Does anyone else browse social media when they can’t sleep? I do, and I always tend to regret it.
The other night, unable to sleep despite knowing I would have to get up at 5:30am the next day, I hopped on Instagram and searched ‘voluntourism’. You know, just to let my blood boil. I came across a photo of a white girl surrounded by Cambodian children, so I clicked on the photo to investigate it further. And what do you know, the photo was taken at an English school that is 500 metres from Human and Hope Association. This English school was around before Human and Hope Association moved into Sambour Commune. Our team had decided that our organisation’s differ enough that it wouldn’t matter being close by, as the only thing that we had in common was the English language program. Given the amount of school aged children in our commune that were living in poverty, there still wouldn’t be enough opportunities to educate them all even between the two NGO’s.
A former student who studied at both Human and Hope Association and this organisation had told us that she much preferred HHA, despite the other school being free, as their class sizes were not capped, and the teachers didn’t have good classroom management skills. Given that we believe NGO’s should share knowledge, we were going to extend an olive branch and invite the staff members from this organisation to our weekly capacity building workshops, so that they could develop their teaching skills.
A few weeks before we moved into our community centre, our opinion changed. My workmate and I had driven past this organisation to visit a sewing student who lived on the same road. I witnessed a dozen or so foreign teenagers at the organisation, playing soccer with the Cambodian students. Then, on the way back, I saw one of those teenagers holding a Cambodian baby and having her friend take photos of her. We realised that this organisation accepted large groups of foreign visitors and volunteers, and that their values certainly didn’t align with us. We as an organisation spoke out against voluntourism and were working towards making myself, the only foreign staff member, redundant. So, we moved into our community centre in October 2014 and continued offering the same projects we had before; English, Khmer, preschool, art, library, sewing, microfinance, farming, community outreach and community workshops. I kept an eye on their Facebook page, and saw an increasing number of foreign volunteers coming in groups to the organisation, planting trees, giving students presents, ‘teaching’ children and painting murals.
When I moved back to Australia this year, the organisation slipped from my mind. When I came across the photo of the voluntourist with students from this organisation on Instagram, I decided to look into them further. And that is when I came across this post from two months ago:
That’s right, the organisation has built a sewing school. As you can imagine, sewing isn’t like English. Not everyone can/wants to be trained in sewing, and it takes a big commitment to learn. We have been recruiting sewing students from that commune since July 2013, and it is tough to do so. We have spent years developing the program so that we can achieve the best outcomes possible for our students, and we finally have a 100% retention rate in the program, with all students earning money from sewing just three months into the course. A nearby church has referred students to us, and other NGO’s from further away have enquired about sending their beneficiaries to learn with us. Because why should they set up a sewing school when we already have one, and recruit new students every five months?
But that is exactly what this organisation has done. They have built a sewing school without even having the funding for ‘sewing stuff and extra budgets’. No organisation should set up a project without funding for at least a year. It just isn’t smart. And, given that there are now two sewing centres within five hundred metres of each other, chances are that there will be an abundance of sewing shops in homes around the area, resulting in less profit for students, and a lower impact on the standard of living. I guarantee this will happen, as most of the students in our program prefer to be employed at their homes as opposed to working for a shop.
I just don’t understand why they couldn’t have referred villagers to us, if they saw that there was a need for this program. Despite having a good name in the community, and constantly promoting our programs, Human and Hope Association often struggles to find students due to a lack of understanding about the importance of taking time out to study. For those villagers who do understand, they gain confidence, are respected role models in their community, and increase their standard of living. Our program has progressed due to a lot of blood, sweat and tears, and we want to empower as many villagers as possible. Why try to ‘compete’ with that?
Although I am unsure what the future holds for this organisation’s sewing program, one thing is for sure. NGO’s should be supporting each other and referring possible beneficiaries instead of trying to compete and duplicate services.