children. In fact the question of school fees is a vexed one in Cambodia. In short the education system is supposed to be free, but the State system is under-resourced and the practice of charging students fees for attendance is practically universal. Some critics term this fee as an out and out bribe; while others see the fees as simply a realistic way for schools to meet their basic running costs. Without this levy schools would simply have to close.

This blog has posted recent figures which demonstrate that the Cambodian government devotes a very skinny slice of its annual spend towards education, and the Ministry is on record as saying it relies on the NGO and private sector to help Cambodia reach its education goals. Between the ‘free education’ rhetoric the Government is really saying that others will have to pay for schooling – don’t rely on the Government. So while the Ministry said in 2008, following international criticism, that charging of informal levies was illegal – the practice is found in every region of Cambodia and primary as well as secondary school level.

How much do these informal fees cost? A 2007 report by the Cambodian NGO Education Partnership (NEP) suggested that education costs for each child averaged $108 annually, or 9 percent of the average annual income of each family. Clearly in a nation where having four or five children is very common, the education costs become very significant.

The NEP study found that these fees were the main reason given for children not attending school, and that a quarter of parents were unaware that their children had a right to free education.

The problem is particularly challenging for poor families, and a study (conducted by Mark Bray for the World Bank in 2001,) looked at the same issues in neighbouring nations and found that the poorest 20% devoted a much greater slice of the annual income to education costs.

Thus in Thailand the cost to the average family of their children’s education was 16% of household income, while this represented 47% of the household income of the poorest quintile. In Vietnam education cost the average family 12% of their annual household income, while education costs represented 22% of the annual income of the poorest quintile.

Where do these informal fees go? Do they go toward running costs or do they go into the pockets of poorly paid state school teachers?

Judging by Government policy, and the recent declaration that secondary school teachers would receive a pay rise, it appears that the Government is carrying out a policy it first announced three years earlier – to stamp out corruption (or informal fees) by raising teacher salaries.  In other words it appears the Government accepts that most of these fees have indeed been going into the pockets of teachers.

But there’s a fine line between teaching staff doing their best but levying students in order to keep teaching on an otherwise low salary (justifiable fees?) versus out and out corruption where teachers accept bribes in order to fatten their income in exchange for tweaking exam results for those willing to pay over some cash. (Unjustified corruption.)

In a 2005 study that examined how corruption touches everyday life ( Nissen, C. (2005) Living under the Rule of Corruption: An Analysis of Everyday Forms of Corrupt Practices in Cambodia. Phnom Penh: Centre for Social Development0 the author found almost a third of families expected to have to basically pay off teachers, head masters, and ministry staff for good scores in examinations, good records in attendance, and school admissions and transfers.

The public resent this and Nissen’s report highlights how the public actually feels the most unease about their teachers being a part of the corruption culture.

So long as the Ministry under-supports the education sector, thereby making fees a practical necessity, two bad outcomes will occur.

  1. The poor will lose their right to a good free education.
  2. The door is open for further more serious corruption.

This is one of the serious issues facing the education sector in Cambodia.

A good description of the Cambodian education system


In this article below, Sokhan Khut of another NGO, Bookbridge, describes the underlying education system in Cambodia.

This post has been “lifted” directly from the excellent Bookbridge website. We are not affiliated with Bookbridge however we admire their work in setting up learning centers in Cambodia and Mongolia.

In this post, Sokhan Khut, Country Manager for Cambodia at BOOKBRIDGE, gives a short introduction to the Cambodian Education System.

In Cambodia, an education system has been in place since at least from the thirteenth century on. Traditionally, Cambodian education took place in the Wats (Buddhist monasteries) and was offered exclusively to the male population. The education involved basic literature, the foundation of religion and skills for daily life like carpentry, artistry, craftwork, constructing, playing instruments etc.

This ‘traditional’ education was gradually changed when Cambodia was a French colony (1853-1963). The French introduced a formal education system influenced by a Western educational model, which was developed through the independence period (1960s), alongside with the traditional education. During the following civil wars, the education system suffered a chronic crisis and was completely destroyed during the Red Khmer regime (1970s). Between 1980s and 1990s, education was reconstructed from almost ‘nothing’ and has been gradually developed until now.

Presently, after its reform in 1996, the formal educational structure of Cambodia is formulated in 6+3+3. This means 12 years for the completion of general education that divides up into six years for primary education (grade 1 to 6) and six years for secondary general education (grade 7 to 12). Secondary education consists of three years each for lower secondary education (grade 7 to 9) and upper secondary education (grade 10 to 12). This formulation does not include at least one year for pre-school education (kindergarten) for children from 3 to below 6 years old and universitary education of 4 to 5 years.

Two others components of Cambodian educational structure involve non-formal education providing all children, youth, adult, disabled people with literacy and access to life skills. The other component is teacher training education. This allows students that successfully completed grade 12 or grade 9 to pursue teacher certificates at provincial teacher training colleges (for primary school teachers) or regional teacher training centers (for lower secondary school teachers).

Currently, the educational system is run by the Cambodian state, but private education exists at all levels and is run by private sectors. Most private schools offering pre-school education and general education have been operated by the communities of ethnic and religious minority including Chinese, Muslim, French, English and Vietnamese. Private higher education is accessible mainly in the capital of the country, but it is also available throughout the provinces of Cambodia.

Cambodian general education is based on a national school curriculum that consists of two main parts: basic education and upper secondary education. Basic education curriculum is divided into three cycles of three years each. The first cycle (grade 1-3) consists of 27-30 lessons per week lasting 40 minutes which are allocated to the five main subjects:

  • Khmer (13 lessons)
  • Maths (7 lessons)
  • Science & Social Studies including Arts (3 lessons)
  • Physical and Health Education (2 lessons) and local life skills program (2-5 lessons)

The second cycle (grade 4-6) comprises of the same number of lessons but is slightly different:

  • Khmer (10 for grade 4 and 8 for grade 5-6)
  • Maths (6 for grade 4-6)
  • Science (3 for grade 4 and 4 for grade 5-6)
  • Social Studies including arts (4 for grade 4 and 5 for grade 5-6)
  • Physical and Health Education (2 for grade 4-6)
  • Local life skills program (2-5 for grade 4-6).

The third cycle (grade 7-9) consists of 32-35 lessons which are allocated for 7 major subjects:

  • Khmer
  • Maths
  • Social Studies and Science (6 lesson respectively)
  • Foreign languages (4 lessons)
  • Physical & Health Education and Sports (2 lessons)
  • Local life skills program (2-5 lessons)

Upper Secondary Education curriculum consists of two different phases. The curriculum for the first phase (grade 10) is identical to the third cycle of primary education (see above). The second phase (grade 11-12) has two main components: Compulsory and Electives. Compulsory involves four major subjects with different numbers of lesson allocated per week: Khmer literature (6 lessons), Physical & Health Education and Sports (2 lessons), Foreign language: English or French (must choose one, 4 lessons each) and Mathematics: Basic or Advance (must choose one, 4 or 8 lesson respectively). Electives include three major subjects covering four or five sub-subjects with four lessons allocated per week for each one (students may choose one or two or three of them):

• Science: Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Earth and Environmental Studies

• Social Studies: Moral/Civics, History, Geography, Economics

• EVEP: ICT/Technology, Accounting Business Management, Local Vocational Technical Subject, Tourism and Arts Education and other subjects

For those choosing Basic Maths or Advance Maths must choose four sub-subjects or three subjects respectively from the electives.

Note from Duncan. This description is the best I’ve seen at describing what’s on offer at Cambodian schools. In our work in Bakong our own school – Savong’s School – complements the state school by offering subjects in addition to the school syllabus – notably languages and computer studies.

Where does Cambodia rank in terms of higher education?


Measurements of education are difficult because one nation’s standards may be different from those of other nations, and the population  structure may be quite different also. However one metric applied by the UN is “enrollment in tertiary education” and this takes the percentage of people of tertiary education age (18 – 24 say) who are actually enrolled in tertiary education.

By these standards Cambodia ranks 116th out of 148 nations measured by UNESCO (2011) and reported by the World Economic Forum – a few positions lower than neighbouring Laos.

Earlier UNESCO figures (2005) estimated that around 2.8% of tertiary aged Cambodians are enrolled in tertiary education. (In the USA the figure is 72%.)

This situation is changing, and I think quite rapidly since 2005, but Cambodia has some catching up to do. When asked to evaluate the problems hindering economic development, the World Economic Forum respondents rated the “inadequately educated workforce” as the third greatest problem after corruption and inefficient Government bureaucracy.

A deeper problem is the urban-rural split, with university being more accessible for comparatively rich urban families, and out of reach for the rural poor. This issue has the potential to create a harsh class division in Cambodia, on top of the nation’s other social challenges. It is a key reason why at Savong’s School we established a full scholarship for the top students – and this provides for university enrollment (over a 4 year degree) as well as transport, a laptop and a living allowance over the 4 years.

More about the university scholarship – click here.

Room to Read – a good education initiative.


We know what a difference our own library makes, thanks to two American supporters. So today let’s recognise an organisation that has built 1200 libraries in Cambodia.


Literacy rates are climbing in Cambodia but they still have a long way to go with 39% of students not making it past primary school level and children of poor families at risk of missing out of the joy – and power – of books. The library at Savong’s School functions as a hub for reading among the children of Bakong. This was funded by private US donors and made a huge difference to our school It gives access to books and it literally gives room to read.

Which is the well-crafted name of a good charitable organisation in Cambodia: Room to Read which is dedicated to building libraries (1400 so far) and stocking these with suitable books.

Room to Read was founded in 1998 by a Microsoft Executive who visited Nepal on a holiday. John Wood was immediately touched by the need of local students to have access to books and he soon quit his job and parlayed his great connections to start this organisation. See John’s own book: Leaving Microsoft to Change the World

The organisation has a huge global scoop of support – for example operating out of offices in many centres such as San Francisco, London, Tokyo and Sydney, and for that it can thank sponsors such as the Swiss banking giant CreditSuisse. But Room to Read is also a model of grassroots organisation in terms of transparency and operation. With local Directors in each nation it operates providing insight and knowledge and getting Room to Read around the common problem faced by overseas-run NGOs: that of missing the local voices. The Cambodian operation was established in 2002.

Room to Read isn’t just about bricks, mortar and books. There is a special focus on literacy amongst girls as well as the development of local content – including suitable picture books – in Khmer. Room to Read has published more than 120 Khmer titles.

See more about our own library at Savong School. And the donors who made it happen.