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.

Culture plays a big role in the way NGOs are run

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The thoughtful 2009 book, Roads to Development, is one I found – very gratefully – at Siem Reap airport’s excellent little bookshop before I flew out. I’m always thirsty for insight regarding modern Cambodia and how westerners like me need to interact; so I found this book based on 70 interviews with a wide variety of community and NGO stakeholders in the Southern district of Sre Ambel to be particularly informative.

The text was researched and written by two people; Meas Nee who is a Cambodian who studied for his Doctorate at LaTrobe University in Australia, and Wayne McCallum who is a New Zealander – also a PhD – who has worked in Cambodia since 2003. They studied the various pathways for development of Sre Ambel district, and reflect on how different philosophic approaches succeed or fail in the Cambodian context. The book is instructive, and helps make sense of the messy gumbo of “development.” In this context I worry about the big Chinese investments that effectively serve big business, but disenfranchise locals from their own land. The numerous land rights issues in Cambodia are an ugly facet of the nation’s “development.”

I found one particular chapter by Meas Nee particularly eye-opening. He describes how Khmer people see development through a particular local lens. Characteristics of this view include:

  • The notion of the “patron leader” in each community. Rather than a “voice of the people” approach, Cambodians often delegate issues upward to a patron who ‘will look after us.’
  • Problem-based rather than issue-based thinking. The tendency to see problems that need a band-aid, rather than an issue that requires an underlying change.
  • Activity focus rather than strategic focus. Hence what gets measured (number of injections) is often out of step with the real issue (is disease being reduced – is the real issue the poor water quality?)

Meas Nee suggests that one of the root causes of the latter two outlooks is the type of education in Cambodia’s schools: which do not stress critical thinking and problem solving. But for sure, his three sets of characteristics are often at the heart of misunderstandings between supporters of NGO’s (us folk in the west who require strategic focus, KPIs, accountability) and the local managers.

The book has given me a concise understanding of some of the frustrations I’ve sometimes felt in the past, and some of the frustrations Savong has felt with me. Culture: it often influences us in surprising ways.

This teacher emphasises the quality of teaching

This teacher emphasises the quality of teaching

Sovannarith has been one of the teachers at Savong’s School since it opened in September 2005 and he has always been distinguished by his professionalism and dedication. These days he still teaches, but his role has also put him in new territory: training and developing the other teachers. Each week he runs a session for staff and two weeks ago I ran one with him on the use of questions in the classroom – a lesson that I myself was taught at Auckland Teacher’s College back in 1977. NGOs in Cambodia are sometimes criticised for measuring activities (number of injections administered) rather than outcomes (reduction in disease) so it is a mark of real maturity at the school that here the focus is not simply on more teachers, but on the quality of the teaching and how to improve it. This is one sign that made me feel, personally, that Savong’s School has never been in better shape. It was a delight to see Sovannarith once more.

Thoughts on heading back to Cambodia

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To visit Cambodia is to confront the deepest of life’s questions

I wrote this in September 2013.

This October I head back to Siem Reap some 28 months after I last visited, and 9 years since I first visited. I head back with mixed feelings this time because if anything the journey will be accompanied with more emotional baggage and greater responsibility.

When I first landed in Siem Reap one hot sunny afternoon in 2004 I was immediately uplifted by a sense of freedom and the exhilaration of being somewhere totally new for me: the beginning of an adventure.  Over the years that feeling has diminished as the project I’ve been involved with has grown in scope and become more complex for the same reason. The first impression most visitors get in Cambodia is that of the delightful smiles of the locals – but these days I ponder more often the complicated layers (cultural, interpersonal) in dealing with Cambodia.  Deep down I try to keep a perspective on my own motivations and my own ability to make a positive difference.

The truth is, the project sometimes breaks my spirit, as it did in 2011, when I saw Savong’s school and childrens home both in good heart, but in need of systems: in need of stronger day to day management. The organisation had grown to the point where the existing systems were not keeping up. How I wanted to implement this and suggest that, but in my two week sojourn I met resistance and I was deeply hurt that Savong seemed to be fobbing off these discussions. Tomorrow brother, tomorrow.  And tomorrow finally arrived, just 12 hours before my flight out.

In hindsight I didn’t handle the situation particularly well. It didn’t help that I was very ill and at one stage slept for something like 30 hours straight.

When we finally made the time to have the business discussion I realised that my approach – my didactic style of “you have to do this! you need to do that!” was a serious affront to Savong who is, after all, the Director of the project. I’m well aware of cultural differences and how they affect management styles, so I’d walked into a trap of my own making, alas.

Since then we have both discussed our communication styles and we have also restated, as we do in most conversations, our commitment to the children of Bakong, just east of Siem Reap: the children at the school and the children’s home.

Even so I look forward to our next meetings about as eagerly as a new recruit looks forward to their first-ever 6-monthly review.  The agenda this time includes those things I wanted to raise 2 years ago: the systems and procedures that the NGO requires to keep all stakeholders happy.  In fact Savong has raised these items and these days he’s making concerted efforts to constantly improve the project. For me the meetings will involve a little bit of letting-go because the project is now too large for me to keep underwriting – making up any shortfall we might have in fundraising. Some months the gap is too big for me to manage alone. So we have some serious thinking and planning to undertake together, especially now I’m approaching retirement age.

So that’s my baggage and my burden. What I look forward to, quite apart from seeing my friend – my brother – Savong once more, is the prospect of meeting the school students once again, and the children at the SOC. Whenever I’m feeling down, my thoughts turn to them and I realise that, excepting for my wife Susanna, these children give me the heart, the courage and the life-meaning I need to get by.

In some ways that’s why I feel trepidation about this particular journey next month. Once more I’m coming face to face with my own doubts and depressions. Once more I’m confronting the question we all consider: who am I?

Since writing this I’ve been on the trip and found my fears unwarranted. Here’s a first reaction on that journey.

The ethics of gifting

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I had a very thoughtful piece of feedback today from a woman whose opinion I greatly trust and admire. Lori works with the brilliant Ponheary Ly Foundation in Siem Reap, and she has immersed herself in Cambodia and in the business, if I may call it that, of promoting and funding a worthwhile cause. The PLF is one of the most efficient, ethical NGOs that I know of in Cambodia, and if Ponheary Ly or Lori Carlson raise a point of discussion, well these are two people who are expert in their field, realistic in their approach and focused 100% on the cause of education for disadvantaged children in Cambodia.

Lori very politely asked me if I’d thought through the ramifications of yesterday’s posting about collecting good used laptops and distributing these to needy students in Cambodia.

Here are two downsides she raised. And I can add more.

1) Imagine you were the up and coming retailer in Siem Reap setting up in the laptop retailing business. Suddenly, an overseas organisation dumps product into your market.  Where instead of purchasing locally, and having that money largely spin around the Cambodian economy, we help put a nail into the side of the local family business.

2) The economy of shipping used laptops to Cambodia is less impressive than you might first guess. Between collection, packing and then shipping the value depreciates – but used laptops will also attract sizeable duty in Cambodia also. (We found that with books three eyars ago – even second-hand books.)

Good points. I can add another downside. Supposed we give a laptop in good faith and, used baby that it is, it fails or has problems.  Could the poor Cambodian student afford the repairs? Are we giving a gift, or a burden?

The discussion is a good one.  After all, the concept of world aid has moved a long way from the sending of used blankets to flood victims overseas.  Every gifting dollar needs to add value to the recipient – the individual, their family, their village and ultimately their nation.

I’ve always felt that education, per se, is one of the most socially beneficial and efficient gifts we can can offer – but just as I point out to visitors that bringing felt tips from overseas is quite needless (you can get them cheaper in Siem Reap, and you support local enterprise) then Lori’s point about bringing in laptops is precisely the same.

Time for me to go back, have a think and to better develop my thinking around the gifting of capital items.  Thank you Lori.

Meanwhile, lest I cause any confusion, let me point out that the Laptops awarded to scholarship students last month were all purchased in Siem Reap – brand new, and I dare say at a price cheaper than you could find in Singapore. Win, win, win.