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.