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

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.

Christmas Day – 2013, Savong’s children’s home Cambodia

Christmas Party 2013 SOC

We hope you had a great get together with friends and family over Christmas. At the SOC the children hosted a visit from Happy Sunshine home for children (based in Siem Reap) as well as the older students supported by Savong – and together they enjoyed a feast and a big Christmas Party. Photo by Buntheourn.

A new landscape for Cambodian NGOs

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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.

Child Labour in Cambodia – a massive 400,000 strong problem

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More than 400,000 Children of school age are estimated to be in the workforce in Cambodia – child labourers who are not getting an education and who (in one out of 10 cases) are engaged in physically dangerous work.

This figure, based on a large household survey conducted by the Government shows that Cambodia has a long way to go in protecting children’s rights to a level accepted by U.N. Member nations.

Cambodia pays lip service to the rights of children – but the Government is on record as saying that these rights don’t – or can’t – apply to households facing extreme poverty. In other words in the absence of any protection, or social welfare safety-net, children will be forced by circumstances into child labour.

Here is the accepted United Nations Article on Child Labour: (Source UNICEF)

Article 32 (Child labour):
The government should protect children from work that is dangerous or might harm their health or their education.While the Convention protects children from harmful and exploitative work, there is nothing in it that prohibits parents from expecting their children to help out at home in ways that are safe and appropriate to their age. If children help out in a family farm orbusiness, the tasks they do be safe and suited to their level of development and comply withnational labour laws. Children’s work should not jeopardize any of their other rights, including the right to education, or the right to relaxation and play.

And here is the news report from the South American news and information Agency Prensa Latina regarding the new survey results:

Phnom Penh, December 2 – 2013 (Prensa Latina) Child labor in Cambodia registers alarming levels, according to a survey conducted by the National Institute of Statistics, the Planning Ministry and the International Labor Organization (ILO). The figures corresponding to year 2012 indicate that some 429,000 children were doing the work of adults, two thirds of them in rural areas.

This represents a 10 percent of those between 5 and 17 years of age. Consequently, half of them dropped out of school or never received primary health care, adds the first survey of its kind conducted in the country since 2001.

One of every nine child laborers were engaged in hazardous labor, including working at construction sites or factories, logging, operating heavy machinery and brick-making.

Researchers surveyed a sample of 9,600 households in all 23 provinces and the capital Phnom Penh, but they had no access to children who live at workplaces or those who have been exploited for sex- or drug-trafficking purposes.

In the child labor report foreword, Minister of Planning Chhay Than said he expected the report would be useful to ‘planners and policy-makers. Eliminating child labor in Cambodia is one of the most urgent challenges the government faces,’ he says.

This is a tricky issue for visitors to Cambodia. Do you boycott a cafe that has children clearing the tables? What if the children are the sons and daughters of the owner’s family?

I’d be interested in any responses readers might have. One principle I’d try and stick to is to determine if the children (at a cafe or shop or wherever we might see a child working) are getting a school education. If they are, then their trajectory is a good one. If not, then they’re getting exploited. Any thoughts?

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. duncan@kudos-dynamics.com

More details: click here.

The strengthening network of education NGOs in Cambodia

CAMBODIA MAY 2011 - SECOND CARD 225

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.