29 August 2009 ~ 3 Comments

Why won’t programs work in Cambodia?

I put up my thoughts on voluntourism on the World Pulse site and had received some thoughts and feedback.  One of the questions came from someone struggling with how to give back with her skills when her skills lay in math and physics. I interpreted her question as saying something like “If there are people in need of food, does it make sense to try to give back through physics skills?”

You can see what I wrote on the link above or here below. I would love to read your thoughts as well.

There is a program I really respect in Nepal called “READ Global”. They “build libraries” – but it’s much more than that. The process they use is what makes them exceptional. When a community approaches them to build a library, they must also provide an idea for an income generating project that fills a need in the community. For some places it might be to rent the under-library area as stalls for a market and for others it might be converting a tuk-tuk into an ambulance and charging a small fee for the service of a ride to the hospital.  READ helps them start the income generating project and once it is running on it’s own and making income, they build the library, buy the books and train the teacher.  Then it is up to the community based organization (CBO) to manage the income generating project well and continue to bring enough revenue in to fund the librarian.  In this way, the project can go on without READ in the future.

This relates to your post because, guess what… the system doesn’t work so well in Cambodia. READ hasn’t tried it here yet (though they have considered it and have opted for other places first),  but other groups have tried similar things, and yet it typically hasn’t work well here.  Why?  In my mind there are two major factors.  One of course being the Khmer Rouge legacy – people don’t trust each other and sometimes they trust only their families so the whole CBO concept is difficult when it comes to shared resources, people are still living for today and find it difficult to invest in the future, and there is less value put on education (both from the Khmer Rouge destruction of education and the fact that there are few signs that education really does produce financial results for families).  The other reason I think it doesn’t work so well, is that LIBRARIES are not high on people’s priority list, in part because of value for education, but even more so because there are OTHER needs.  Like you said, why do people want to study math when they don’t have food on the table?

We are skipping steps here in Cambodia, trying to build libraries and education when rural communities want to find ways to build economies.  I think it needs to be a two prong approach – supporting the older generation with capacity building and new or improved skills and then connecting them with opportunities to use those skills to improve their livelihoods while also providing education to the younger generation to be able to improve their lives and their country in other ways.

That being said, physics education IS needed for those who get to that level.  There are places where it WON’T go down so well, where people can’t put value on physics when it means disregarding the work that needs to be done to get food on the table, even if they are school aged children.  But then again, there are places where it will work well.  The “poorest people” might prefer other skill building than physics, or might be in a place where that is beyond the schooling level they will achieve for the majority of students in this generation, but there are some who will and your skills can support them.  As I put in some of my other posts on voluntourism, I don’t think having someone like you come into a place to teach students, especially if it is for a short time, is the best use of your skills.  Instead, if you came in and taught TEACHERS, and helped them improve their ability to pass on those skills, that would be fabulous!

If you are coming through Cambodia, I know some high school science teachers who would love to learn from you!

I hope those thoughts and the thoughts on my blog are useful.  I would love to further engage in this discussion with you or any others who are interested in this topic, so please write back any time!


  • http://www.pepyride.org Daniela Papi

    There are of course many other reasons why programs which have been piloted in multiple countries are sometimes less successful in Cambodia. A few more are:

    – Corruption – According to all of the major sources ranking countries about corruption, Cambodia is in the highest percentile re: corruption. The level of corruption an NGO in Cambodia must deal with depends on what the project is, the scope, how much materials and money are being brought in from the outside, and the government level with which the NGO works.

    – Too many OTHER NGOs setting a precedent of “giving” – with one of the highest NGOs per capita ratios in the world, limited regulation, and an excess of development money coming into the country, there are way too many NGOs giving things away, breeding dependencies, and creating a society fueled by hand-outs. I have put other thoughts about giving things away here (http://tinyurl.com/l27sju) and here (http://tinyurl.com/lhgasv).

  • http://talesfromethehood.wordpress.com J.

    I think you’ve left out the most fundmental point of all: simply that every context is different. Even the most basic interventions have to be implemented in nuanced ways depending on the local context. And some interventions that make perfect sense in one context (e.g. Nepal), flat won’t work in another (e.g. Cambodia).

  • http://www.pepyride.org Daniela Papi

    Yes, I very much agree and have written about that before. In this case, I am not even referring to repeating exact models, which unfortunately is too often the approach taken by many big NGOs. I am meaning the concept – the concept of working with communities who have come together to support their local education programs and are willing to put large efforts/funding behind it with additional support from NGOs. The overall concept is one which should work, though with different strategies for each area, in places that do indeed value and are looking to improve education and who are willing to work together to accomplish those goals. Due to the factors above including the NGO industry failure you listed (and many others), those types of successes are not as common in Cambodia. In some ways, we are trying to force a change which is not being demanded yet and in over NGO-ed areas, the demand has been replaced with a complacency to wait for an easier “free” option once a less-community-empowerment-focused NGO comes along.