The pressure of being Savong


By western standards Savong can appear quite strict with his students – but he’s faced with a choice: if a student doesn’t want to knuckle-down and study hard, he knows plenty more who will.


I had a fifteen minute phone conversation yesterday with Savong, and these days we keep the toll calls pretty short in order to save money. (Skype has also saved me hundreds of dollars each year.)  We had a brief catch up and Savong was just coming down after a rare weekend of relaxing. Cambodia had just had its water festival.

Our conversation turned to a couple of sponsored individuals and an issue I’d describe as “being the father of adult students who are still at home.”  Heaven knows, my own parents probably had quite enough of me during my students days: the moods, the claims of adulthood (but not the responsibilities) and my ever-shifting sense of direction.

Anyway, for Savong you can multiply my own parents’ experience by a quantum because he hasn’t got one young adult to navigate around: he has at least 20.  There are students who are struggling at school and wondering if a career in trades might be better. There are students who want a taste of the alluring Siem Reap club and party life. (Savong’s rule: No!) There are students who are having career-changing thoughts: perhaps if I studied this course instead of that course?  And there are students who want to deal directly with their sponsors (asking for more money – but under the table.) Savong’s rule is again: no.

What Savong needs is a supportive network, and he reminded me that us sponsors can assist.

We don’t always make it easy. When one student bucked the system earlier this year, Savong basically expelled him from the program. ‘No more sponsorship – you’ve broken the rules – you can go your own way from here on in.’ After all, there are plenty more students hoping for support.  Sponsorship comes with rules and expectations.

But in that instance how complicated did I make it? “Savong, give the boy a second chance.”  “Savong, you have to show more forgiveness.” Suddenly I was telling him how to be a leader: how to be a parent.

I was mulling this over last night, and vowed that however I can, I should be less the critic and more of the support that Savong needs.  Twenty older students virtually in his care.  What a handful!

A new policy for volunteers – designed to raise the bar


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.


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

The power of photos

The power of photos

This picture was taken in a small house in Cambodia – a single room dwelling and like many Cambodian homes features wedding photos, hand-touched, taken decades ago. Today many of us enjoy vast photo collections (I took 600 shots in two weeks) but for a farm worker in Cambodia, those two photos may be their only record of the past. I wonder if one form of simple assistance would be this: a visitor takes portraits, gets these printed and gives the prints back to their subjects. That simple. At SOC Alex has my digital file and is getting the shots I took of students and their parents, printed so they can have copies. A small gesture, but given the number of “old family photos” I’m now seeing, posted by young Cambodians on Facebook, there is a real hunger to capture the family history through photos.

A student who inspired me in 2004

A student who inspired me in 2004

I don’t know the name of this boy but I took this photo in 2004 after class at Savong’s original school – a classroom underneath his father’s house near Wat Thmey, the Killing Fields Pagoda. I’d been in Cambodia for just 3 days when I took this photo and I was entranced by the keen-ness displayed by this student to learn English. Look at his golden smile. Later, after taking the photo Savong told me how the boy’s father, a tuk-tuk driver had been lured by a passenger to a rural area, then murdered at knifepoint, and robbed. The tragedy occurred two weeks before I took the photo. I don’t know who he is, or where he is today, or how – ultimately – he dealt with the loss of his father, but this student really inspired me to get involved in Cambodia. He is a hero of mine – focusing on hope.

A most satisfactory visit with Savong.

A few weeks back I admitted to being somewhat apprehensive about this year’s visit to Cambodia. My last journey had not gone particularly well, and the agenda for this year – a set of business meetings to help get better systems and steer the growth of Savong’s NGO appeared to me to be fraught with risk. Put bluntly, I’m expecting Savong – who started the project 9 years ago with no more than a high school education – to adopt a full western-style operating system in order that donors and sponsors can satisfy our own authorities – inland revenue departments for example – about the validity of our gifting.  We live in compliance-driven economies, with huge office towers of graduates devoted to accurate book-keeping. It’s our business culture. How quickly can we ask Cambodian organisations to ramp-up?

Well this journey I’m filled with optimism. For a start, I’ve never seen the school better organised. A couple of original staff members have moved on this last year, but with their replacements has come fresh energy and commitment. Sovannarith, one of the first teachers and widely accepted as the most professional and well trained, is now the senior teacher and in charge of upskilling the others.

Exams are well organised, authorised by the Ministry of Education (a move established some years ago by good supporter Colm Power from Ireland) and close attention is paid to who has passed and who needs to try again. When I visited results were just being posted, and students were flocking, excitedly, to see whether they had passed or missed out. Most of those who missed out had only attended language or computer classes for a few months – so (at least the ones I spoke with) were keen to enrol again for another shot.


The photo here of Savong’s School was taken on a holiday, so it looks rather empty, but teachers are expecting at least 500 enrolments this new year.

An excellent part of the story at this school is the work put in by scholarship winning students who, after studying at University in the mornings, come back to the school in order to teach or conduct admin duties. They give something back, and they act as mentors for the existing high school students. I’d recommend the practice to any other school.  The enthusiasm of these scholarship winners is palpable (there are more than a dozen – soon to be joined by at least half a dozen more.) The first wave of these scholars will complete their Bachelors degrees a year from now.

When I asked Savong whether his objectives had changed over time he restated the same dream he outlined to me in 2004 exactly nine years earlier: to proved free education in order that poor students can reach their potential.

Along these lines we explored the development of the scholarship idea – assisting students not just through post-high-school university support, but through other career guidance pathways as well. This has been something I’ve been mulling over and was raised also by Amir and Dilshad, the supporters who bankrolled the school library. I met them while on this journey and we visited the library together  – it is a mutli-purpose building with offices, library, computer class-room and meeting/room (come classroom) and to my mind the heart of the school. Amir and Dilshad suggested that a career-guidance focus might be extremely useful not only through sending great students through university, but to support through sponsorship, expertise, good connections – students who wish to train in other vocations. A big part of that is the need to to simply open the eyes of our students to the vast array of career possibilities by bringing in guest speakers, to talk with our rural students and explain what their jobs entail, and how to go about training for that job.

A few years ago almost every student I met wanted to be a “tour guide.”  That made sense in tourist driven Siem Reap. This time when I asked students I found a couple who wished to be engineers, a number who wish to manage their own businesses, and a few who would like to be in a trade – such as electrician or mechanic.

That was the career choice of young Buntheourn whom supporters have sponsored since 2008. (Below)


He is now almost fully trained as a mechanic, and a year from now will be capable of earning something like $300 a month – unheard of money compared to his parents who struggled on something like $40 per month to support their son. His is one of those great leaps forward we can help local students achieve. Buntheourn is as delightful as ever, by the way, now a young man and completely at ease his profession.

Savong and I had much to talk about. Goals and objectives. Measuring KPIs. Budgeting (12 monthly rather than ad-hoc monthly forecasting) and the need to sharpen up the volunteer experience. A charge will now be imposed for this experience,  to filter out those who rock-up, interrupt the students and all they do is take photos for Facebook without even making a token donation. NGOs in Cambodia are getting mighty wary of these gap-year Facebook volunteers.

However good volunteers are still a necessary part of the story. They help bring expertise, knowledge, encouragement and yes – financial or business resources (good contacts) to the project. As Savong told me at the end of one meeting: “I fully realise how important our supporters are.”

What I found was a school in good heart, and functioning well: a school that is delivering on its objectives.  I’ll discuss in another post the work at the children’s home. Systems-wise it is still a couple of notches behind the school, but making great progress. A day trip with 6 new students to visit their parents 40kms away proved one of the richest experiences I’ve had in my 58 years. Stay posted.