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.

Changes ahead for Cambodian childrens homes.

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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.

Alex – farewell for now

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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.

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.

Volunteering at a Cambodian Orphanage?

This article is copied from Trip Advisor – though actually I wrote it and it has been reviewed and positively commented on by others. It was written to encourage potential volunteers to think about the issues before they turn up to “help the children” in Cambodia.  In 2011-2012 there was orchestrated bad-press towards orphanages; used to help push the Cambodian Government to take steps to clean up the local scene.

Background

Around Siem Reap there are many orphanages and many visitors of the 2 million who come through the town each year feel that they would like to make a difference. What’s the best strategy? How does one know the orphanage is above board? Is it even a wise thing to do – or is visiting an orphanage a morally dubious activity that perpetuates poverty?

First, be very clear that most children (at least 75% or more) in Cambodian orphanages are not strictly orphans: they may have one or both parent – but these families are simply unable to provide the food and care that the children need. Without any government safety net, the community itself has to come up with its own solutions to assist these children.

One option for a parent is to literally sell their children – generally to a family who might put that child to work in a cafe or restaurant. That child will get food and roof over their head – love even – though it is likely they won’t get an education.

The other option is to place the child at one of a network of orphanages. By and large these are under-resourced, but actually a lot better environment for the child than their actual home. Bear in mind that Siem Reap province is, according to Cambodian Government figures, the second poorest region in the nation. (The town is comparacitvely wealthy – but even here there is a conspicuous income gap.)  In the province, around 30% of families are below the poverty line which is set at $US30 income per month.

So that is the context and reason for so many orphanages.

They are a legitmate response to a big social problem. However some orphanages are more legitimate than others. To provide a measure of protection for the children, the Cambodian Government has a licensing system, and to qualify and be registered local orphanages need fulfill a range of conditions – for example with clean pump water, and a demonstrable level of resources – the standard of proof being that the organisation has $US5,000 in their bank account at the time of registration.

In 2013 the Government has started tightening up protocols and standards and introducing a lot more paperwork – for example to develop clearer responsibilities on the part of the orphanage.  Good hearts are one thing – but these organisations need good management, good systems.

How can visitors assist?

Volunteers are less useful than they used to be, and had better be ready to do a lot more than simply turn up, take photos and report their experience to thier friends on FaceBook.

Think seriously about what you can offer. Volunteers can assist through a range of activities including teaching, involving children in play or sport activities, or getting involved in practical projects. There are many good centres and volunteers have carried out projects as diverse as building a new toilet block, assisting by building a fish pond for the orphanage to raise their own food, planting fruit trees, building furniture, teaching, putting up a much loved and used volleyball net, and assisting with the website. In other words whatever skill set you have – any orphanage may find a way to employ you.

Many NGOs and experienced volunteers will tell you that to make a worthwhile contribution time-wise, you need to spend several weeks (some say more than 6 months) with the project. Then, and only then can you make a true difference.

How can you be sure it is a legitimate project?

Frankly there have been stories of some unscrupulous people using poor children as a front – a way to get tourist dollars. To make sure, ask for proof of the organization’s registration. If they are not registered with the Government then steer clear.

A better step is to do your homework first and to conduct a web search, contact the organisations and contact previous volunteers and ask them about their impressions – both upside and downside.

And don’t forget, the orphanage wants to be sure YOU are legitimate also. There have been cases of paedophiles turning up to volunteer in some places, and the local orphanage directors are well aware of the potential problem. Increasingly volunteers will be asked to present a Police clearance form from their own country, or similar verification. You should also bring a copy of your passport ID when you volunteer, and expect to be accompanied (not in a bad way) by other local adults. Try not to put yourself in a compromising position either – for example it is better to volunteer with a friend or partner.

Make a donation.

One of the truly disappointing things a tourist can do is turn up, spend a short while, get a photo of themselves with the children, and then move on without leaving even a donation. This happens, especially at orphanges near the temples or the town. Look: be serious – if you truly wish to make a difference, then give seriously.  It takes $32 to feed a child for a month – then give 3 or 6 or 12 months worth. Go with the staff and buy sacks of rice.

NGO directors discuss these issues frequently, and one strategy many are adopting is to welcome volunteers (preferably those who can stay more than a few weeks) but also to charge a minimum donation. This is to discourage any inconsiderate “Facebook Volunteers” who turn up, take photos, disrupt routines and give nothing in return.

Even if your chosen NGO doesn’t do this; before you visit, work out a fair donation – one you’re comfortable with – and discuss that with the the orphanage director. Ask, “I’d like to assist you with a $xx donation – how will that be spent? What do you need?” Generally it is easier to raise and set expectations up front rather than have that awkward feeling where the director doesn’t wish to feel greedy and meanwhile you’re wondering “when’s a good moment to talk about money?” Another tip would be, give just a little more than you promised. That way everyone gains face.

If you wish to be careful that the money goes to help the children, a simple strategy is to suggest that you’d like to buy $xx of books or stationery (or whatever is needed) and would the director llike to come shopping with you to buy this?

What the children need.

Budgets will vary depending on the size and conditions of each orphanage, but the budgets worked out at one centre in 2010 might be a guideline.

Food and shelter for each child. $US32 per month – about a dollar a day. That covers food, petrol for the generator, staff.

Education for the child. $US15+ per month. Local primary and secondary schools now seem to charge for children to attend, so education is no longer free. This, of course, will make a big difference to the child’s future.

When you discuss needs with an orphanage, keep an eye out. Do those kids need new clothes? Is there a classroom and is it equipped? Are there books, toys or volleyballs?  Do the beds – the children sleep many to a room – have mosquito nets?

Maintain your connection.

Visiting and volunteering for a few days is a very good experience but ought to be part of something more serious. Remember, these orphanages are being run for the sake of the children, not for the sake of visitors seeking a “third world moment.”  One thing that you might consider doing is – if you have a good experience, and feel very comfortable with what you’ve seen, maintain contact – for example by sponsoring a child or sending a regular donation. A serious commitment will reward you.

Arguments against visiting orphanages.

There has been increasing press in the last 5 years arguing against the support of orphanages. One argument; that since these children have parents, then isn’t it better to support the families?

A second argument is that short term visits by volunteers simply destabilise the home life of the children who need structure, rather than a parade of strangers coming and going and taking their photos. (Some orphanages now ban cameras.)

A third argument is that by supporting orphanages one is supporting a system of human trafficking – whereby unscrupulous directors get an income stream through having the lure of poor children.In some instances this has been the case.

  1. In my view support for families is always best however this comes back to employment, having a social welfare safety-net (many children have a solo-mother who cannot cope by herself,) and dealing with the endemic social justice challenges facing Cambodia. In the meantime there is a long tradition in Cambodia of sending children from families where there is hardship, to monasteries.
  2. In terms of the destabilising effects of having visitors, this is best countered by having a good well structured home for the children that is not overly visitor dependent. It also comes with having good rules around what visitors can or cannot do. Are they here to teach for example: then what is destabilising about that?
  3. The human trafficking argument has been dealt with largely by the registration of orphanages and the mandatory requirement to have clear documentation that demonstrates the relationship between the orphanage and their family of the child. This has been a welcome development at the SOC.

For those considering a stint of volunteering, the three key questions you need to ask yourself are:

  • Is the institution you are visiting truly geared for the benefit of the children (and their families?)
  • Are you, as a visitor, truly committed to make a permanent and positive long term difference to at least one child?
  • Three: would you be prepared to do this and leave your camera behind? Are your motives about you? Or about the children?

 See also:

  1. A link showing holidays in Cambodia 2014
  2. Five things I love about Savong’s School – Cambodia

Guide for Voluntourists – An Ethical Compass

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Enrolment day 2011. This mother came to the school to ask questions and ensure the school could help her son. Two days later she came back with the website address for a books in schools program. One that I had been unable to find on the net. I love this sense of community involvement.

While debate swirls around Twitter about the pros and cons of voluntourism I thought I’d search for a constructive document to refer to. A good platform for thinking about the issues has been prepared by a group called TIES – The International Eco-Tourism Society. And their objective is to provide an ethical compass both for operators (come on our amazing orphanage tour!) and for tourists who are thinking about the ethical pros and cons.

Click here for their 24 page PDF: Guideline for voluntourists.

Today I’ve been quite busy responding to Twitter criticisms levelled at orphanages in general – and it is no medium in which to have a debate. But it is clear that there are naysayers out there who find it much easier to find fault (but surely the children should be with their parent.  Er, not if there’s domestic violence.) but not so easy to come up with positive, practical ways of helping the poorest Cambodian families and their children.

I don’t mind any such debate. I’m glad that NGOs are being held to higher account though I find some of the critics’ arguments quite risible or over-simplistic. (Money isn’t the issue…we should do what’s best…) Hmmmn. If only money wasn’t an issue.

But at the root of the discussion, on both sides, there beats a common heart – and that is one that cares for the children of Cambodia. If you’re planning to visit, do read up on these issues.

Some guidelines:

  • Deal with licensed, reputable NGOs.  Ignore those that tout for your visit.
  • Expect to be asked for photo ID. Don’t just walk in.
  • Plan to make a long-term difference – ask yourself how you might do this.
  • Work with children only in the presence of other adults.
  • Do your homework. There’s an good argument to say that many of us could reduce our negative footprint simply by sending money to a good cause. So ask yourself – am I making a difference by being here?

For more about volunteering see also:

Click here:  A new policy at Savong’s organisation: designed to raise the bar.