A quick look into the inner workings of a locally run NGO
13.08.2012 - 13.08.2012
While attending university, I took a course on poverty and inequality which included a community service learning component. To fulfill this component I chose to work with a NGO named Lotus Outreach. Lotus raises funds in Canada and the U.S. for projects which alleviate poverty in Cambodia by providing opportunities to disadvantaged women. Their primary partner is a Cambodian run NGO originally established by UNICEF called the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center (CWCC). Since I was planning to travel through Cambodia I wrote to Brian Pollard, a director at Lotus, to see if I could visit a village where CWCC is actively working. I hope to one day work closely with NGOs and my aim was to further my understanding of how they operate 'on the ground'. Brian set up a day trip for my three Dutch travel mates and I to go visit two young women who were receiving support in countryside near Siem Reap.
I was greeted early in the morning at my Siem Reap guesthouse by a local director of operations at CWCC. She was a middle aged woman who grew up in Phnom Penh and had been working with organizations in the region for most of her career. I was happy to see that she was Cambodian. When I commented on this fact, she explained that many small NGOs in South East Asia are making strides towards local management. Even though the locals often do not boast the same qualifications as foreigners, organizations are finding that locally managed NGOs are simply running more efficiently. Locals possess the knowledge necessary to not only better understand the issues facing impoverished populations, but also to implement projects in a cultural sensitive way. Being someone who wants to work with NGOs overseas, this is not the easiest truth for me to swallow, but it is a belief I have held for a long time and I am glad to see that a trend towards local management is active in Cambodia.
We drove a pickup truck donated by UNICEF into the countryside. The Dutch girls sat in the back while I spoke to the director about CWCC’s work in the area. She explained how the organization battles poverty by providing four types of support to young girls seeking a proper education. A recipient is categorized based on their living circumstances. In type one, the recipient receives money for school supplies and a school lunch. Type two receives this support as well as a daily dinner. Type three receives room and board at a local school residency. This is important since students often live several hours walk from their schools. Type four receives all of these benefits plus a 'lost wages' stipend for the family. This stipend is vital to the success of the program as a major obstacle keeping Cambodian children out of school is the income a family looses by not putting their child to work in the rice fields or selling trinkets. Of course, you can't blame any impoverished family for doing this. Often times, the small amount of income received from a child selling trinkets amounts to the food necessary for the child and family to survive.
As we followed a dirt road through rural villages, she recounted some horror stories from her experiences working in the area. The most typical story was heartbreaking. When parents leave their children at home to go work in the fields, they are occasionally raped by those passing by from other villages. She explained that rape and domestic violence is common place in these rural households. This is something which CWCC is fighting to prevent.
The first girl we visited lived with her mother in a small hut about an hour outside of Siem Reap. (Unfortunately, I cannot remember the names of either recipient that we visited. They spoke too quickly and the pronunciation was too foreign for me to catch). The mother and daughter were very welcoming. As they invited us into their yard, several curious villagers gathered around house entrance. Their house was no bigger than a backyard shed and built on rickety stilts. They had no electricity and no bed nets. Nonetheless, they were grateful that the village water pump, donated by a Japanese businessman, was right on their doorstep. They had one pig and two malnourished chickens roaming the yard. Beyond that, the lot was barren.
The recipient was an only child and her father had died long ago. The family survived by selling whatever small crops they could muster. Since they owned no land, they were facing very difficult circumstances. She was eighteen years old and just finishing grade ten. She had started school two years late since the family did not receive support until her eighth birthday. The mother appeared to be quite sick but the young woman looked healthy and well fed, likely as a result of the two meals she receives per day in her school residency. She was receiving type four support from CWCC in order to complete her high school studies by her twentieth birthday. When I asked if she would like to attend university, she hesitantly said yes but told us that scholarships are difficult to obtain and she was a 'middle of the pack' student. She quickly changed to subject by making a point of showing us her bicycle, donated by CWCC, which allows her to commute between school and home to visit her mother. She told us that the bike is very important since her mother lives alone and needs her daughter’s company.
The image of this small family was one of present desperation and future hope. If this young girl finishes her studies, she will likely be able to get a job which will support both herself and her mother. The difference a high school education can make for a young Cambodian woman seeking employment is paramount. If she is accepted by a local college, she may be able to obtain employment which allows her family some measure of financial stability. Perhaps she can provide the savings necessary for her and her mother to build a better home in a safer neighbourhood. That is the goal which both the family and CWCC are trying to attain. The organization has already had much success in helping young women achieve such goals.
As we left the small home, we thanked the two women for their hospitality and wished them the best of luck. They waved goodbye from the side of the road as we drove off to our second destination. While on route to the next village to meet another young beneficiary of CWCC’s work, the director advised me not to ask about the recipient’s father as he was an alcoholic who rarely returned home. When he did, he would often beat both the mother and children.
As we approached the front gate of the home, a young girl and her mother greeted us with wide smiles and a plate of bananas. The house was quite large and built on very high stilts. It was nice in comparison to the first house we visited boasting both a separate cooking area and a solid wood floor. When I commented on this, however, the mother admitted that this was not their house but the house of a friend. Later, the director guessed that the family was perhaps ashamed of their living space and did not want foreign guests to see it. When driving through a Cambodian village it is very easy to see who is poorest by the size and makeup of a house.
The young girl was eighteen years old and very excited to have us as visitors. She was also receiving type four support from CWCC who provided her accommodation and meals at a school residency ten km away. She had returned to her village on this particular morning specially to meet us. She told us she was very grateful for the support she was receiving. Out of several brothers and sisters, she was the only child in the family lucky enough to receive a high school education. Her other siblings had been forced to move to different cities to find work. She said that we had visited her at the perfect time. She had just finished her last high school exam and had essentially graduated. Once her marks were posted, she would find out if she was to receive government support for university. She was confident that she would be able to study accounting at a local college. Her plan was to work for a local company to support herself and her mother while she studied. She stressed the importance of well paid work as her mother survived by selling bananas. The income she received from doing so was barely enough to feed herself. It was clear that the father was not offering any support.
She expressed her love of studying and told us that her favourite subject was Cambodian literature. She had performed well in her classes and it was clear that she was a very bright and confident student. Her attitude was optimistic and endearing. It allowed me to believe she could accomplish anything she wanted. This girl was standing up to her circumstances and pursuing a better life for her family. CWCC’s support in this endeavour was clearly invaluable. We wished her the best of luck and thanked the family for having us as we left.
On the way back to Siem Reap we stopped to buy some sticky rice with beans. As we ate, the director provided us with more information on various CWCC projects in the area. Most involve promoting female enrolment in education, but the organization is also involved in counselling for victims of domestic abuse, infrastructure development and microfinance projects. I was very impressed by the scope of the organizations activities in the region.
As the director drove us back to at our guesthouse, I told her how grateful I was for having been given such an eye opening and valuable experience. She received an urgent phone call as we exchanged contact information after which there was no more time for small talk. She was off to help a victim of domestic abuse.
My CWCC ‘in the field’ experience was somewhat heartbreaking but gave me reason for optimism. Listening to the stories of disadvantaged youth first hand offered a very different perspective on poverty. These young women placed so much emphasis on family. They were working hard to ensure that both they and their mothers were taken care of. They were so grateful for the support they had received and felt lucky to have received it. Despite the great obstacles they faced, they were confident a better future awaits them. It was clear that CWCC had not only provided them with financial support, but also moral support. Through this experience, I came to understand the significance of such moral support in situations of extreme poverty.