Poverty porn. It’s not okay.


Big applause to of the Phnom Penh Post for her article this last week on ‘poverty porn.’ and the murky ethics of poverty fundraising.  She wrote when Weh Yeoh, the director of OIC Cambodia, tweeted the images from an Australian fundraising ad that portrayed young children, Cambodian, as trafficked and homeless. The photos positively rubbed the readers’ noses in the children’s shame.“I’m pretty sure this breaches all kinds of standards around positive portrayal of children,” he wrote.logo_ppp It turned out the children in the adverts were child models, dirtied up and paid to look like victims – and the fundraising agency said the imagery had kickstarted a very successful fundraising campaign. They were angry to be called out by the media, and went on to attack critic via twitter, arguing that donors don’t respond to images of happy, employed children.

On that front I disagree, and I base my opinion on market research I’ve expressly carried out for the charitable sector which tested various children-need-your-help scenarios – without pictures.

But that’s hardly the issue. The main focus of the criticism was about ‘poverty porn’ and the portrayal of disadvantaged children for gain – whether charitable or otherwise.

“The ’80s are calling – they want their pics of fly-covered starving African children back,” wrote Celia Boyd of Phnom Penh’s SHE Investments, on Twitter, in response to the recent advertising.  “Just because it raises money, it doesn’t make it right,” said fellow Australian Leigh Mathews, of Re/Think Orphanage.  (I’m citing the PPP piece here.)

The ethics of how we use images of poverty is a blurry topic. Last week I taught a local high-school class in New Zealand and we discussed just this issue, and Exhibit A were a stack of slides I’d taken – photos of poor people in Cambodia.  Creepy or okay? I asked.

The students were really clear. If I knew the person being photographed, and if I asked for permission – then it was okay. “You have to be respectful.” one student told me.

What about if it was a poor person whom I saw on the street, or near a temple where I was taking photographs?  “Then don’t zoom in on them,” was the answer.

The core principle is respect, privacy and dignity.  I don’t buy that the portrayal of victims, whether actual or made-up, is the right way to go.

Anyone have any thoughts on the issue?



An outstanding Cambodian documentary – Enemies of the People


Investigative journalist Thet Sambath is a reporter with the Phnom Penh Post and over 10 years he went about interviewing victims and soldiers in search of why Pol Pot and his generals did what they did. After all, there is a rich collection of literature telling the story from the point of view of the victims, but the story from the Khmer Rouge point of view was greyed-out, even during the time of their reign of terror in the 1970s. It took more than a year before Pol Pot even revealed himself to the public – preferring to rule by secrecy until 1977.

Sambath is an amazing journalist who digs into the story in a characteristically Cambodian way: preferring not to be confrontational but to win the friendship and trust of those he interviews. I found his treatment of two soldiers, youngsters at the time they carried guns for the Khmer Rouge, particularly moving. At first the soldiers say they weren’t involved and cannot remember the details, but gradually the journalist takes them to the point where they realise that confessing what they did – one of the two men recalls throwing babies in the air and bayoneting them with the sword on the end of his rifle – is the only way to release themselves from the nightmares they have nursed for decades. The men weep with horror and shame at what they did. “What will I return as?” one asks rhetorically, recounting the rules of Buddhism.

Following a trail that emerges with each time he asks: “who gave your the orders? Why did so many people die in the killing fields?” Sambath eventually finds himself at the doorstep of  former Khmer Rouge leader Nuon Chea, Pol Pots’s right hand man.

Chea insists that the regime had to get rid of “enemies of the people” but he cannot adequately address the core fact: that those in power were simply executing everyday Cambodians. Who, if not these leaders, were the real enemies of the people?

Nuon Chea is a arrogantly proud man, deluded perhaps, but through the lens of Sambath’s camerawork still human. Not a monster, but a deeply flawed man who, ultimately, is arrested to face trial.

This is a stunning movie, and has won multiple prestigious awards since being released in 2011. One hurdle, it has had to overcome, is that the Cambodian Government decreed it was too sensitive to release in Cambodia. The producers were working last year to ensure that at least through DVD release it might be viewed by Cambodians themselves.

Watch the trailer – click here.

More on Khmer film click here.

Working conditions in Cambodia. 90% don’t get paid leave.


In the Cambodian economy there is a gorilla in the room – the question of fair pay and fair working conditions. A new survey says that 90% of paid workers don’t even get annual leave.

One thing we’ve always tried to do at Savong School is to act as a fair employer. For sure, nobody is going to get rich on our salaries – but there are other elements of fairness including paid sick leave and annual leave so that our staff continue to get paid regardless of whether it is holidays or whether they fall ill (or are in bereavement for a family member.)

Quite apart from whether these practices are required by law (technically they are in Cambodia, but a report released today suggests that 90% of workers receive neither form of leave) it just seems a mark of simple respect.  For that reason we also provide a token bonus gift each October for the Pchum Ben holidays –  a sign that we support Cambodian tradition, but also that we understand how those in employment are often expected to contribute to others (family, monks) during this period.

The report in the Phnom Penh Post below makes disappointing reading.

This report from the Phnom Penh Post – December 2nd.

Only about 10 per cent of Cambodia’s workforce is being granted paid annual leave, a report released last week says.

Under the 1997 Labour Law, workers who work a standard 48-hour week are entitled to 18 days of paid annual leave, in addition to one day off per week.

But according to the Cambodia Labour Force 2012 report, released on Thursday by the International Labour Organization and the Ministry of Planning’s National Institute of Statistics, 90 per cent of regular employees are not being given any paid annual leave – a figure that is similar when it comes to paid sick leave.

“According to the responses … only 9.5 per cent of them were allowed any annual paid leave and only 10.4 per cent had provision for paid sick leave,” the report says.

These figures relate only to the 46 per cent of the workforce considered “employees”, rather than those who are self-employed (33 per cent) or contributors to a family business (20 per cent).

Ou Tepphallin, vice-president of the Cambodian Food and Service Workers’ Federation, said the beer promotion sector was one in which only workers at a select few companies were given annual leave.

“Not only do [most] not get annual leave … they have to work seven days per week without getting a holiday,” she said yesterday. “If they want to take time off, their salary will be cut.”

Tepphallin said that some workers did not even know what the Labour Law was and would benefit from more regular government inspections.

Sat Sakmoth, secretary of state at the Ministry of Labour, and In Khemara, director of the ministry’s inspection department, could not be reached.

Dave Welsh, country manager for labour-rights group Solidarity Center, said that for industries other than the garment sector – which is responsible for more than 85 per cent of Cambodia’s exports – the report’s statistics “are not surprising”.

“Outside of the garment sector, unless you’re working for an international hotel, workers and their [bosses] are probably not aware of it [the Labour Law requirement],” he said. “But it is a violation of the law.”

Within the garment sector, compliance is much greater, Welsh added.

The report surveyed 9,600 households across the country.

“By industry, the largest proportion of the employed population was engaged in agriculture, at 33.3 per cent, followed by 17.5 per cent in wholesale and retail trade and 17.4 in manufacturing,” it says.

See also: How much do workers get paid in Cambodia?

The strengthening network of education NGOs in Cambodia


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.

Youngest Cambodia Lacks Teachers – UNESCO Report


I’ve lifted this directly from the Phnom Penh Post:

Fewer and fewer primary schoolteachers are willing to cope with poor pay and the worst student-to-teacher ratio outside of Africa, government data shows.

Annual reports released by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport reveal that despite fervent recruitment efforts, every year since 2005 – when it began keeping track – the number of primary-school teachers has declined.

“[The ministry is] recruiting fewer than the number of teachers they aim to [5,000 a year] and more are dying, retiring or resigning than are being recruited,” said Leng Theavy, campaign and advocacy coordinator at the NGO Education Partnership (NEP), which released a study on the nation’s teacher shortage in May.

In the 2005-06 school year, the Kingdom listed just 50,378 primary school teachers for more than 2.5 million students. Last year, the number of teachers dropped to 44,840.

The dearth of primary school teachers has created one of the worst pupil-to-instructor ratios in the world; with 48.5 students per primary school teacher last year, Cambodia had the 16th-highest ratio in all countries monitored by UNESCO.

“It is really a problem … because the training at the primary school level is the most important. All students must pass primary school before they can continue their education,” said Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association.

In contrast to the dwindling number of primary school educators, the number of secondary school teachers has steadily increased. Last year, the ministry reported 38,211 secondary school teachers (up from 25,520 in 2005) for just over 823,000 students, 21.5 pupil-per-teacher ratio less than half that of the primary classrooms.

“Part of the decline [in the number of primary school teachers] is that some are applying to work in secondary schools since the qualifications are the same, but the hours are not as long and the pay is better,” said Dinah Dimalanta, integrated programs director at World Vision.

According to NEP’s study, primary school instructors could get paid double the wage for two-thirds the hours at secondary schools.

“It’s no secret that the salary for teachers in Cambodia is very low compared to other countries,” Dimalanta said.

Though the ministry just raised teaching staff salaries in September, primary school teachers’ wages still fall below the average GDP per capita of $85.33 per month.

Starting primary school teachers now earn $80 a month (up from $66), which NEP found wasn’t enough for a family of four to buy enough food to meet basic caloric requirements. Upper secondary teachers make $154 per month.

“In order to solve the primary school teacher shortage, I think the education ministry must … increase the salary and improve teachers’ living standards,” Chhun said.

Though the ministry has said they plan on a series of salary hikes, they declined to comment on teacher shortages.

“It is a huge problem, because in the long run, it will result in poor teaching and learning outcomes,” Dimalanta said. “I think the government is already starting to address the problem, but not to the extent we were hoping.”

Reported Thu, 14 November 2013 by and

Why we started Savong’s School – in rural Siem Reap: Click here.

A simple dream I had last night


Let’s nurture a free press in Cambodia. It might start locally at Savong’s School.


I’m getting excited, now, about my impending journey to Cambodia. This last week I’ve had good conversations with Savong, but also a skype call with one of the students Kadeb whom I really look forward to seeing again. He has one of those smiles that light up any room, and I’m dying to see him after almost two and a half years.

I’ve also been wondering what I’d like to bring the classrooms I meet at Savong’s School. I’d like to introduce something new; something which leaves an ongoing impact. This morning I woke up with answer.

Since the Cambodian elections which rocked the sitting government by demonstrating the widespread distrust with which they are held by the public, there has been a lot of discussion about the role of a free press in Cambodia. I think the Phnom Penh Post do a great job of bringing in-depth and searching stories to public light, and I praise the role of the widely listened to Voice of America broadcasts which have a wide following and – in contrast to their work during the 1960s when Nixon and Kissinger were treating SE Asia with such disdain –  they are working hard to bring balanced but searching news coverage as well. They are trustworthy, whereas the National Television news service acts more like the voice of the party in power. It pulled coverage of mass demonstrations for example, because such stories would have been ‘biased against the government.’  So according to TV 50,000 Cambodians did not turn up at a recent protest – while the rest of Cambodian knew about it anyway.

The free press. Where do students consider the role of such a thing, and how do students get to practice their interests in such a vehicle? This morning I woke up with a simple idea: to start a school newspaper at Savong’s School.

Now disclaimer. I used to edit a school newspaper when I was at high school, and it was never much of a crusading voice under my helm. Later at University I got involved with the student newspaper “Nexus” and learned a number of good lessons including a basic tenet: the truth is no defense in a  libel case. We pilloried, and rightly so, a history professor. He sued.

But later again I ended up freelance writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, and contributed articles more recently to magazines as diverse as Auckland Metro, Management, Renovate, Hospitality and a host of others. Writing has been a core interest of mine since high school and those early pieces I used to so earnestly write.

So a school newspaper. That’s what I’d like to begin. Through such a medium local students may experience the joy of seeing their names in print; the agony of seeing their typos light up the sky with shame, and may consider the debates about whether an article is fair, is true, is worthwhile: three quite different things. I can’t predict what the outcome will be, but I do hope that just as I saw a colleague editor of Nexus pursue a career in journalism that has led him to the BBC Foreign News Service (Tip of the hat to Paul Clark) so too, one day, I’d love to see a student or two from Savong’s School in time doing what good journalists do: helping society by illuminating its stories, both good and bad.