180 young Cambodian students would love your assistance

Click here for a YouTube video I put together: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ifRHOz-dIbo&feature=youtu.be

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 – duncan@kudos-dynamics.com


Many roads to Cambodia’s development – an interview with Dr Wayne McCallum


Dr Wayne McCallum (far right) has immersed himself in both the social and natural environment of Cambodia since 2003. He sees challenges ahead for the nation’s development and the need to adopt the best from several pathways to development.

I’ve referred elsewhere to the book I found at the Monument bookstore at Siem Reap airport called ROADS TO DEVELOPMENT – a very insightful discussion that weighs up different pathways to the development of Cambodia.  Published by the AFSC (American Friends Service Committee) the book  focuses on the experience in the Sre Ambel District of Southwest Cambodia, and while the main topic involves development of the local economy through agriculture for example; the lessons are applicable in a wider sense to NGOs in every sector including ours, in Education.

The book discusses whether the economic development road, for example is the best path (creating jobs through investment and new methods of agriculture,) or whether it leads to compromises (farmers losing their land, worker rights abuses, environmental degradation).

So the title, “Roads” is a good summation because it looks at a diversity of approaches tracing strengths and weaknesses and common pitfalls including one that struck me as particularly important: to deliver on promises. It appears that when NGOs or investment organisations promise to “consult and listen” few do this effectively or honourably.

The book is jointly authored by a Cambodian, Meas Nee, and by a New Zealander Wayne McCallum, and their Cambodian/Western perspectives generate rich insight.

Recently I contacted Wayne to ask him a few questions about what he has learned in Cambodia and whether he is optimistic for the nation’s future given the developmental problems he has witnessed first-hand and through interviewing locals.

Wayne – how did you first get involved in Cambodia? Was there a personal connection?

I came to Cambodia in December 2003 as a VSA volunteer. I had first developed a desire to travel to the region in the mid-1990s and although I really wanted an assignment in Laos, the Cambodia project that VSA advertised was just too perfect to pass up on. So I applied and got accepted.

You had an academic interest in Cambodia via your main academic subject of Environmental Sociology. What is the main emphasis of this study?

I was a ‘born again’ student. I went back to university to complete my PhD after several years of work. My study involved a ‘post-modern exploration of community environmental management’ through the frame of several place-based case studies (Phew!).

I ended up going down the pathway of how the way we give meaning to the environment and environmental matters (social construction) shapes our actions.   This includes how we respond to ‘environmental issues’. In the end I really got into political ecology and how this shapes the way the groups I studied interacted with each other, other people, the authorities and the world around them.

It is a short step to apply these ideas to ‘development’ thinking, something that we sought to capture in ‘Roads’.

How did you meet Meas Nee? How did the Sre Ambel study come about?

I had come across Nee’s work and was impressed by it. I really wanted to work with him as we shared a common approach to development. I was asked to work on the book and suggested Nee as a counterpart. The AFSC had been thinking the same thing and were keen to have him on board as well. We both aligned well, with different strengths and abilities. Add to this the fact that my VSA placement had been in the Sre Ambel area, which meant that I knew the place and people well.

You two arrived at an interesting and I feel balanced view about the strengths and weaknesses of different forms of community and nation development – whether development through Economic Growth, Human Rights development or community or environmentally based development.  Different emphases, different strengths and different weaknesses.

a.       What are some of the worst pitfalls of development have you witnessed since 2003?

In Cambodia I am definitely concerned at the way economic land concessions have been enacted and the way that social and environmental considerations have not been factored into this process. The lack of any rigorous environment and social impact process is a continuing cause of concern and adds to the issues raised by both concession developments and other projects.

b.      What’s your recipe for the successful, sustainable development of Cambodia?

I guess the point we come to in ‘Roads’ is that there is no magic recipe. What you should look at, instead, is a process that ensures all voices, including those of the environment, are brought into the planning and decision-making process, that adverse impacts are recognized and managed for, that risk is accommodated and that ecological, social and economic resilience is maintained and improved.  It sounds easy.

I guess having some agreement on what ‘sustainable development’ means and the goals and aspirations that underline this are a good starting point. That sort of dialogue has not happened here in Cambodia though, that said, I do not think it has happened in NZ either!

For me development needs to be ‘inclusive’ and ‘sensitive’.

In the book you and Nee discuss the cultural collisions between NGOs and communities. Nee twice refers to the “Logical Frameworks” used by foreign-based NGOs and how this kind of western business thinking runs counter to local ways of thinking. What advice would you give to an NGO if they want to work successfully in Cambodia?

Oh that’s a BIG question.  In short, read ‘Roads’ and think about how its ideas could apply to you and your work.

What do NGOs frequently get wrong? I suspect you’re going to mention their lack of community input…

‘Wrong’ is a subjective term, while NGOs do not operate in isolation. The reality is that development is a challenging and complex process. Recognising and managing this process is probably the first thing that you need to do. That this does not always happen is probably one of the leading errors.

From there things get more complex. Funding cycles, output focus, conflict, are all challenges that lead to NGO ‘failure’. The list is a long one and I wonder about the ability of some organisations to step back and reflect. There are a few that are good at this. I was impressed by AFSC while I worked for them, both as a volunteer and as a consultant.

Finally, you’ve remarked that Cambodia gets more complex the more you work here. We see a nation undergoing rapid change – what are the main issues that you feel the nation will face in the next few years?

There are many issues and Cambodia does not always have control over its own destiny. Issues over the damming of the Mekong in Laos and China illustrate this.

From a societal perspective the coming ‘youth quake’, whereby the majority of the population will soon be less than 30 years of age is going to put enormous pressure on the country, as rising aspirations are confronted by limitations in the ability of the state and the Kingdom to accommodate these.

Environmentally, a recent climate change report identified Cambodia as in the top-10 of nations vulnerable to climate change. This really is the ‘elephant in the room’ for the Kingdom and is not being factored into decision-making.

There are a host of others but these are a good starting point.

Are you optimistic for Cambodia?

I love Cambodia and I am a pragmatic optimist. The country and its people invigorate and infuriate me in equal measure, at times, but they remind me that I am alive and keep me honest.

Thank you Wayne. 

 For a 30 minute interview on SEATV Cambodia’s Global Dialogue, Dr Wayne McCallum discusses the environment and how it’s protection in Cambodia can generate positive tourism.

In fact after his experience in the Sre Ambel District, Wayne has taken up the role of environmental director of the Song Saa Private Island’s Conservation and Community programme.

Changes ahead for Cambodian childrens homes.


The Cambodian NGO sector assisting children is going to get a shake-up in 2014. The emphasis will be on education and on fewer homes for children.

Over the past three years there has been lively debate about the role of orphanages and children’s homes in Cambodia. Twelve months ago various UN agencies professed, disingenuously that they were shocked! shocked! to find that most children in Cambodia’s children’s homes were not actually orphans. Where had UNICEF been for the past 12 years? Had they not gone into the field?

At the same time in 2011 and 2012 the Government, keen to announce a crack-down on poorly run orphanages carried out some orchestrated closures – some for clear and good reasons, others on the basis of allegations that were either untrue or unproved. So 24 months ago a Siem Reap orphanage was closed under allegations of sexual activity among the students, and 12 months ago an Australian supported orphanage in Phnom Penh was closed under allegations of trafficking: that is – taking children (for care in this case) without clear permission of the parents.

The orphanage landscape has been muddy, for sure, yet in the discussion there have been few column inches devoted to the good work carried out by the vast majority of children’s homes.

Nor has there been background discussion about the centuries-old tradition within Khmer culture of placement, by poor families, of their children (mostly sons) into the care and schooling environment of monasteries.

For the most part many thousands of children have been provided food, care, clothing and education that they probably would have been unable to receive at home. In some ways the rise of children’s homes was a short-term solution to an immediate crisis of poverty, just as surely as the rise of orphanages in post-war Europe (for example the widespread Petites soeurs de la Charité in France,) was the answer to a social catastrophe. In the lifeboat rule, children come first. Family comes next.

Now times are changing. The Government has listened, I think mostly correctly, to the foreign philosophy that says that children – no matter how poor – are better off being at home. The Government’s Ministry of Social Affairs, Labor, Vocational Training and Youth Rehabilitation (MOSALVY) has voiced a clear policy direction. Re-house children with their families if possible – and provide them the support to ensure they receive a full education.

This is a logical follow-up to the process of registration, which our children’s home has undertaken, as well as the audit process which we passed. The Government has been assessing the preparedness, management, objectives and resources of children’s homes. Where they have concerns is around potential liability.

What if something goes wrong at a Government approved orphanage? Who is liable if a child dies due to sickness or some accident?

So the new direction in Government policy is driven in part by advice from international agencies, and in part by a fear of liability.

Where I have reservations about the new Government direction is not about the philosophy but mostly in the detail.

  • There are many children housed in many children’s homes who are from homes where domestic violence is part of the picture. In the absence of other social services, is it best to return these children to this situation?
  • Right now children’s homes act as an efficient and reasonably well controlled aid-channel from overseas to the children of Cambodia. (For sure, there have been some poor exceptions.) If the children are not housed in these homes, will there be a fair mechanism to ensure that in future, the same degree of aid will continue to assist these deserving children?
  • What of the role of monasteries? Does the Government make an exception for their role – or does it begin to interfere with a Buddhist social service? Has this been thought through?

For now, agencies that have ensured care for children via dedicated children’s homes (of which there are more than 600 across Cambodia) are going to need to rethink how they provide their care.

This affects Savong and his organisation in Siem Reap. Savong met with the Ministry this last week and was told of their plans. He says the senior adviser explained things constructively and clearly and, in fact, he is all for the Government’s new direction. Rather than see the changes as a threat to a part of his NGO (the children’s home) he sees this as just another step in the evolution of children’s care.

I asked him what his plans are, and he said there is no rush. The Government is likely to take several months before it enacts its new policy and they are giving NGOs plenty of time to think how they can continue to provide assistance to the children of Cambodia. After all, for the good of disadvantaged young people, the Government needs the support of this sector.

Savong told me that all the children currently in his care will continue to receive support to continue with their schooling. This will be in the form of school uniforms, bicycles if necessary (to get to school) and financial support to cover education costs.  (A great model for this approach is the excellent Ponheary Ly Foundation, based in Siem Reap.) Meanwhile the SOC children’s home may serve as a pre-school, day-care or school for younger children and provide meals as well as education to the local poor. The way Savong sees it, the new approach may enable the SOC to provide outreach to more families, not less.

“We can do exciting things,” he told me. “Our objectives are the same: to help poor rural children to reach their potential.”

Meanwhile, let’s not lose sight of his school which has more than 500 enrolments and continues to go from strength to strength.

A new landscape for Cambodian NGOs


Twilight on an old, less controlled NGO environment. Today there are new arrangements with Government Ministries designed to boost accountability.

When Savong first established his school in 2005 and childrens home in 2008 there were few restrictions or regulations. Back, ten years ago, anybody could set up an NGO, and for every ten good organisations that established themselves, with clear objectives and sound service delivery, there was perhaps one “cowboy” operation – some say more – that was established either as a money making venture (orphan tourism for example,) or with good intentions but seriously weak delivery.  From a humanitarian agency point of view it was the wild west.

Well, the sun is setting on those days. Today Savong is in Phnom Penh on a business journey to see the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Education, Youth & Sport (MOEYS) to process paperwork that both ministries are demanding of NGOs: the Memorandum of Understanding which forms, in simple terms, a contract between the NGO and (via the Government) the people of Cambodia. The MoUs spell out:

  • The objectives and purpose of the organisation
  • The resources and deliverables of that organisation
  • The organisation structure – a clear list of who is accountable
  • Three years’ worth of budgets
  • Evidence that the NGO is well supported and will continue to be supported.

What does the Government provide in exchange? Not resources exactly (they charge a fee to submit a MoU) but they do provide support for registered NGOs, and they also provide for foreign supporters a degree of genuine legitimacy. Our NGO has already been audited successfully as part of the process and the audit was an opportunity to share best practices.

Nobody loves paperwork, do they? But in this case Savong is genuinely excited by these dealing with Government. I suspect this is due to a sense of inclusivity that is being fostered by the Ministries who, by weaving independent NGOs into the social welfare fabric (and by shutting down the cowboys), are starting to put Cambodia on the track of having a more cohesive social policy. Cambodia benefits when the Government starts dealing with the front-line agencies.

This guy needs love and attenton

This guy needs love and attenton

Within any group of children there will be one or two who want extra love and attention. This young man is one of the kids at SOC who most wants one-on-one time.  Sometimes he feels overshadowed by the older boys – one path to his development will be to find a skill or talent that he is especially good at: something that helps build is self-esteem.

True Confession: What Prince Charles must feel like

True Confession: What Prince Charles must feel like

There were a few moments in Cambodia recently when I felt like royalty. On my first morning out to see the children at SOC, Bakong, we drove out and Savong had arranged a reception at the gate where all the children were lined up. I’m welling up as I write this because those children applauded me as I entered the grounds – a sustained applause that made me feel both humbled and also exceptionally proud. I shook hands with the children, and high fived them – first down one side of the driveway, and then down the other side. I wanted to give something back.

I’ve been in the position of receiving honours before – in my work for example, or at high school – but this experience was on a whole different level: it was emotionally very charged.

Ten days later the school prize giving was held, and afterwards gifts were given to attendees and I helped share these out. Theavy borrowed my camera and took this photo, and to my horror I realise that slowly – through age, girth and those ears – I’m turning into Prince Charles. There’s something very: “And what do YOU do?” in my posture. But the truth is, I was treated like royalty and yes, I’m endlessly interested in the students and the hopes and dreams they possess. That greeting at the gate: honestly, that is one of the most special moments I’ve ever been treated to in my life.