The Social Network: Cambodia style.


The quest: to get into university. It took a village for Kuon Soknang – a network of supporters from around Bakong village.

Soknang is 23 years old and that means, in Cambodian terms, that she grew up during years of extreme poverty – and by extreme I mean children eating bark off trees and catching insects to eat. I mean a time when Cambodia was utterly neglected, in fact more or less cut-off from the rest of the world. Then double that hardship, because as you can see she has been born without hands and with deformed feet so that movement is difficult. But don’t feel sorry for Soknang. She has the determination and intelligence to rise above her handicaps. Using her toes she can write in Khmer, or English – which she has patiently learned – and these days she operates a laptop, though for the life of me I cannot work out how she operates those functions that require one to hold down the ALT CTRL keys as well as type. She can do it, and her ambition is to hold down employment as a university qualified accountant.

But how do you attend university when your family cannot afford the fees? How do you manage transport into town each day – a half hour trip – when you cannot pilot a motorbike or bicycle? How do you reach your potential?

Kuon Soknang (Kuon is her family name) is perhaps lucky that she comes from a community as cohesive as Bakong, which is where we operate a small language school which provides free language education, and computer classes, to local students to top-up their State education at the Hun Sen Bakong High School. In fact Soknang has never attended Savong’s School, yet there is an increasing degree of co-operation between these institutions.

At Bakong High, Soknang had one teacher in particular who championed her cause and sought some kind of sponsorship for Soknang who has – to date – attended just a few weeks at University after her family scraped together $30 for short-term tuition fees “until something might work out.”

Soknang learned from her few weeks at University that she is up to the challenge and so her ex-high-school teacher approached Savong because he’d heard about the Savong School Scholarships to university. Would Savong be able to assist?

Savong, the teacher and Soknang held a lengthy meeting to discuss the young woman’s situation and to work out a plan for the academic year ahead. It was agreed that she would be sponsored, with fees covered as well as transport to her University CUS in Siem Reap. Regarding her living arrangements which weren’t ideal given her physical situation, it was agreed that Soknang would be housed with other senior students who are in residence at Savong’s family home which is a guest house in town.

With arrangements confirmed there’s pressure on us to find a 4-year sponsor, but that should be the easy part – that’s where the global village can assist.

This story has unfolded during the last few days, yet for Soknang the resolution of her problem about how to get support through university is just the latest stepping stone along her life pathway. She faces challenges ahead, for sure. But one way and another her community has helped connect her with those who can help.  I look forward to reporting on her progress.

More about Savong School Scholarships and how to Sponsor these.

Six winners of Savong School university scholarships announced – can you help?

Six winners of Savong School university scholarships announced - can you help?

I support a school in rural Cambodia that serves more than 500 high-school students. The focus is to help their employability and to give them the opportunities they lack due to the poverty gap. Following recent examinations at Savong’s School six university scholarships have been announced. Winners receive at least 4 years support through university (1 year intermediate followed by 3 years Bachelors degree) in the form of their annual fees being covered, a laptop computer presented – to enable study – as well as daily transport from Bakong to Angkor University (14 kms away) and a modest living allowance to cover the costs of being a student. For westerners this works out at $US1,000 per annum over four years. For these students the opportunity is a golden ticket out of poor rural conditions, and a chance to reach their potential. Contact me if in some way you’d like to support one, or some of these students. $20 a week, coffee money, can totally change a life and that of their family.

More details: click here.

Prize Giving – 8 years ago. First prize a bicycle.

Prize Giving - 8 years ago. First prize a bicycle.

Savong in white – 2005. This was his first prize giving ceremony a director of Savong’s School. Today he has 20 times the school roll compared to 8 years ago.

The photo was taken on a film camera and developed poorly so it has the ancient Kodachrome look about it, but this scene is at Savong’s father’s house 2005 when Savong held his first prize-giving for students at his original classroom. That year the school in Bakong was currently under construction (it would open 3 months later) so this is truly an “old school” photo. The prize for the top student was a bicycle – a gesture that gave that put that student on the road to personal advancement. I wonder what happened to that student. Where is he today? I do know this: back then there were 25 in the class. Today Savong’s School has more than 500 students enrolled.

The strengthening network of education NGOs in Cambodia


No school operates in isolation, and one of the good things to emerge in the education NGO sector within Cambodia is the increasing co-operation between once-independent operators.  I’ve been very conscious over the past 8 years of the various competing models of education NGOs in Cambodia, and over time some have faded while others have flourished.  Among trends I’ve noticed are:

  • Increasing reliance on local Cambodian management. One organisation I respect, the UK-based SCC undertook a major structural change when they abandoned having their own field staff out of Britain, and relied instead on Cambodian management. It was, they said, simply more cost effective.
  • Increasing benchmarking of salaries and standards. Compared to 9 years ago when anyone could set up a school (heaven knows, that’s what we did) there were no constraints. There were no rules or Government regulations, and the NGO sector was finding its way in the dark.  Over time the standards have been introduced and the lights have come on. Thank goodness.

One of the agencies helping drive these kinds of change is the NEP – NGO Education Partnership which acts as a single co-operative voice for at least 70, (mostly larger and 50% located in Phnom Penh) education NGOs across Cambodia.

Together they consult closely with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MOEYS) and are helping to promote thinking on such subjects as the promotion of a heavier life-skills emphasis in the curriculum (ranging from health through to career guidance) and to address the acute shortage of primary school teachers which has been driven by the relative increase in secondary teacher salaries.

I’m encouraging Savong to join ($30 per annum seems a reasonably small sum) and while this would entail more paperwork no doubt (member surveys for example, and submissions as well as meeting in Phnom Penh) the benefits are, I think obvious. No school operates in isolation.

By the way, the NEP site is full of useful if somewhat dry papers concerning the education sector in Cambodia. I think it does us supporters a lot of good to equip ourselves with this kind of information. Click here.

Alex – farewell for now


Alex Brkljacic is an Australian volunteer who has never been afraid of rolling her sleeves up and getting stuck in. Alas, her bowl didn’t quite make it – but she is an indelible part of the SOC story.

Alex Brkljacic is the model volunteer, and has been pure gold for the last five months in Cambodia.  Don’t ask how to pronounce that surname, it involves consonants mixed liberally with phlegm, so it is no wonder that everyone just calls her Alex. Visitors, staff members in Savong’s organisation and the kids – the children of the SOC who adore Alex for her patience, her engagement, her humour and energy. She is their big sister.

Alex first came to Cambodia a few years back with a Melbourne family, the Palti clan, who arrived in a blizzard of activity and helped really energise the whole project. Their influence is felt to this day, and among other things the Palti family instituted the first day trips and longer for the SOC children – taking them on excursions that have marked their shared stories. Kulen Mountains, a great water fall swimming spot, and further afield.

Alex, who was a teenager at the time, was seduced by Cambodia. She has since returned multiple times. On her recent stay Alex has primarily served as a volunteer co-ordinator for the SOC, though that’s a rather drab title for the sheer value she has given the organisation. Co-ordinator, communicator, facilitator – she has been a kind of social glue who has bonded dozens of visitors with the NGO.

I only met legendary Alex for the first time just a month ago and was struck by her sharp observations, her quiet ‘let’s nudge this forward’ way of operating and her real humility. I have to say this (and this is hard for a Kiwi) but Alex personifies everything that’s great about Australians – the bigness of their hearts, their optimism, their egalitarian outlook and their generous helping of energy.

She is adored by the children, and it is fitting that on her last weekend in Siem Reap (she’s taking a short break in Thailand,) Alex shared her Sunday with the SOC students on a journey to Kulen Mountains. It is a great ritual: the drive, the hike to see the Buddha, the picnic and then the swim in those deliciously cool waterfalls – and this journey was punctuated by a flat tyre on the way home and a long wait in the heat. It was a feast for the tiger mosquitoes.

Alex’s blog remains cheerful as ever. She’s going to be missed for sure, but the Melbourne Cup bookies are already taking bets about how soon she’ll be back.  Alex is studying for a psychology degree – she has a wise head on her shoulders – but Cambodia keeps calling.  Alex is in no unnecessary hurry to finish uni and join the rat race. Not yet.

Follow her blog. LOVE IN CAMBODIA

By the way – if you find my blogs thoughtful,  interesting or entertaining, don’t forget to hit the follow button! I’d love you to join the audience thanks.

The pressure of being Savong


By western standards Savong can appear quite strict with his students – but he’s faced with a choice: if a student doesn’t want to knuckle-down and study hard, he knows plenty more who will.


I had a fifteen minute phone conversation yesterday with Savong, and these days we keep the toll calls pretty short in order to save money. (Skype has also saved me hundreds of dollars each year.)  We had a brief catch up and Savong was just coming down after a rare weekend of relaxing. Cambodia had just had its water festival.

Our conversation turned to a couple of sponsored individuals and an issue I’d describe as “being the father of adult students who are still at home.”  Heaven knows, my own parents probably had quite enough of me during my students days: the moods, the claims of adulthood (but not the responsibilities) and my ever-shifting sense of direction.

Anyway, for Savong you can multiply my own parents’ experience by a quantum because he hasn’t got one young adult to navigate around: he has at least 20.  There are students who are struggling at school and wondering if a career in trades might be better. There are students who want a taste of the alluring Siem Reap club and party life. (Savong’s rule: No!) There are students who are having career-changing thoughts: perhaps if I studied this course instead of that course?  And there are students who want to deal directly with their sponsors (asking for more money – but under the table.) Savong’s rule is again: no.

What Savong needs is a supportive network, and he reminded me that us sponsors can assist.

We don’t always make it easy. When one student bucked the system earlier this year, Savong basically expelled him from the program. ‘No more sponsorship – you’ve broken the rules – you can go your own way from here on in.’ After all, there are plenty more students hoping for support.  Sponsorship comes with rules and expectations.

But in that instance how complicated did I make it? “Savong, give the boy a second chance.”  “Savong, you have to show more forgiveness.” Suddenly I was telling him how to be a leader: how to be a parent.

I was mulling this over last night, and vowed that however I can, I should be less the critic and more of the support that Savong needs.  Twenty older students virtually in his care.  What a handful!