Samach’s story.

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samach

His ID Photo is the classic Cambodian ID.  A serious young man in a small passport-sized photo that looks badly developed and almost hand-retouched. He wears a formal jacket and tie (this is an official ID) despite the heat on the day the photo was taken. The young man’s name is Chuon Samach. Chuon is his family’s name.

Samach is 22, and he is a Year 3 student at Angkor University as well as a part time teacher at Savong’s School in Bakong, 12kms east of Siem Reap.  By day he studies until noon and then he gets a tuktuik ride back to Bakong in order to teach until sunset which is almost always at 6:00pm, here near the equator. The days are long for Samach, the commute to and from University adds an hour to his commitments and at night he must prepare lessons and complete his assignments. He’s not complaining – but from an outsider’s point of view his life is hard.

Yet in some respects he is lucky also.

Samach is the seventh of nine children and while four siblings have got married and moved away, Samach and four others are supported by their parents, farmers who are typical of Bakong farmers: very poor because land plots are small, and the area is prone to devastating floods – or droughts. The father is 63 and the mother is 55 (both old enough to have lived through the worst of the Pol Pot years and the famine that followed. “Every day they try so hard to sustain the family,” says Samach. “I feel sorry for them.”

Samach studied well as a child, doing well at Prasat Bakong Primary School and then studying to Grade 12 at Hun Sen Prasat Bakong High School – the large area state school in the district. He was also in touch with Savong’s School from where he was awarded a university scholarship because of his excellent grades and in respect of his family’s low income.  “It has been great support,” he says. “With the aid of Savong School I am capable of continuing to study at university. I can’t believe I’ve had this opportunity.”

He studies for a Bachelor’s degree in Tourism, and is planning to gain a Masters degree as well – a rare achievement in rural Cambodia.

He’s determined. “Travelling is difficult and sometimes there are family problems, but I still don’t pack my study in.”

The scholarship has made a big difference – the difference between being able to study at University or not – and in the medium term it will help Samach pursue a well-paid career and enable him to fulfil his own dream of supporting his family. “My family will rely on me, down the road,” he says.

The University scholarship covers annual enrolment fees, a very basic salary, and daily transport into town as well as a laptop: an essential item for University.

As with the other scholarship winners, Samach gives back – by teaching younger children at the school – and inspiring other students to set high goals. “I would like to show my deep appreciation for your support,” he told Salas, who took the notes for this story. “To Savong Organisation Cambodia and supporters I wish you longevity, nobility, health and strength.”

 

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Is the wealth gap growing in Cambodia?

Flagging a problem. Is the wealth gap growing in Cambodia?

Flagging a problem. Is the wealth gap growing in Cambodia?

I must admit a personal distaste for “get rich” seminars that seem well designed to excite people into parting with their hard earned cash. There may be merit in the teaching of Mr Rich Dad Poor Dad Robert Kiyosaki, but there was something obscene about the advertising for his course being run in Phnom Penh this year. Kiyosaki wasn’t presenting in person – the seminar would be taken by a multimillionaire who got that way by adopting the methods that had been taught since the Rich Dad Poor Dad franchise began in 1992. The banner is what put me off: How the rich get richer!

This is a problem for Cambodia, because in the years since 1979 while the economy has grown for this little nation, basically starting at ground zero, there is still a significant problem of poverty. A visitor spending a day or two in Siem Reap might not notice; after all the hubbub of traffic and commerce is headache inducing. Or go to the Phnom Penh, and the skyline is dotted with cranes, and new buildings are changing the skyline. The question is, with growing GDP, where is the wealth heading? Is it trickling down? Or trickling up?

First let’s look at the productivity per person in Cambodia. Measured in the international currency of US dollars this has grown. Figures from the International monetary fund – the IMF.

  • 2009 when it was $1,942.74
  • 2010 when it was $2,068.02
  • 2011 when it was $2,239.24
  • 2012 when it was $2,402.33
  • 2013 when it was $2,579.06

That’s a 33% growth in just four years, enough to nudge Cambodia from From being the 38th poorest nation in the world measured in these GDP terms in 2008, to become the 43th poorest nation in the world by 2013.

The income distribution is far from equitable in Cambodia. World Bank figures suggest that the wealthiest 10% in Cambodia earned approximately 30% of the total income – a figure that has slipped slightly between 2004 and 2007.

Meanwhile the bottom 10% of income earners earn around 3% of the total national income. This figure has hardly moved between 2004 and 2009. Put another way, using UN estimates, in 2004 Cambodia’s richest 10% earned 12.2 times more income than Cambodia’s poorest 10%.

This ratio of 12.2 is comparable to many other countries – 12.5 in Australia example, or 15.9 in the USA (estimate in 2007) where the CEOs of large firms seem to routinely earn multimillion dollar salary packages.

But there are some signs that the situation is getting worse in Cambodia. This is due to several factors including:

  • Poor health conditions.
  • Malnutrition.
  • Financial barriers to advanced education.
  • Environmental vulnerability – floods, storms or droughts can cripple farmers incomes. I have noted elsewhere in this blog that Cambodia has been independently rated amongst the world’s most ecologically vulnerable nations on this planet.
  • The commodity nature of rice farming in Cambodia – where farmers are priced takers, and do not have premium product with which to make greater margins.
  • The taking of farmers land by large corporations.
  • Extensive ownership of capital by foreign controlled entities.
  • Corruption at all levels.

This overall situation creates an air of hopelessness for the rural poor. How can they ever succeed if they cannot send their children to school, if they cannot afford your equipment, or if they lose their land.

I was pondering how this hopelessness begins at a very early age, especially amongst children and families so poor that starvation or malnutrition is a serious problem.

Two Hong Kong academics wrote a report in  2009 concerned with early childhood education. They were examining the weak infrastructure around pre-schooling – noting that while the Ministry of education youth and sport (MOEYS) is committed to the idea of preschool, to help give young Cambodian infants head start educationally, in practice there is scarce public funding for such a strategy. This has been left up to the communities to provide. A case I suspect, whether rich get richer, and the poor don’t even get a start at all.

Here’s what they said in their report:

Exclusion on the grounds of poverty.

No one is more likely than a child to live in poverty in Cambodia
(UNICEF & RGOC, 2006). The representation of the poor is much greater in the primary than in the secondary or tertiary student population. In Cambodia 20% of primary students but only 2% of upper secondary students are drawn from the poorest 20% of the population. In contrast, 61% of the upper secondary students come from the richest 20% of the population. The representation of the poor in tertiary education is zero whilst the richest 20% account for 57% of tertiary level students.

As has already been discussed, poor children are currently rarely found in preschool provision and the MoEYS has identified them as a target group on which to spend its limited resources for ECCE in order to ensure equity of opportunity. It acknowledges that this is likely to be challenging as the poorest communities lack good models, infrastructure and experienced providers.

Preschool and Preparation for Primary School

It is widely accepted that preschool experiences, by preparing the child academically and socially for school, lowers repetition and drop-out rates. The benefit is felt most by children in the poorest communities. Yet in Cambodia, children with the greatest need of the chance to learn in groups, mix with others, acquire pre-academic and language skills before they begin primary school are the ones that have the least access. Thus ECCE is not only intrinsically important but is needed to provide experiences and preparation that gives a child a much better chance of succeeding in school and completing at least six years of primary school. ECCE is a vital component of a successful Education for All strategy.

Although the initial enrolment in primary school has improved significantly, the drop-out rate remains stubbornly high and one of the main reasons is poverty. Families are often unable to pay the cost of schooling that can amount to 79% of per capita nonfood expenditure of the poorest 20% of families.

Another significant concern regarding children in Cambodia is that at the formal age of enrolment into primary school, many are too immature in their physical, social, linguistic and cognitive development. This is reflected in delayed enrolment and high repetition rates in Grade 1 leading to high dropout rates (RGOC, 2003). They are simply not ready for school as a result of malnutrition and lack of preschool experiences. Only 58% of Grade 1 students are six years old, the prescribed school entry age.

Only 45% of children in Cambodia who start primary school will complete Grade 6, and only 38% will enter lower secondary school. It takes an average of 10.8 years for a child to complete the six-year primary school cycle (UNICEF & RGOC, 2006).

Early Childhood Care and Education in Cambodia by Nirmala Rao Veronica Pearson, The University of Hong Kong

(International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy Copyright 2009 by Korea Institute of Child Care and Education
2009, Vol. 3, No. 1, 13-26) For A PDF of the report CLICK HERE

I accept that many of the figures I have highlighted for emphasis have improved somewhat, since these figures were first collected, but they highlight why free education is so valuable for poor rural areas.

Imagine that – just 2% of those who make it to grade 12 at high school, come from the poorest 20%.

Last week Savong sent me the list of students from his school who have progressed through to  winning University scholarships – a program we instigated four years ago. The first two graduates have already come through, and their two cohorts have both taken up teaching jobs, just a few papers away from completing their degrees.

Meanwhile more recent scholarship winners are attending Angkor University, and studying computer science, tourism (which has a strong management component) as well as English. these students have a lot of pressure on them in some ways. They know their families will depend upon them, and they know there are up against much more privileged students from the city.  When Rao and Pearson wrote their report, at that stage less than half a percent –  statistically 0%- of tertiary students in Cambodia came from the poorest 20%. And at that stage less than 10% of teenagers were progressing through to University education. so if you allow me to roughly play with figures, that makes the chances of producing graduates from Bakong something like 1000:1.

Those are the kinds of odds that families are up against in poor rural areas within Cambodia. Those are the odds that Savong and his supporters, and his staff, are working hard to beat.

For more: Let’s not forget the costs of poverty – and the pressure it puts on young people

MY FUNDRAISING CRISIS

Money isn't everything, but it sure helps. Savong's School - like every school world-wide, needs funds.

Money isn’t everything, but it sure helps. The school – like every school world-wide, needs funds.

Last week I reignited this blog after five months silence. A few of you will know that this year I had a health surprise, namely a diagnosis of Parkinsons disease.  So far the disease has not produced radical symptoms –  extreme shakes,  or, an affliction that strikes many sufferers, ( at least eventually,)  immobility. It is not uncommon for those with Parkinsons to freeze  when they get to a door,  and require some visual prompt to get them started again. I’d say I’m  bound to be on an interesting adventure to say the least.  But for now my symptoms include:

  • Loss of the use of my right hand when it comes to typing. My right arm is about as useful as a plank of wood.
  • The need for much more sleep!
  • A slowdown in my work rate –  my brain is sharp,  but it takes longer to get my thoughts down on paper.

During my  five months silence  I enjoyed a long overdue holiday with my partner, Susanna, and I spent quiet time ruminating about the impact of my condition.  It has scrapped the old rules, but the problem is there are no new hard guidelines.  Everybody with Parkinsons  experiences a different combination of symptoms,  and the onslaught of these occurs at different speeds. Who knows? So against this shifty backdrop I have been trying to contemplate what the impact will be on my life.  I’m starting to set goals  and objectives: of bucket list of things I want to achieve before – and just in case – I deteriorate beyond usefulness.

Some of these goals are very tangible.  I wish to complete a long cycle ride within the next 24 months,  and there are some writing projects that I have started already: things I have long wanted to write.

But there is one central crisis I have not been able to resolve,  and that is the funding  of Savong’s school in Cambodia. Savong’s project  has many branches –  two homes for children,  a student centre for older students in Siem Reap, as well is the school  in Bakong which serves primary school children as well is secondary.  It also provides scholarships to University  for the top grade 12 students each year.  These scholarships are worth about $1000 per student per annum  over the four years required to get a degree.

All up,  the school  requires at least $3000 per month to run, and a majority of this money has come out of my own earnings.  Over the past 10 years it has been more efficient for me to knuckle down to work, to earn my income as a researcher,  and to send the money over to Cambodia. Far easier than fund raising.

This last year I was going to make the transition  toward fundraising however.  I am almost 60, retirement is around the corner,  and I need to find an alternative  source of income to underwrite the ongoing expenses  of Savong’s school. I saw this as a kind of baton change in a relay race.  What the Parkinsons diagnosis did was cause me to stumble badly and drop the baton.

So now by my reckoning  I have got eight months  to get my fundraising act together.  Somehow,  somewhere,  through some people,  I need to find sponsors  to the tune of US$3000 per month. The school in Cambodia,  which serves many hundreds of children,  faces many challenges of its own:  my health shouldn’t be one of them.

See also: About the school.

And how to donate the school.

The writing on the wall – a boy with connections in Cambodia

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This last week in Cambodia everybody has been celebrating New Year. For many students, this means school is out and for those who live in town there may be all kinds of attractions including fairs, events, parades as well as traditional ceremonies. Cambodians celebrate everything of course with food, and this is a time for feasting.

But not for everyone. The boy above, Mouencheat has spent the last few days back in his rural village 40 km away from Siem Reap. Mouencheat lives in a place called Kampong Kdei which is in the heart of the flat, rice growing region due-east of Siem Reap, and it is in his family house there that I took this photo above, in November 2013.

I always wondered what the writing was, on the wall behind Mouencheat, and this last week as we messaged each other with New Year greetings, (Mouencheat on his smart phone,) I asked what had been written on the wall behind him. He told me that these are tallies of the amount of rice harvested, and the wall provided a handy place to jot-down this information. It serves the same purpose as the Post-It notes on my fridge.

Mouencheat lives at the SOC, in Bakong, and is sponsored by a Singaporean. The boy is very intelligent, and often when we message each other I send him number puzzles which he gleefully completes – quicker than I can generate the next.  He can spot the Fibonacci series from 20 paces! But this week he has been at home helping as mother on the farm, and looking after his younger sister.

A few days ago, during the holiday Mouencheat was visited by an older Cambodian named Kimleng.

Kimleng actually grew up in Kampong Kdei and may well be the first local to have earned a law degree, in this case from the USA. Kimleng spent some time in New Zealand in recent months and I had met him via a friend of mine. We were both amazed that each of us knew where Kampong Kdei even was! The world shrunk by another notch. When Kimleng said that he had grown up near the historic bridge, I knew exactly where he meant.

I am so glad that he met with Mouencheat, and I am sure he will act as an inspiration for the boy. I am certain that Mouencheat will go through university, and given his obvious intelligence, I await with great anticipation to see where he will end up. The writing on the wall is all good.

By the way, it is almost exactly a year since I first encountered Mouencheat. He did his research and contacted me, asking for assistance so he could go to school. Here’s the story from a year ago.

Savong and the senior students. Removing risks and setting guidelines.

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2014 is shaping up as the year that Savong gets really systemised. I’ve worked with him since 2004 and since then we have progressed from a small ad-hoc classroom to gradually become an NGO that includes a student center, a school with 650 enrollments, two children’s homes and a provider of scholarships. By the end of last year Savong was run ragged, trying to keep everything running smoothly.

Two days ago I had a long Skype chat with Savong and he explained how he was, step by step, putting management systems and reporting structures in place throughout his organisation. As with any organisation that gets bigger, one loses some of the informality and one starts having to lay down rule and guidelines.

Yesterday Savong assembled the senior SOC students who are supported through funding from the Savong Foundation in the USA (Phil and the team do an amazing job) as well that those students I raise funds for: the Scholarship students of whom there are 16.  So that’s the photo above, this rather large family of sponsored senior students.

Savong has worked with them to establish some operating rules and as we discussed, these include some expectations (this is no place for laziness) but also a clear commitment to keep supporting the students even when there are challenges. I certainly feel that the money we provide in support is only half the story: the real thing we’re providing is the absence of fear.

I saw that when Savong and I first worked together.  When he realised that we were committed to assist him through thick and thin, then his dreams got bigger and more useful: his plans became longer term.  So it is with the students in the photo. They are a committed group of young people, but the difference between these students and many others is that we’ve moved them a few steps away from the risks and unforeseen disasters that plague life in Cambodia, given that there is no safety net.

For many young people the four-year trek towards a degree is almost certain to include bouts of sickness, or family tragedies, or perhaps an accident that wipes out one’s precious savings. One of the teachers once told me of a friend of his who was electrocuted, due to faulty wiring in the young man’s corrugated-iron shack: he touched the wall one morning and was killed tragically.

How can one dream big when you are worried by the risks of life?

I felt a pang of regret when Savong told me of the rules and guidelines he’s setting for the students. I guess I miss the laissez-faire days and, for sure, I would make a lousy manager of this burgeoning NGO. But one thing about guidelines: these also establish more certainty for the students as they embark on their journey through the sometimes rough seas of higher education.  A ship is safer when it has handrails and life-jackets.

Where does Cambodia rank in terms of higher education?

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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.