Each night I dream of Cambodia

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Today I exist in two places at once. Right now I’m in my New Zealand office designing a questionnaire but at the same moment I’m in Cambodia and thinking about one of the scholarship students who lost her brother, through sickness, this week. The tragedy has pulled me back to Bakong and I wish I could be at the school staff meeting today to extend my condolences.

What I experience, a deep sense of living in alternative states is not uncommon for visitors to Cambodia. I’ve met many others whose dreams each night take them to Cambodia and the people they have met there. I’m not alone in my experience, back in 2004, of returning “home” to Cambodia even though I had never before set foot there. What is it about Cambodia that exerts this spell?

I put the presence of Cambodia deep within my subconscious down to the problems and riddles that the nation perplexes us with. How can such gorgeous people have turned in on themselves during the Pol Pot years? How could this have happened?  To what extent did the politics of our western countries play a role in this? To what extent were we complicit in this tragedy?

And today’s problems worry me each night. How can we assist more young Cambodians? What can I do better?

For sure, my feeling of returning home in 2004 came – I’m positive – from growing up with South East Asia imprinted, thanks to the US/Vietnam war, on our TV screens. Those paddy fields and sugar-palms trees were immediately familiar.

But the dreams I harbour most nights? They come from a country that faces new troubles and challenges ahead.  By nature I’m a puzzle solver, and every night I wrestle, always unsuccessfully, with the questions facing modern Cambodia.

A new policy for volunteers – designed to raise the bar

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Volunteering – it isn’t about us, it’s about the support we can provide for disadvantaged students in Cambodia

One outcome of my recent meetings with Savong who heads a school and children’s home is the introduction of a minimum donation set for would-be volunteers to his organisation. This is set at $US 100 and is in-line with similar steps taken by similar NGOs in the district.

Volunteers and visitors have long been valued at these NGOs, and as Savong acknowledges – we are the lifeblood, financially, of how these NGOs operate in order to meet the running costs of teaching staff and equipment at the school, not to mention clothes, care, food and education costs of the children at the SOC Home.

But with Cambodia becoming a hotter destination, we’ve seen the rise of the “cheap” tourist who not only visits NGOs unannounced, interrupts proceedings, takes a million photos, but then after 2 hours, drives away without even making a donation – any donation. In other words they using the NGOs to provide a photo-op: they’re not there to make any difference, whatever, to the lives of the children.

As I’m keen to tell friends these days: a lot of what we can bring to these NGOs is about expertise, skills, experience and talent – volunteers bring great teaching skills to the school for example – but money is still vital to the running of these places if they are to keep developing.  And as part of our overall travel budget, what’s $100?

Other NGOs have found that the policy has lifted the overall quality of their volunteers (only the serious apply – the cheapies are put off) and, thankfully, helped with the running costs of the organisations. We hope so. The $100 rule will apply whether the visitor or visiting couple is there for one day, one week or one year. (It is not a daily rate!)

Any thoughts about this?

For more on volunteering click here.

An ethics question for volunteers.

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Any volunteer to Cambodia goes in with their eyes wide open, I hope. Our radar is on and we’re monitoring what we see and hear in order to answer two questions.

  1. Am I doing the right thing here? Am I making a positive or a negative impact?
  2. Is the program I’m involved in a good one: is it making good use of its human and capital resources?

As a part time co-ordinator of volunteers to Savong’s project I get to hear feedback from visitors, though never as much as I’d hope. Many volunteers move on and their busy lives consume them. However most feedback is very positive and the number of referrals from one volunteer to others is testimony to how those two questions are being answered.

However I do hear criticisms as well and they are a reminder to me of how every conversation, everything we hear and everything we witness goes into our evidence gathering in order to ask those two questions. I pass on criticisms to Savong in order that any issues might be dealt with.

When criticism is negative and somebody’s had a less than stellar experience the feedback also comes framed with other criticisms. For example once a volunteer told me: “did you see Savong’s watch? Is this where the donations go?”  (Yes, I’ve seen the watch – a mid-priced Olympic – because I bought it for him as a gift of friendship. He calls it an “old man’s watch.” Another kind group bought him a practical G-Shock watch,) Others have said: “Have you seen what he drives? It’s a Lexus 4WD – is this where the donations go?”

The green Nissan Tundra semi-pick-up. Sometimes he drives his father’s second-hand Lexus. In Cambodia the nation is crawling with highly paid officials and NGO heads driving around in shiny new Lexus vehicles. I suspect that these were donated by Japan en-masse, as part of an aid program that also sorted out Toyota’s vehicle surplus. I might be wrong. But they’ve become a symbol of misdirected funds. Administrators who drive up to a village, measure the poverty and then drive away in air-conditioned comfort. You can imagine.

But when I asked Savong about the vehicle he was quite curt with me.  He asked me if I felt he needed a vehicle to do his job which involves daily commutes 14kms each way between Siem Reap and the school. “Yes,” I replied.

“So why do you mind that I drive a Nissan.”

“I guess it’s the look,” I said. “It looks like the school money goes towards your vehicle.”

“The money came from my work as a tour guide. It came from the business I run to earn an income. So why do people judge me? Do they want me to drive an even older car? Would they be happier if I walked?”

I think he has a point. Westerners are happy to volunteer, but we seem much happier – much less judgmental – if what we witness is poverty. Poor students without pens even, and without paper.  Barefoot teachers who do the best with what little they have.

Yet the moment we build-up the resources, and equip the local people (which is surely what we’re trying to do) we become much more judgmental. Schools, have come a long way from being without stationery. They have computers, and broadband. Savong’s School was given, very generously, a video projector.  So these thing… or the watch?  We don’t mind progress but THIS much progress?? We’d be happier, it seems, if the school was poorer, or the watch was a nasty throw-away: one that – to be honest – we’d not want to wear ourselves.

I think we tread a fine line when we ask ourselves whether programs are making good and fair use of human resources and capital in order to do the job they’re designed to do.  The question is a perfectly fair one, and it needs constant asking.  But we have to be careful that we apply consistent yardsticks when we assess the evidence. If a program director needs a car, then for goodness sakes, equip him or her with a car that goes. A second-hand 4WD shouldn’t get us steamed up. (A stretch Hummer, well that would be another question.) We shouldn’t wish for two standards: a standard we apply to programs in our own countries, versus a “lower” standard in Cambodia.  And we shouldn’t assume that what we see – the watches or vehicles – come out the mouths of the hungry. In this case they haven’t. We need to be vigilant, for sure, but not too quick to judge.

More on volunteering.

A change in the fundraising structure at Savong’s School and SOC

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This year Savong has been working hard on several facets of the organisation – fund raising and supervising renovations to the children’s home in Bakong, but also setting a system for fundraising of the SOC that is locally run.

The need to do this comes in part for a desire for self-sufficiency by the organisation which is inspired by surrounding NGOs that have western style system sin places.  The other motivator has come from the financial pressure I’ve been under – personally – with the continued growth of the SOC and school and scholarships program.

Somehow I ended up as underwriter for the whole project, when my resources were committed to the school and scholarship program. After the SOC was built there has always been a shortage of sponsorship money and I’ve tended to make up the shortfall. Between inflation and the growth of the project I’ve been unable to meet the rising demand, out of my own pocket. Something had to change.

So with the assistance of Alex, a young Australian (she has been in Cambodia several months this year) Savong has been setting up a new sponsorship arrangement for the children at SOC – handling the search for sponsors, the regular communications and the handling of donations from Cambodia. I will continue to focus on the school and scholarships exactly as I committed to do in 2004.

The best way anyone can help Savong and the project is to offer certainty and commitment. We’ve always tried to offer that not only to the children we teach or care for, but also for the teachers and scholarship winners. So right now as Savong transitions from one system to another – and this time operates without an underwriter who’s there to pick up any slack – he deserves plenty of commitment from supporters and sponsors.

See also a November 2013 piece about a new visitor rule: a minimum donation.

And if you are interested in making a donation: click here.

Power to the Cambodian students!

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One aspect of living in the tropics, close to the equator, is the rapidness of dusk. Where North Americans or Europeans can enjoy seemingly endless summer twilights (that is, when summer eventually chooses to appear) in Cambodia the same thing occurs every evening at 6:00pm. The sun goes down and within minutes the evening is dark.

At the school we have solar panels and these are useful for powering up laptops (and charging phones – lots of phones) but when evening falls, nothing can supply electricity quite like the big diesel generator that chugs into life and lights up the classrooms, keeps those ceiling fans churning up the hot evening air and keeps the computers running.

The generator has been mighty reliable, thankfully, because previously we purchased a real lemon that lasted less than 2 weeks before failing. This, after careful shopping around in Phnom Penh.

When you’re in the classroom the evening sun, when it falls, is often gold or red and it flares up the sky in gorgeous colours.  Then the welcome sound of the generator as it roars into life, and the fans begin to swirl and the fluorescent lights come – attracting insects and creating activity from the little geckos that clamber keenly around the walls. I think all day they wait for this moment.

Meanwhile, despite the heat, the students are hard at work, and the generator gives all of them extra time to read, or study or to wrangle with their computer studies.  That’s another 90 minutes they gain each evening in their race to beat the odds of growing up in a poor rural community.

In that respect I think the fuel bill for the generator, around $2 a night, is amazing value.

Now that works out around $600 a year – and we’re soon to launch a little fundraising effort to tidy away this element of our annual budget. 

My friends groan when I make dreadful puns, but in this case the saying “many hands makes light work…” is the perfect truth.  I hope readers can contribute in due course.