Debt and poverty in Cambodia


The photo of offerings, above, is one I took during Pchum Benh in 2015 near Siem Reap. I’ve been fascinated time and again by how consumer goods are such a price in Cambodia, relative to incomes, that cigarettes are often sold individually, at least in rural markets, rather than in packs. When you choose to buy one cigarette at a time, there is a thin line between solvency and debt.

I’ve been considering lately how poor Cambodians can climb out of poverty. There is a universal desire to get ahead, but there are no easy avenues to wealth for the poor to travel. Lenders who might advance some capital, for example through a MFI or micro-finance institution are not just lending against the ability of a borrower to give their business venture their very all; they are also lending against the high tide of risks faced by lower income people who live, daily, on the precipice of disaster. A crop failure. A stolen motorbike. An illness. Westerners are well insulated from such set-backs, we have insurances or sufficient economic resilience to take these things in our stride.

MFIs also face another risk – and that is the prospect that the borrower, desperate to raise enough capital to start a thriving business, already has loans with other micro-finance organisations. The risk isn’t about dishonesty so much as about financial literacy. The hopeful entrepreneur can only see the upside without appreciating the very high risks they face.

This is causing concern for micro-finance institutions of which there are around 45 registered organisations that are signatories to a shared set of operating principles and are members of a well-respected industry association, the Cambodia Micro-finance Association.  Together these MFIs have lent to 1.8 million borrowers, which is around one in every five adults aged 22+ – a staggering number.

Or it may be less staggering, given that a significant proportion of borrowers appear to have loans from more than one MFI (which is a practice actively discouraged by the lenders themselves.) Some of these are savvy borrowers, calling into question the idea of ‘one client: one loan.’

But not all borrowers are in this boat. Some are taking out extra loans because they are having trouble meeting existing debts.

Just as troubling, a report cited in The Guardian in March 2015, conducted by the Institute of Development, found that half the borrowers had taken such measures as eating less, or eating poor quality food in order to meet their repayments. Talk about a thin line between solvency and debt.

MFIs are adapting to the changing marketplace, but a general conclusion drawn from a 2007 Stanford Social Innovation Review study, by Aneel Karnani, into the effectiveness of micro-finance concluded that the service works for those above the poverty line, but often fails – deeply – when it comes to serving the needs of those below the line.

If the MFIs are adjusting to the market, and serving a growing class of more financially savvy customers (only a 15 years ago banks were having trouble attracting retail customers who had lost everything under previous regimes,) there is another problem in the sector: the unregistered lenders of which, there are estimated to be 60 in operation, and that’s not counting the traditional pawn-brokers in Cambodia.

In fact the Government’s financial strategy blueprint Financial Sector Development Strategy 2011-2020 ,expressly tasks the Cambodian Micro-finance Association (CMA) with bringing rogue operators under their umbrella and developing stronger consumer-friendly rules with which to self-govern members as well as introducing financial literacy programs to help educate the public.

The regulation of pawn brokers and money lenders is a harder task, but the Financial Sector strategy has these operators in their sights. Again there will be a focus on developing rules that help protect borrowers from over-zealous lending, or the onerous penalties of repayment failure. A frequent practice right now is to use farmland as collateral, and if a borrower gets behind, well, they lose everything.

Getting ahead usually requires capital. Unfortunately for the very poor, the best lenders may be of some benefit, but the marketplace is full of dangers. I think Risk is a concept about which every student needs to be taught. Some education may help keep some more people on the right side of that thin line.

Oh I see! Interview with Weh Yeoh – promoting speech therapy skills in Cambodia.

Weh Yeoh – the objective is not to build an NGO, but to get results. In this interview he describes how he is helping facilitate a local solution to a problem that affects 600,000 Cambodians – those with speech or swallowing difficulties.

Weh Yeoh, is an Australian on a vivid mission in Cambodia and I interviewed him in early 2005.  He was Managing Director, OIC: The Cambodia Project and this comparatively recent NGO start-up is worth paying attention to – not only for the work it is doing – with a focus on training speech therapists, but in the manner it has structured itself to operate.

In reviewing this article in 2019 I remain impressed by Weh’s clarity of thinking and in some ways disruptive viewpoint regarding charitable organisations. The purpose is not to grow these, he says, but to make themselves redundant.

1. First of all, congratulations on starting OIC. These things don’t happen overnight – how did you personally get involved and what motivated you to start this work in Cambodia?
I’ve always been enamoured by the power of local people in poor countries to create change for themselves. In my first year in Cambodia, I worked with CABDICO, a local disability organisation, and I realised how few resources these organisations have. And yet, the best work is being done by these people.

While first working with CABDICO, I met a child named Ling two years ago. He’s an outgoing, intelligent child, in a poor village in rural Cambodia. Ling has cerebral palsy, damage that occurs in a young brain around the time of birth. As
a result, he had problems speaking to the point where his language wasn’t clear at all.

When I met Ling, he was 10 years old and he had never been to school. He couldn’t read or write, or even bathe himself. He couldn’t communicate clearly and was completely dependent on his family.

Those around him labelled him “chqoot” – a Cambodian word meaning “stupid” or even “retarded”. Simply put, without help, Ling’s only way of earning an income would be a life of begging.

Around the same time, I also met Phearom, Ling’s community worker from CABDICO, who visits him at his home every few weeks. As part of our pilot program, we trained Phearom on speech therapy. This training taught her how to treat Ling’s communication problem. It has had a truly life-changing impact on his life.

For the first time, Ling could speak with his family. But Phearom didn’t stop there. She brought Ling’s teachers together to discuss how to get Ling into the classroom. After months of hard work, Ling is now going to school, but not only that, he is coming number two in his class. He dreams of one day becoming an architect. Ling now has a future, because of speech therapy.

Meeting Ling two years ago taught me a valuable lesson. There are children all over Cambodia whose potential is being untapped because of a communication or swallowing problem. Often, all it takes is a little bit of help and a child’s future can be improved dramatically.

That’s why, with the assistance of a small group of dedicated Australian speech therapists lead by Dr Chyrisse Heine, I began the first pilot program in speech therapy in Cambodia with CABDICO, a little over a year ago. The program has now evolved to be OIC: The Cambodia Project. “OIC” refers to that moment when you suddenly understand something that you didn’t before. Oh I see, you would say. My idea was never to start another non-profit organisation when there are so many goodCambodian organisations doing great work. Hence, the project is part of CABDICO’s existing work.

2. Tell me a little bit about speech and swallowing difficulties. What are the various causes for these – and are there cures, or is it more a case of assisting children to live and cope with these difficulties?
There are many causes of communication and swallowing disorders, including intellectual disabilities, brain trauma and strokes. These kinds of problems can affect anyone from a child with autism, to a middle-aged motorbike accident victim, to an elderly person who has had a stroke.

Because of the diversity of these disorders, there is no one “cure” and the goals of treatment are different for every person.
As one famous example of someone with a communication problem, James Earl Jones, the voice of Darth Vader, grew up stuttering. Though he has obviously had a lot of success in overcoming his stutter, he says he still stutters and he doesn’t say he was cured. But he is certainly able to communicate like anyone else.

Obviously, this a less severe example of a communication problem. On the other hand, for someone who has an intellectual disability and can’t speak, success may look like teaching them how to use various communication aids so they can still communicate with others. It really differs from person to person.

With swallowing difficulties, again the range of causes is very diverse. Whether it is a physical problem or a problem with the nervous system, the person’s ability to swallow food or liquid in a way that you and I take for granted is impaired. This means that often, the substance will go into the lungs, and the person is at risk of contracting pneumonia. As a result, they’re 13 times more likely to die young.

For people like this, their ability to swallow may improve, but otherwise, speech therapy works to mitigate some of these risks through altering positioning, or the consistency of food or liquid, for example.

3. You publish a very frightening figure – 600,000 children in Cambodia have speech or swallowing difficulties. Where does that number come from? – health statistics from Cambodia are not always reliable.
As you rightly point out, health data in Cambodia is often poor. However, there are some good statistics about the number of people with disabilities who have communication problems as a percentage of the total population with disabilities in Cambodia. According to the World Health Organisation, at least 15% of people in any country have a disability, which means that 2.1 million out of Cambodia’s 14.3 million people have a disability of some kind. Cambodian official statistics state that 5% of people with disabilities have a speaking impairment, and 20% have a hearing impairment. There is no data on swallowing impairments. Applying these percentages to the 2.1 million people with a disability, we can estimate that there are at least 600,000 Cambodians (including both adults and children) with a communication or swallowing problem.

This figure represents 4% of the population, however it is probably a conservative estimate, given rates of disability are higher in developing countries. In my own country of Australia, the estimate is somewhere between 4 to 8% of the population. In order to address this population, Australia has over 6,000 speech therapists. However, in Cambodia, there are none. There is not one university-trained Cambodian speech therapist.

4. Children with real communication difficulties can be hard work for their families. What is the general story for these children – are they well supported by their families?
Great question. For disability workers, it’s incredibly important to work with the families as well as the children; in fact, it’s just as important as working with the child, given how much more time children spend with their families. I think many families who have children with disabilities can feel overwhelmed and helpless.

They don’t know how to best care for their children. It’s often an incredible relief when they receive support from disability workers, and I think they find it very encouraging to learn how they can best support their children. Many of the families are incredibly patient and supportive, such as Mai’s family, which we’ve written about on our website.

5. Before forming OIC you ran a pilot scheme with local NGO: CABDICO. What did the pilot scheme teach you? How did this modify your approach?
Well, the first thing we learned is that speech therapy really does help. Preliminary research we did earlier in the year showed us that speech therapy increased the number of children who could communicate with their family most of the time from one in five to four in five. That’s a huge jump.

We’re currently undergoing an independent evaluation of our program, and will use these lessons learnt to inform the next stage of our work in Cambodia. It’s important that we use this evidence based approach, because we’re doing something that has never been done before. We want to evaluate the effectiveness of speech therapy in Cambodia, to show that it can help that enormous population of 600,000 people who need it.

6. What are the main objectives of OIC?
We have two goals:

1 – to provide training in speech therapy services across Cambodia
2 – to graduate the first generation of Cambodian speech therapists from a Cambodian university

As you know, we’ve already begun training in speech therapy, and we are in the early stages of discussing with a Cambodian university beginning a speech therapy program.

7. You and the team have a very clear mission not just to work with individual children, but to effectively multiply your skills – by training local Cambodians in speech therapy. How did you arrive at this strategy? Did you work with local Cambodians to develop the strategy?
Since I arrived in Cambodia, the one lesson I’ve learnt the most is that it is Cambodian people who are creating real change in this country for themselves. Our role as foreigners should be to support them as best as possible. My colleagues who have had decades of experience working in disability have told me since day one that the lack of speech therapy is the biggest gap in health and disability services in the country.

My goal is to work our team out of a job. If our long term vision is for delivery of speech therapy services in Cambodia, this means that as foreigners, we cannot be the ones implementing speech therapy. In order to do this, we’ll need to train local Cambodians on speech therapy.

But to take that one step further, it’s even better if Cambodians are training other Cambodians in speech therapy. Our training program will use a train the trainers approach, where we will train local Cambodians to be the trainers. Eventually, we’ll have Cambodians teaching the university course as well. Once the entire teaching team is run by Cambodians, we’ll have a sustainable way to spread this knowledge in Cambodia. Then, we won’t need foreign volunteers to train Cambodians on speech therapy. It will be Cambodians, learning from other Cambodians. We don’t just value Cambodian input – we know it’s absolutely critical to the success of the project.

8. In terms of mainstream teaching, the styles of teaching differ quite widely when you compare Khmer and Western approaches. Have you in the team discovered differences between the Australian approach and the way locals operate?
What we’ve noticed in our training sessions is that the Western inclination is to start from a fairly academic, theoretical perspective, while Cambodians prefer very practical approaches. We’ve had to make sure we adapt so that they can take away the practical skills they need to immediately improve their ability to deliver speech therapy. It’s interesting too to see how speech therapy changes dependent on the culture and context.

As one example, there is an Australian list of the 50 first words a child learns to say. This list cannot just be translated into Cambodian, as words like “water buffalo” are on the Cambodian list but not on the Australian one. Again, this goes back to how important it is to have Cambodians involved in every aspect of the project. Taking an Australian speech therapy resource or program and transplanting it in Cambodia is not going to work.

9. How much of a support network does OIC enjoy in Phnom Penh? Do other NGOs contribute in the overall dialogue – or are you mostly head down working on your own program?
The key to our success is in working with Cambodian organisations that already work in this field. We don’t implement services; we train people at organisations that are already providing services. This means strong relationships with others, including non-profit organisations, hospitals, and government departments, is essential. They have the disability workers, the relationships in the community, and the knowledge of Cambodia. Up to two years ago, all they were missing is knowledge of speech therapy.

We want to build on the great work these organisations are doing, rather than create another NGO.

10. How can speech therapists (or speech pathologists) reading this best assist you and your work at OIC. For example if I was a speech therapist wishing to volunteer, what would be a suitable and realistic time frame?
There are a whole range of ways that speech therapists can get involved. We need help with training, curriculum, research, resources and fundraising just to name a few areas. Though I’m not a speech therapist myself (I originally trained as a physiotherapist a long time ago), I’ve come to appreciate just how generous speech therapists are with their time and energy. We’ve already benefitted from the generosity of speech therapists all over the world, and this is just the beginning. Depending on their availability, we’d welcome speech therapists interested in volunteering from home or in Cambodia. We’d love them to get in touch via our website.

11. Weh – your work and approach are remarkable. When did you realise that foreign service was your calling?
Though I really appreciate the compliment, I don’t consider anything that I do to be particularly remarkable. What is more remarkable is to see what Cambodian people can do for other Cambodians.

I spent six months of my life, in 2006, volunteering in an orphanage and adult shelter for people with disabilities in Vietnam. It was disastrous. I was a young, naive 24 year old with good intentions but no clue of what I was doing. One year later, I went back to Australia and started working with a great little organisation that helped people with disabilities. More importantly, I went back to university to study International Development, to try and work out how to do this thing – “helping people in poor countries” better. I learnt a huge amount that I didn’t know when volunteering in the orphanage. Since coming to Cambodia, I’ve realised that there are so many challenges to overcome here. And yet, colleagues of mine, like Phearom, have shown me what they are capable of doing with very little resources, very little pay but a lot of energy and passion. What Phearom has been able to achieve with Ling is simply remarkable.

There is a pervasive myth that it is foreigners like myself who are creating change in poor countries. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. I tried to be the person making the change while volunteering in the orphanage. That didn’t work. Studying development and working in Cambodia has taught me that my role is to support those people making the change, like my Cambodian colleague, Phearom.

Once this became clear to me, there was no other way to work anymore. OIC’s approach builds very much upon this philosophy, giving Cambodians the tools and resources to help other Cambodians.

12. OIC Cambodia Project. The name suggests a finite lifespan for the organisation. At what point do you say, right, mission accomplished?
We absolutely want there to be a finite lifespan for the organisation. When there is speech therapy knowledge within the country, and when Cambodians are able to train other Cambodians on speech therapy, we are no longer needed. I can’t wait for that day, when every one of the 600,000 people who need access to these services will be able to access them – and from Cambodian speech therapists, who understand their language and culture.

And who knows, then it might be time for OIC: The Laos Project!

Teaching quality in Cambodia – its not just local standards that need lifting


Who are the foreigners who choose to teach these children in Cambodia?

My attention was drawn to an advertisement placed in a Facebook page, the very helpful and convivial Expats and locals living in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which serves as a bulletin-board for the expat community who call Siem Reap home. Here you’ll find furnishing for sale, advice on Visa applications, what’s on at your favourite local bar and commentary and generally warm, realistic conversation about life in this bustling tourist town.

The advertisement was from a back-packer who wondered aloud whether there was an NGO that would provide food and accommodation in exchange for her teaching English. I must admit, I was somewhat taken aback: you want to rock up on your world adventure and get subsidised by local charitable organisations?

The fact is, the Cambodian education system has a very uneasy relationship with western teachers – who are at best a mixed bag of talents, ranging from the truly excellent down to the back-packers who bring zero experience into the Cambodian classroom.

There are two strata of foreign teachers. There are those who come to Cambodia to take up paid employment as teachers of English as a Second Language (ESL). Most of these teachers end up in Phnom Penh, where families are richer and can afford to send their children to Language Schools. These vary in quality – from bucket-shops that pay foreigners $US5.00 per hour, right through to top class schools that offer a salary of $30,000 or more: enormous by local standards.

I read one account of the ESL scene which was quite dispiriting – suggesting that among ESL teachers the good ones (those who are not in Cambodia for sex, drugs, holidays or ‘finding themselves’,) are in the distinct minority, and even among those there is a split between those who have become jaded and those who will become jaded and quit.

The blog struck me as extremely cynical, a little too world-weary in tone, but what surprised me were the comments: that basically said the author was right on the money – that anyone unqualified foreigner could get a teaching job within a few days of arrival because so many ESL places don’t have any standards in place – and that the name of the game is, in fact, money. The blogger describes backpackers as the most despised form of ESL teacher because they are willing to accept really low pay, and make it possible for the language schools to make staggering profits.

The second strand of the conversation revolves around NGOs, institutions that include the one I’m attached to, Savong’s School, but also many dozens of schools offering free education to the poor. Ten years ago we were in-fact active in trying to attract back-packers who might lend even a day or two to share their time and to help the students practice their English. Anyone was better than no-one.

Over time the standards of volunteer teachers has been raised, though not as high as we’d like things to go. For one thing, expectations have risen, and local teachers want to share their classroom with people who inspire – not people who need carrying.

Likewise, the framework for NGO schools has become more demanding. MOEYS expects schools to work to a set syllabus, and there’s no place for a foreigner to stand in front of the classroom just making stuff up.

Finally, there’s a real sense that local teachers are focusing more on lifting their skills in the classroom – to be professional in their approach and become better teachers than they themselves experienced.

For the ESL scene, I think an accreditation scheme is needed, and paid foreigners ought to provide proof of their teacher qualifications. Likewise, the ESL industry needs to become more transparent. The same as in many countries; the ESL sector is the wild-west.

For the NGO scene, (which is far from immune to criticism,) I see a different story emerging because there’s a shift from relying on foreign teachers towards greater reliance on Khmer staff. This is a good thing, but it brings with it a pressing challenge: to attract high calibre trainers of teachers.

Backpackers need not apply.

Malnutrition still a problem in Cambodia

Rice production is rising in Cambodia - but as agriculture develops there is still a serious malnutrition problem.

Rice production is rising in Cambodia – but as agriculture develops there is still a serious malnutrition problem.

For anyone who visits Cambodia regularly  there is a palpable sense, upon each visit,  that this troubled little nation is making rapid strides economically.  In 2004 I remember my motorcycle driver in Phnom Penh  taking me to see the most dazzling symbol of the modern age: Cambodia’s first escalator. He had never actually set foot on it before, and it was a pleasure watching him take his first ride.  At the time as a Westerner, I felt very much like a visitor from another and very privilegedplanet.

Today the sky line-up Phnom Penh is sprouting high-rise buildings at a rapid rate, smart phone usage across the nation is soaring, roads are becoming congested with cars and at first glance it appears that the days of poverty are basically over. This poses a question for any supporters of NGOs in Cambodia: at what point do we say, the job is done –  mission accomplished?

Well, don’t pop the Champagne just yet. According to some recent figures published this year, and funded by the Independent European based organisation;  Global Governance for Hunger Reduction Program productivity by Cambodia’s agricultural sector has soared, at least in US dollar terms,  since 2007 –  basically doubling in that time from US$3.5 billion  to US$7.9 billion in 2011.  Now those figures include the tremendous price spike in commodity prices that occurred in 2008 –  but even so,  if we measure cereal yields (rice, maize etc)  we see yields growing  by 16%  in terms of tonnes per hectare over the same time. (The real revenue is being generated by rubber, palm oil and sugar,)

The government  has a medium to long-term strategy of increasing the value and quality of agricultural output so that the rice, for example, meets the stringent quality standards demanded by Western markets who in turn will pay premium prices. Cambodia will be sharing this story at the Milan Expo 2015.

But the same source of facts and figures has a few warning signals.  Right now Cambodian farmers,  who make up 65% of the total national workforce, are focused on low value add commodities – namely rice – whereas Cambodia’s main commodity imports,  measured in dollars,  a spearheaded by the importation of, get this: cigarettes.  Economists often  illustrate their science by giving examples of guns and butter,  but in this modern example Cambodia appears to be trading cheap rice for expensive cancer.

That’s my judgement anyway,  but the figures also highlight the degree of malnutrition that is occurring even today in booming Cambodia.

Since 2007  the poverty rate in Cambodia has halved,  but it still sits at 20% of the entire population below the line of  $30 per month. The poverty gap is widening. The wealth is trickling upwards quicker than downwards.

One measure of malnutrition is the incidence of underweight children under five years old. In 2007 when the poverty rate was closer to 40%, some 28.8% of children were reported as underweight. Two years later the figure was virtually unchanged.

According to the authors of the report the number of Cambodians undernourished in 2009  was 2.9 million. Today the figure is improving –  but the figure is still over 2 million people.

Finally, they report the improvement between 2007 and 2011  of the percentage of Cambodians who have access to clean water sources. Again, this is improving, but has a long way to go. In 2007 some 59% had access to clean water. Four years later  the figure had improved to 67%. Still, that leaves close to 5,000,000 Cambodians without access to improved water sources today.

The economy may be booming, but with 80% of Cambodians living in rural circumstances, there is a sense in the data that many are toiling  hard, but getting no further ahead.

180 young Cambodian students would love your assistance

Click here for a YouTube video I put together:

Savong’s School in rural Siem Reap is extending its services to include primary school teaching for Grade 1 – 6. Here’s some background in a brief 4 minute video. Have you got some energy and skill to assist the project?

You can contact me:  Duncan Stuart –


Savong and the Mystical Python


Savong and his father, 2009. A family story that needs telling.

Over the years I have found that Savong very rarely talks about himself. What I know of him has come through in little snatches of conversation, and in things I have observed. I am a researcher by profession, and normally I ask a lot of questions. But when I’m with Savong, I tend to see little walls put up around himself, and out of politeness seldom venture into the territory of his own life.

One aspect of Savong’s life that I find fascinating is his relationship with his father.

Savong’s father was around 25 years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power, and as a young man he was recruited as a cook for the local soldiers. after the war Savong’s father and a good friend gathered bones from the local killing fields based halfway between Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, and he donated family land in order to build Wat Thmei,  otherwise known as the Killing Fields Pagoda, where Savong was educated. Savong’s father was a Buddhist monk, but these days he serves as a adviser on things spiritual as well as practical, and he also serves as a fortune teller for locals.  In these regards he is highly esteemed.

Fortune-telling?  For Westerners this seems like a dubious title.  Honestly,  how can one tell the future? In fact a lot of the advisory work he carries out is based not so much on reading the future as on reading the body language of his clients. He once told me that an important part of this work was to observe how is clients sit, how they stand, and how they walk. “You can tell a lot about a person from just watching these things,” he explained to me.

However here is a true story that makes me think that us Westerners may be missing a dimension in our lives that Cambodian Buddhists take for granted.

The year is 2006, and at that stage Savong’s School had just been built, and consisted of three classrooms in the middle of a rural field. Sharing the field was a small thatch hut in which Savong lived. One day, (it was early morning, before dawn,) Savong was woken from a sleep by a phone call from his father.

“Savong,” his dad told him, “get out of bed very slowly.”

“What is it?” asked Savong.

“Under your bed,” explained his father, “there is something very dangerous.”

So Savong very carefully rose from his bed and then, using the little torchlight of his phone, peered underneath the simple wooden bed. There, curled up and asleep, was a python.”

“It was this long,”  Savong told me, stretching his arms out wide. ” It was at least 2 m long.”

I have wondered since then how Savong’s father knew that there was danger under Savong’s bed. What little voice had prompted him to make that call early in the morning before dawn?

See also: Ghosts in the Cambodian Schoolyard