After almost four years, it is time.
Human and Hope is a grassroots organisation in Siem Reap. Through education, vocational training and community support, we aim to empower Cambodians to create sustainable futures for themselves and break the cycle of poverty.
The time has come. Today I am leaving Human and Hope Association, an organisation I have been developing since October 2012, to be entirely Khmer operated. Many people have asked me about my story and I have always given them a short answer as I find it difficult to talk about myself. However, since this period of my life has come to an end, I am taking the time to answer the FAQ’s. It has been a challenging, frustrating, annoying, fulfilling journey, and there is a lot to be said. So go make yourself a cup of tea and get settled in, as this is going to take awhile.
How did it begin?
It all began in 2008. I had finished studying at the University of Newcastle and moved to Sydney to work at Colonial First State. In an effort to make friends, I joined a local Rotaract club. I realised that I had a knack for helping people, so expanded my volunteer work into various other causes; a homeless shelter, Make-a-Wish, and Rotary, amongst many others. However, it was after I visited Burma in 2008 that I became even more passionate about international causes. This was because the experience of being in a developing country really instilled in me a desire to use the opportunity I have as an Australian to help others. This was even more meaningful for me because my grandmother is from Burma, and I realized just how different my life could have been if my mother’s family did not migrate to Australia. I know during my life I have been offered assistance and given opportunities to achieve my own goals and dreams, and I wanted to assist others who are equally deserving of this support, but unable to access it in the developing world.
Why did you move to Cambodia?
When I was 25 I took a career break and moved to Cambodia, with the intention of working there for 15 months in the position of Volunteer Coordinator at a day centre for former street children. I had volunteered in Cambodia for a month the year before, and saw that there were many volunteers visiting the country. I thought I had the skills and experience to manage a volunteer program, ensuring that volunteers were having the maximum positive impact possible.
It was while I was in my position as Volunteer Coordinator that I eventually realized I was not helping the future of Cambodians. I was encouraging unskilled volunteers to come and spend time with vulnerable children for a few weeks at a time. I realized that for Cambodia to truly develop, it needed to be the locals taking charge and building their communities. That was the most sustainable way.
So where does HHA fall into the picture?
It was around this time that I was introduced to Human and Hope Association through my friend, Sreylin, who volunteered there. At the time, HHA was open two hours an evening with volunteer Khmer staff, and sometimes foreigners, teaching English and Morality to village kids and teenagers at a fee of 50 cents to $1 a month. Amongst the murky green walls of the pagoda based school, I saw hope. I saw that a handful of these Khmer volunteers had the passion and ability to make something out of this organization, so, in October 2012 I became involved with HHA, and started full time as Operations Manager in December that same year. Over the next few years, with the support of local staff, we built up this grassroots organization with local staff so that it was a professional, trustworthy and effective NGO for the community to reach out to and our donors to support. We registered Human and Hope Association as an official NGO, created a Khmer team of paid employees, developed a donor database, initiated various programs with the aim to alleviate social issues, initiated weekly training sessions, developed a sewing business and other sources of income and built a permanent location for HHA. My role had it all: fundraising, marketing, accounting, office management, curriculum development, website maintenance, business development, training, sustainable development, relationship management, public speaking and mentoring. I became a jack of all trades.
Why did you have the mentality of making HHA locally driven and run?
The reason I joined Human and Hope Association was to help the organization and staff reach their full potential, then step back. Admittedly, I was naïve at the beginning and thought it would take a year. It has taken almost four years and a LOT of hard work. However, it was worth it as I truly believe that local operation of NGO’s is the way to move communities out of poverty. (Don’t worry, I will elaborate on this further soon).
What has been the most difficult aspect about making HHA locally run?
The culture. Definitely the culture. On one hand, you have to respect the culture, on the other hand, in some situations you sort of have to put your foot down about a policy. You really have to pick your battles.
How did you go about actually getting HHA to be locally sustainable?
We focused heavily on capacity building the staff. Every Sunday we hold staff workshops, and although I was running many of these workshops in the beginning, I have only run a handful over the past couple of years, as now other staff have stepped up to run these workshops. We focus on a vast array of knowledge and skills; everything from team building to problem solving to fire safety. Additionally, we provide frequent one-on-one training and weekday workshops catered to individual needs, such as communicating with donors, making videos in iMovie, photography, etc. We also provide university scholarships for some staff, and they take the knowledge they learn and apply it to their jobs. We frequently send our staff on external training workshops, and they then run workshops for the rest of the team with what they have learnt. We undertake six-monthly performance reviews, and the team are finally comfortable with giving and accepting feedback, as they realise it has helped them to develop substantially. We are also committed to internal promotions, and our current Director, a founding member of the organisation, was originally a volunteer English teacher.
It has taken a long time to ensure the staff are confident in their jobs and their decisions, and this involved me having to step back and allow them to learn from their mistakes and celebrate their successes.
Why are you outspoken about voluntourism?
I am very outspoken about voluntourism because we need to stop looking at people in developing countries as people who need to be saved, people who are unable to help themselves or people who would really benefit you hanging around for two weeks. I have seen many people come to Cambodia for a short amount of time who have no skills yet are teaching, building houses, etc. Think about it; you wouldn’t be able to go and teach at a school in Australia without any skills or qualifications, so why do you think that Cambodians deserve any less? It is not just enough to WANT to help and make a difference. There are plenty of qualified and hard working Cambodian teachers, particularly at NGO’s, so why do they need you to come and teach when they already are more than capable of doing so? I know that there is the argument that children would benefit from conversing with native English speakers, however our education team all learnt English from Cambodians, and they definitely have the language ability to teach English to others.
Every organization is different. Some truly believe that voluntourism benefits their community. Some accept volunteers for the financial support they receive. And some just might not want to say no. However at Human and Hope Association we don’t accept foreign volunteers, for the reasons as follows:
Empowerment of staff – Our mission is to empower Cambodians to create sustainable futures. We believe in applying this not just to our beneficiaries, but to our staff as well. Therefore, it is important to give our staff the opportunity to thrive in their roles and gain confidence. We have seen firsthand that when volunteers come into organisations, this can often be disempowering, as the local staff believes that they cannot fulfil their jobs without the support of foreigners. We believe that local people are the subject matter experts, as they are the ones who know the country and traditions best. By promoting team work amongst the locals, they can learn from each other and not become reliant on foreigners.
Consistency – When volunteers come and go, it creates an inconsistency with our education system which follows lesson plans and a curriculum planned well in advance. In the past, students complained of the volunteers who didn’t teach them effectively. Furthermore, we educate many students who come from disadvantaged and vulnerable backgrounds, and having strangers come and go in their lives creates an unstable situation on top of what they already experience at their homes. By having full time staff to teach our students and visit the community, we can create a trust with our beneficiaries as we are seen as being reliable. One wrong move and everything we have worked so hard for can come crashing down in a community where everyone knows everything. We can’t risk it.
Child protection – Child abuse is prevalent in Cambodia, and our staff and visitors must adhere to a strict child protection policy. By inviting large numbers of temporary volunteers, the risk of abuse is heightened. Our local staff have been trained in child protection and are equipped to deal with this issue in a local context.
Culture – The Khmer culture is unique, and there are often complex factors contributing to situations. Often volunteers who come for a short period of time inadvertently offend the local staff and students by not adhering to the culture. I have lived in Cambodia for almost five years and I STILL make cultural mistakes. Our local staff are able to effectively work with the community in a culturally sensitive way and therefore gain the best outcomes.
Detachment issues – In the past, the staff have formed good relationships with some volunteers. When the volunteers left, the staff ended up feeling quite down, and this has affected their work. This has also been the case for some of our students, who already have challenging lives.
Language barriers – The official language of Cambodia is Khmer, which all of our staff speak. However, as our projects aren’t just focused on English class, we have a number of staff who speak minimal or no English, and communication can be very difficult. This often proves to be frustrating for both our staff and volunteers, and can result in strained relationships for all parties involved. Believe me, I am speaking from personal experience.
Time – To run an effective volunteer program takes a lot of time, with the pre-arrival, volunteer duration and post-departure. In the past we have found it very time consuming to look after volunteers, with staff members commenting they have spent more time concentrating on the volunteers than on our beneficiaries. This takes time away from our crucial work with the local community and capacity building local staff.
Sustainability – Having volunteers come and go isn’t sustainable. What IS sustainable is training local staff, who can in turn, train more local staff as part of a succession plan.
Whilst we do accept Khmer volunteers, there has to be a need for them. In the past the Khmer teaching volunteers we had were not reliable, and we need consistency in our programs. So, when we do accept Khmer volunteers (as we are committed to Khmers training Khmers), it is to run workshops for our staff or sewing students, if a knowledge or skill is lacking. These volunteers are well prepared and train our staff in effective and culturally appropriate ways.
As I have always said, there IS a place for volunteering overseas, however it should be with skilled volunteers in placements that empower the local staff instead of taking their jobs. The increase of voluntourism means that volunteering is often undertaken without enough local consultation, and with unskilled individuals. Our NGO is focused on developing a sustainable, community building organisation. We are committed to sustainability, empowerment and resilience. To achieve long-term change, the local communities HAVE to invest in the process, international aid cannot do it all by itself.
Okay, okay. We get it. But I still want to help, so what are other options?
It is GREAT you want to help, it really is! If you are travelling overseas, here are my recommendations on how you can support NGO’s and causes in a responsible way.
- Find a reputable NGO to support with supplies – Now, I am not just saying this to plug Human and Hope Association. There are quite a few reputable NGO’s who have good systems in place to use the supplies you donate, and they will get to the people who need them the most. I have come across a few people who would rather donate supplies than money, and that is perfectly fine, just make sure that the supplies you are donating are useful and the NGO has a need. I find school supplies are the biggest need, plus bags of rice for NGO’s which provide food to their students.
- Make donations to reputable NGO’s – NGO’s are always in need of money. If you were unsure of who to donate to, use my best friend, Google, to find out. The best NGO’s are transparent and should have annual reports online so you can see where the money is going. Your donation should not have conditions, the NGO should be able to spend it on their ongoing costs such as salaries, rent and petrol. I know these are unattractive, but organisations cannot function without their staff to teach their students, their land/buildings to provide a safe environment and petrol to conduct outreach.
- Support social enterprises – Many NGO’s and businesses have social enterprises here in Cambodia which train community members so that they can gain stable employment. When you buy/dine at these enterprises, you are supporting the development of Cambodia and also these NGO’s. It is a great way for you to be involved in the capacity building of these people whilst also getting some benefit!
- Buy local – When you make donations of supplies to NGO’s, I urge you to buy locally so you can support the local economy. There are always products which can not be purchased in Cambodia (such as pipe cleaners and fuzzy balls for our art class), but there are many more things which CAN be purchased here. When you do so, you are keeping people employed and also saving money, so just do it!
How are you different to the other groups that we hear about in Cambodia?
We are a grassroots NGO, meaning we only target three communes. This allows us to have a more personalised approach, and focus on the individual needs of our villagers; we don’t believe in a ‘one size fits all’ approach. We, unlike other NGO’s, also don’t give our direct aid; it is not sustainable, it is disempowering, and it shifts the responsibility of the villagers to fund their living costs onto us. Instead, we engage our community using empowering and sustainable programs to address the core issues we have identified they face.
We really believe in the ability of the Cambodian staff to run the organisation well, hence we have an entirely Khmer governing board and staff.
We are committed to acting ethically when we raise funds; we have a strict visitor policy and do not allow visitors to take photos, nor do we allow production companies to film our villagers in vulnerable situations. We always focus on the positive, the success stories, the positive future that will result due to our programs, the commitment of our staff and our community.
We also have an end date of 2029. This is because we know that if we are truly being effective in our approach to development, our community will no longer require our projects by that time. We are essentially working ourselves out of a job, and are proud of it.
How did you personally develop during your time at Human and Hope Association?
Gosh, where do I start? I suppose the biggest lesson I learnt was that I shouldn’t be using the ‘I know best’ mentality, but the ‘let’s work together to solve issues’ mentality. I really had to learn to step back (which for those of you who know me, would realise that wasn’t such an easy thing to do).
I also self-taught myself many skills, such as Photoshop, social media, crowdfunding, website management, etc. I learnt that I am much smarter than I realised, and that I should celebrate that.
What were your biggest challenges?
There were so many challenges I faced, many of them confidential, so I can’t write about them here. However, I suppose the biggest challenge was not giving up when I kept getting kicked to the ground. I am very proud of myself for sticking to it, and know that I can face anything life throws at me after dealing with more issues than I can count.
What were your biggest successes?
I think the biggest success I had was successfully raising enough funds to move HHA to a permanent location. We were originally located at a pagoda, however that brought so many issues with it. In a matter of eight months, with my fellow Australian board members, we raised $20,000USD and with the local team, we were able to build our very own community centre. It has made the quality of our work increase exponentially, and has allowed us to create a safe environment for our community to turn to.
Another success was the commitment to constantly develop our staff. Every Sunday evening, we hold capacity building workshops, and over time it has gone from me running them, to the staff running them. We also pay for the staff to attend external training, and some staff members are also on university scholarships. Even though they don’t earn a lot, the staff stay because they understand that this is a unique situation for an NGO in Siem Reap; they get to run the show and they take that seriously.
How do you feel about leaving?
Leaving is bittersweet. On one hand, I am incredibly proud of the achievements of my team and the fact that we have worked so hard so I could become redundant. On the other hand, I am going to miss my team and the community a lot. However, this has never been about me; it has always been about empowering the team with knowledge, skills and confidence so that I am no longer needed. I suppose this is how a parent feels when their child leaves home!
Do you think there is any credibility lost or gained when you, the only foreigner leaves?
This is a very valid question. Our Australian board have really been pushing the message to potential donors lately that ‘we will be entirely Khmer operated’, and some people are asking, ‘but who will look after the accounts?’. We have systems in place to ensure we are financial transparent, but potential donors are worried. Our current donors have no problem with this, they have known that our plan was to be locally run the whole time.
I have seen that organisations with foreigners are respected more by community members, however since I have tried to stay in the background a bit (I don’t teach students and I only go to the community to visit our seamstresses) and we have always told the community that I will leave, I don’t think it will be an issue for us. Though, if I did have a more visual presence, I definitely believe it would have been.
I don’t think any credibility or trust will be lost with the staff either, as I am very strict on them and have always pushed the message with them that they are the best people to build our community, not me, a foreigner who doesn’t understand the culture and who wouldn’t be here forever.
Are you worried about the organisation’s future?
Sure I am, I think if anyone else was in my situation, they would be, too. I suppose my biggest worry is ensuring that the values of the organisation are passed on when current staff leave. However, we have processes in place, including a comprehensive NGO handbook, succession planning and a partnership agreement with HHA Inc. to help us address this. I really just need to stop worrying and trust that we have and will continue to ensure our procedures will keep our values in place.
How much contact will you have with Human and Hope Association once you’ve left?
In the first six months after departing, I will conduct two monitoring visits on behalf of our Australian board, HHA Inc, and will be completing random samples of accounting work. I am also on hand if the guys want to email me questions, and will have contact with them about finances in line with the HHA Cambodia and HHA Inc. partnership agreement. I do want to stress though, that HHA Inc. and myself are very serious about HHA Cambodia maintaining their independence, and will just be monitoring to ensure we are responsible to our donors, but will not be stepping over any lines.
What are the next steps for you?
I will remain on the Human and Hope Association board, so don’t think I am going to stop hitting you up for funds, yet! As for paid employment, I am very excited to have been offered a position at Phare Performing Social Enterprise as their Development and Executive Assistant Manager. I respect this social enterprise a lot, as they provide gainful employment to over 100 Cambodians, donate their profits to Phare Ponleu Selapak and are key drivers in revitalising modern art in Cambodia.
I also hope to move back to Australia with my partner early next year and start the next stage of our lives together. I would really love to work to support indigenous Australians in closing the gap in education and health care.
What is your hope for the organisations future?
I am positive that Human and Hope Association will continue to thrive under Cambodian leadership. I truly hope that we are influencing our community to be open-minded citizens who value education and are able to break the cycle of poverty as a result.
Well, there we go. My FAQ’s have been answered! If there was something I haven’t covered, please shoot me a message and I will write another blog post.
I would like to thank everyone who has supported me through this turbulent journey. I definitely couldn’t have gone this far without the financial and emotional support of so many.