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Archive for the ‘2011 February Trip’

Sewing the Seeds of Change

March 18, 2011 By: Kari Category: 2011 February Trip, General No Comments →

It makes me so happy when things work out the way I planned.  Here we are at a School Supporting Committee meeting with an excellent turn-out, 20 villagers showed up to openly discuss how they will create and implement a sewing class for girls and women who have already dropped out of school.  I’m proud that so many have shown up wearing the SSI t-shirts they were given for participating in previous volunteer projects.

After two years of leadership training, the Chrauk Tiek community is really coming together and change is spreading.   Participation: Got it.  Communication: Got it.  Honesty: Working on it.  Trust: We’ll see.  Solidarity: Getting Better.

Luckily we have the human resources for a sewing program available locally. Sowin, the school director’s wife, is a skilled seamstress and knows how to teach.  She’s already mapped out her curriculum.

Now we need a building, sewing machines, a threading machine, tools, fabric, a system for selecting students, a management system, and a sustainability plan.  Step by step, we’ll get there.

We’ve uncovered a lot of local talents.  Kong the carpenter has shown up, he’ll help with the building.  His son will become our first college graduate in July.  Eee, the lady Paul trusts to hold the money, is here. Her son has a High School Scholarship.  A sustainability element of our higher education scholarships is a family requirement to volunteer at the primary and secondary school.  All the other scholarship parents are here, as well as Sokha the librarian and bookkeeper, Suon the substitute teacher who dreams of designing fashion, and several villagers who are interested in taking the class.

After taping the original drawing of the proposed building to the chalkboard, a long discussion ensues about the price of wood, apparently, it has gone up.  This could be due to the weather.   In the dry season it’s easier to transport wood to the city and get a better price or perhaps the wood is getting more scarce as the forest gets farther away every year.   Whatever the case, they now have a $400 shortfall in their building budget.    Everyone looks to me.   I’m not going to figure it out.  We have $1000 for this project in hand, start with that and see what you can do.   Everyone decides that if they can only finish the building, they will find a way to use if for something else profitable.  Such optimism!  It’s infectious.

The discussion moves on to who will lead the project, who will coordinate construction,  who will hold the money, who will keep the books.   Each role is nominated and voted on.

Paul can’t hold their hand on this one.  He must focus his time and energy on helping the secondary school get a teacher house built and we are starting from scratch with that community. They are going to have to implement this project all on their own.  It’s their first opportunity to show they are trustworthy.  This is big.

One lady asks what the class will cost.  They must look into the future and decide.   We have a donor committed to funding the teachers $100 per month salary for two years but what about after that?  A long discussion results in a decision on a course requirement that students make a certain number of items for the school store to sell in order to receive their graduation certificate.  The class is free but you must give back and help the next person.   Perfect.

Suon, the women sitting next to me in a green SSI t-shirt, is keenly interested in this project.  Her brother is a High School scholarship recipient but she’s the one with the desire to learn.  I met her last year when she was teaching at the neighboring school in Sre Chrap.  She only has a 4th grade education herself but she was the only teacher they had. The absent teachers who still collected their government salary promised to pay her $15 a month which they often forgot to do.  She taught children the alphabet anyway, she clearly loves school and learning.  She always shows up when we offer a class be it English, music, leadership, sewing, doesn’t matter.  She’s been serving as a substitute first grade teacher in Chrauk Tiek this year.  Although she is extremely poor, she is stylish and fashion is her passion.  She can’t wait to start the sewing class.  I see good things in her future.  I see a woman who will be a role model for girls.

Big Thanks to the Minnesota Cambodia-American community who have donated the money to start the Sewing Program.   Akun Charan!

Let the Villagers Speak

March 11, 2011 By: Kari Category: 2011 February Trip, General No Comments →

I thought this was just a travelogue that no one was actually reading.   Turns out that lots of people read it and one of them has friends in high places.  Note to self, next time I write out my anger in order to get to sleep at night consider hitting “Save” rather than “Publish.”  When you have the opportunity to express yourself to someone who could actually help, a little diplomacy is prudent.

There is so much about the way the UN programs conduct themselves that reinforce both corrupt government structures and anachronistic social structures in Cambodia.  It is the one thing that truly makes me despair that the change we seek can never come. People have to change to progress.

Consider the incredibly difficult position the Sre Chrap principal is now in. After his disastrous meeting with his local WFP officials, we talked.  Three people showed up to interview the community, Yan Min, vice president of Aural District Education Department, So Min, a WFP liaison with the Provincial Education Department in Kampong Speu and third man who identified himself as the WFP coordinator for the region. All high up people the villagers had never seen before who scare them by the way they dress and the car they drive alone.   It’s a real pity that Paul was not invited, a genuine internal activator whom the community trusts enough to be bold.

Fifty villagers were gathered, a huge turn out, because word had gotten around that they were there to give out rice.  Instead, the WHP opened the meeting with “Why doesn’t the community accept our program?”

One older gentleman stood up and replied precisely the same answers as before – the people receiving it drink palm wine, play cards and don’t do anything for school; it makes others jealous and angry.   The coordinator insisted that can’t happen because of the WFP “policy” is based on school attendance.   That means they are relying on the school principal to enforce the policy.

The WFP coordinator said they would enforce it, though he didn’t say how and he didn’t offer to come live there (which is the only effective way to enforce it). “If we control this concern then will you accept it,” he said.  He did not call for a vote.  He did not ask if anyone was against it.  From their silence,  he concluded everyone was for it. He would write a report that they want it and the officials drove off.

A few days later, Principal Chin Chaom held a community meeting to help him select the 20 families to receive a take home ration from the World Food Program.   One person showed up.

The community had voted with their feet.  Chin Chaom was practically in tears.  Neither the Education Department nor the WFP officials seem to realize what a critical role the principal plays in the relationship between the school and the community.  They have no idea how rare it is to have one that actually cares.

They never go to this extremely poor and totally marginalized village, don’t have first hand knowledge of what goes on there and why the problems persist.   Yet, now they are going to expect him to enforce their policy – the very same man who needs the community to help him build a fence and support the teachers because the government doesn’t.   If they get upset, they will stop volunteering altogether.  He really needs their help.

We work hard, day in and day out, to build an effective relationship between school and community, an investment that is crucial to sustainability.   The WFP pays lip service to the idea of sustainability while undermining its prerequisite:  Help people in the way the want to be helped.

Sre Chrap wants a school breakfast for all because they know it is fair and they know it will increase school attendance for all.   I am guessing that the WFP discontinued this program because of difficulties in getting school communities to participate on the level necessary to be successful.

I don’t have a degree in international development. I’ve only been to the school of hard knocks with illiterate Cambodian villagers as my professors.  Yet, when I talked to the WFP Country Director and his Cambodian counterpart, it was clear to me that there is no bottom up learning mechanism for their organization staff to follow.   To be effective in our region, they are going to have to change that.

In our region, none of their food delivery programs can be effective without the kind of leadership program and community development that we provide.   It just isn’t possible for a community to pull it off with what the WFP requires from them.  I told them this a year ago and it fell on deaf ears.   How can you have a food delivery program based on student attendance, when you are working exclusively with a government that doesn’t properly provide for teachers attendance (and their food needs)?

In my opinion, the WFP either needs to get their staff actively learning from grassroots level and stop working exclusively through government officials who ignore the problems, or they need to allocate some resources to really partner with the small, effective, geographically focused organizations like us and others, in order show the government officers effective models.   Those folks are no different than the villagers, teachers, and directors we work with at grassroots level – they don’t know how to act differently because they have never been shown.  A change in behavior is required.  You can’t tell them, you have to show them.

What I am asking for is fundamental, systemic changes in the WFP (and the UN aid orgs in general).  I am not the first to say it, it has been studied, it has been written in several popular books, everyone on the ground talks about it.   The top-down, corporate structure approach to AID does not work and reinforces both a distrusted government structure and a social hierarchy that keeps the poor marginalized.

Let the villagers speak.   Respect their answers.   It’s their children. It’s their school.  Show them that you trust them.  Show them that you are trustworthy.   These are the seeds of change.

Send in the Thugs

March 11, 2011 By: Kari Category: 2011 February Trip, General No Comments →

Now I am pissed.   I went to the World Food program office and I spoke to the country director, a Canadian guy called JP, and his Cambodian colleague Bun Thang.  I told them what is going on in Sre Chrap, the community that doesn’t want their food rations for a few, they want a school breakfast for all.  They were bold.  They told their truth.

JP seemed genuinely interested in this grassroots information and told me that they would not force the program on the community.  Bun Thang, on the other hand, wanted to assure me that the communities concerns were unfounded because the program is based on their “criteria.”    80% school attendance is required to receive take home ration, which made me laugh.  We are talking about schools where the teachers don’t attend 80% of the time.  As if he doesn’t know that attendance records are made up for the sake of their “criteria.”

Perhaps it’s incomprehensible that a blonde haired, non-Khmer speaking, middle-aged mom knows how the system works and a WFP official doesn’t.

Bun Thang was certain that the people in the field were being properly trained how to select recipients and distribute the food.   Um yeah.  A three day training in a distant village for illiterate people to comprehend a bunch of forms, rules and procedures.   Right.   We’ve been through this at Chrauk Tiek when the community started a school breakfast.   It took us three months to help that community make sense of the three days of WFP training they received.  Without us, they never would have been able to turn in a corrupt higher up official who was pilfering rice from them and creating an unhealthy dynamic of conflict and distrust in the community.   I know the Sre Chrap school principal.   He is a gem when it comes to building a relationship with the community but he is a simple man.  You could not train him out of a box.   In other words, he’s easy to manipulate and that’s the way the higher ups in the education department like it.   They are not so interested in the truth.

So what does the World Food Program do?  Send in the thugs.

The principal didn’t know what to do.   Officials from the provincial education office showed up with their WFP counterparts to interview the community.   Now you have to understand the dynamic.   These villagers are AFRAID of their government, they will not speak out to people who drive up in lily white land cruisers wearing dress pants and shiny shoes because they know they are above them.   I had told Bun Thang explicitly, do not talk to the community without Paul, he lives there, he has a relationship with them, they trust him.   Unfortunately, this advice was not heeded.

The community being scared silent, said nothing, and the officials made it clear what they wanted.  They  forced the community to concede to their stupid take home ration program which begs the question  – Why does the education office suddenly care?   I mean for 10 years no one cared if the Sre Chrap community had a teacher.   Even now they don’t care if their teacher whom we are supporting has housing, or food, or a salary.    What is their new found motivation for feeding the poorest of the poor?

It does not take brilliance to put two and two together.  Clearly someone up there is profiting.   The distribution network is run by officers in the education department,  the more people on the program who fit the “criteria”, the more tons of rice under their supervision, and the more they can pocket.   That’s how everything works in Cambodia.  One of the most annoying things about this country is how they think we don’t know how it works when it is so brazenly obvious.

So here we have a UN funded program acting like playground bullies.   Do you see what the poor are up against?   Why can’t a UN program simply ask the villagers what their “criteria” would be?

This really makes my blood boil.  I’ve said it before and I will say it again, government AID is not only ineffective, it is counter-productive. It is the glue that keeps the status quo in place.

I want o take this message to the top.  Does anyone know a high ranking person at the UN?  How about the New York Times?

Push Back

February 24, 2011 By: Kari Category: 2011 February Trip, General No Comments →

The very poor community of Sre Chrap has done something completely stunning.  They said, “No.”

Sre Chrap is a village about 2 km from Chrauk Tiek. The primary school there was built by Lutheran World Services but in the 10 years I have been visiting the area, I have never seen a qualified teacher teaching there. For years, the assigned government teachers did not show up but collected their government salary and hired a local woman with a 4th grade education to do their job for $20 bucks a month. Needless to say, the outcome for students was abysmal and the school often sat empty. Those that had a bicycle traveled to Chrauk Tiek. Because of the overcrowding this caused in our classrooms, we started working with the Sre Chrap community this year to help the community develop their skills and resources to support the school.

This community has really impressed me. They are more poor, more marginalized than the other villages we work in. All the children are very malnourished and most of them don’t attend school regularly. Yet with a little encouragement from Paul, the parents have come together and built a fence and a humble house for the teachers. We helped by suppling some building materials but they did the rest, including offering food to the new government trained teacher who finally showed up this year. This woman is newly married and pregnant and the government sent her to this village with no housing and NO PAY for 6 months. Once she and 3 other trained teachers started showing up consistently, the school committee asked if we could help supplement their salary because the teachers were spending their afternoons foraging for food. We said “yes” but required an accountability system. The students came up with a great solution.

A student council of six 5th and 6th graders was formed to take the attendance of the teachers and submit it to the SSC. The $50 salary bonus they receive from us is based on this attendance record. Still 2 teachers were showing up late for the 7 am start to the school day, so the students decided to deduct 30 minutes of salary (1000 riel) for tardiness of 1 minute or more. Last month $14 was deducted from 2 teachers for tardiness. This month the teachers have not been late once.  With the teachers present everyday, student attendance has tripled.

The community-driven approach is based on two questions we ask the villagers: what is the problem you see at the school? How would you like to solve it? We enable them to pursue their solution with leadership support and financial support. This community is really responding to the message we bring about value of Participation, Communication, Honesty, Trust and Solidarity.

They are using these new skills to deal with a new problem that illustrates the unintended consequences of Aid. Now that the school is doing better, The World Food Program has offered  Take Home Rations to 20 of the poorest families and the school principle is deeply concerned about how they will choose the lucky few because it will create so much jealousy and divide the fragile solidarity of the school supporting committee.   He asked for our help.

Paul being Paul was able to help the people feel safe and speak out their true opinion on the matter. They don’t want a Take Home Ration for 20 people because they see it causing conflict in their community. They want a school breakfast program to benefit all the children equally. We wrote down what their reasons, here’s what they said:

  1. the poorest families are poor because they are lazy and playing cards all day
  2. they do not value education
  3. they will get the rice and stop study
  4. they will get the rice and exchange it for money to buy palm wine
  5. if these people get the benefit, it will make the other poor people who participate in supporting the school jealous
  6. it will breakdown solidarity in the community support of the school
  7. it will make more trouble and problems to solve
  8. they have an opinion to offer school breakfast for the whole school first

The sent the principle back to the World Food Program with the answer:  we don’t want Take Home Rations for a few, we want school breakfast for all. The principle is very nervous about going back to the higher ups with this message. But we told him to say he is there to serve the community, they are his boss, and this is what they want.

Pulling off a WFP school breakfast requires a huge amount of community participation, building a stockroom, a kitchen, supplying kitchen implements and stoves, and volunteers to cook every morning. The WFP supplies none of these necessities. This community is ready to provide it with our support.

Can you imagine the courage it took to push back?  They said NO to a UN program because it isn’t good for their community. At the grassroots level they spoke the truth and are bravely asking the UN to give them something they actually want.

The principle is taking this message up the food chain and I am taking it down. I have an appointment with the World Food program director in Phnom Penh at 2:30 today.

We had a couple visitors come from another NGO come check out what we were doing who left unimpressed. I guess they expected to “see” more. Our progress is not easily visible at a glance. The real and lasting change is not so much in the physical things you see at the school but the experience of change in people’s hearts. Sustainability in our view is about empowering villagers to help themselves. Unfortunately, it appears that one of the biggest factors stacked against them is the Aid community itself who see everything from the top down, generating an attitude in the villagers that there is no reason to participate because the Angka is rich and will do everything for them. Sometimes it feels like I am swimming up stream.

My son Grady got sick from not eating in the village because he hates Khmer food. We came PP to get him some medicine and western food to help the situation and will return to the village on Friday. I feel stretched in two directions between my love of the work I am doing and my responsibilities as a mom. I feel entirely grateful to Paul for his innate talent and ability to keep things in hand without me.

Sixty People Showed Up!

February 21, 2011 By: Kari Category: 2011 February Trip, General No Comments →

Bugs are crawling all over my computer.   We’ve had rain the past two days,  the power from the generator just cut off and my screen in the darkness is attracting everything living thing with wings.  This would not bother me so much except that beetles are the size of golf balls and downright nasty in the hair.   Gonna make this quick.

We’ve had a some visitors in our new guest huts for a couple days.   Elizbeth Gullam and her Cambodian colleague, Ken, from Cambodia Tomorrow and Jeanne Sirkin, a donor and SSI board member with her 13 year old Cambodian son Gabe.   Grady is thrilled to have an English speaking playmate.  The villagers are thrilled to have two paying guests whose hut rental fees will contribute almost $300 dollars to the school.   Both huts rented for 2 nights can pay a teacher for a month.  Now thats the income generating sustainability we’re looking for!  It’s never that  simple though, we still have to build the skills necessary to run the business.  That will take some time.

Interestingly, Paul and the teachers have also been experimenting with a pilot micro-loan program.   They started with $500 of their own money, they picked a group of 10 people to make small loans to in $50 increments.  They collect 3% interest and redistribute the money every month.  It’s the cheapest money available in the village and they’ve already grown the bank to $3000 on their own!  No one in the group can get a new loan disbursement until all the money is collected.  Once a year the principle is also collected.   We have an idea that Paul calls Community Prosper Bank, with every $10,000 in the bank we can generate $300 a month – enough to pay a teacher!   If the teachers can help with the book keeping, they can basically generate their own income and help the community prosper at the same time.   Now that’s the solidarity we’re looking for!

All we need now is Trust.   Um, yeah…this is Cambodia… the land of the Khmer Rouge not so long ago….there is no Trust.

That’s why we work on 5 core values:  Participation, Communication, Honesty, Trust and Solidarity.   These are not easy things for war survivors to learn but without them we cannot progress.

The good news is that we’ve made huge progress on step one, Participation; 60 people showed up for the School Supporting Committee meeting!   Holy Cow that’s amazing.  Sure, some of it’s because the white lady is here but alot of it is because Paul has done such a great job of modeling our 5 core values, especially Honesty and Trust.  We have built the foundation of a meaningful relationship with the community.   A lot of people are smiling.  Where does this Hope come from?   Fairness.

Paul starts the meeting with a joke to get everyone’s attention and set a relaxed tone.  Working with illiterate people is a bit like working with first graders, you have to be entertaining, simple and direct.   Paul and I work the meeting in a bilingual melodrama.  To my amazement, no one fell asleep and everyone seemed genuinely interested in what we had to say.   Using corn seeds, each individual person indicated what they will contribute this year and 48 people marked Participation.   Wow, that’s amazing, and a good thing too. We followed that exercise with a  call for volunteers to help host 28 guests from Saudi Arabia next week and 10 women volunteered.   Community ownership is step one in the process.

The next project to tackle is a sewing class.  Paul has to focus his attention on building a teacher house at the secondary school, so getting the sewing porject off the ground is something the community will need to do on its own.   They believe they can do it and so do I.   They decide to hold a meeting to begin planning the sewing class on March 2.  Charuk Tiek School is really running very well.  I see a light at the end of the tunnel, sustainability is not so far off.

The big problem we have now is that secondary school down the road… good lord, what a mess.