Humility, Honesty and Pagodas

Learnings from 4 years in Cambodia

Words by
Shara Lim & Darren Rajit

There’s a certain vibrancy to Cambodia. The sort of youthful vigour and energy that latches onto your heart and makes you fall in love with the place. Scratch the surface of some elders and you’ll find that the scars of the Khmer Rouge run deep, but there’s more to Cambodia than that. A shared cultural fabric that stretches back thousands of years, for instance.

4 years ago, Monash SEED stayed on a homestay with a family in Thnal Dach, a small village not far from Siem Reap. When we were there, we identified opportunities for co-creating an international development program that would tackle financial and economic inclusion in the village. The first of our trips aimed at building financial literacy skills began in balmy Phnom Penh in 2014.

Since then, twice a year, we sent a small group of volunteers to Thnal Dach, to help deliver capacity building workshops and assess the needs of the community. The original content of our workshops has shifted over time, but the intent has always been to co-create solutions with the community, be humble and intellectually honest with our undertakings, and learn from a vibrant culture that has so much to teach us. Over the years we’ve successfully delivered both English education and financial literacy programs to Thnal Dach, along with improving access to clean water in 2015. With a project as ambitious as our Cambodia Impact Trips however, it’s inevitable that we’ll experience peaks and troughs on the way.

It’s now 2018, and we feel that this is a good time as any to take stock of the project. We interviewed previous Cambodia trip members to reflect on what we have learned, in the hope that sharing our experiences can help others recognise the challenges international development involves.

Here are some of the insights we gained:

#1: Expectations must be managed

The objective of these trips is visible impact, even if only to a limited degree. It is to be of assistance, which hopefully leads to a sense of personal fulfillment. Yet when we asked our team members whether there was any of either, we were met with shrugged shoulders and an air of silence.

“Overall, I felt it was a good trip…” one of our members began hesitantly.

When discussing the trip in detail, we discovered that during the trip, all team members shared a sense of uncertainty, experienced a mismatch of expectations, and felt powerless in the presence of strong cultural barriers and entrenched poverty. They all mentioned feeling unprepared, overwhelmed and confused – emotions they only really came to terms with, much later.

Generally speaking, expectations can redefine our experiences of events. In the sustainable development field however, expectation management on both sides is instrumental to creating positive impact. Unmet community expectations can quickly lead to gradual disillusionment. In this atmosphere, defensiveness and mistrust can develop towards future foreign aid. In future, we hope to set expectations as clearly as possible in the beginning. We have found that without drawing clear lines, boundaries are too easily broken.

#2: Dependency is harder to recognise than you would think

In the beginning, the foundation of the Cambodia Impact Trip was our project partner, who acted as a gatekeeper to the community. He translated for us and identified the community projects we needed to work on. Over time however, it became increasingly unclear what impact this was having, particularly as his actions seemed inconsistent with community needs. It was also unclear whether his perception of us was as people who wanted to offer genuine assistance, or foreigners wanting to catch a glimpse of the community.

By the time of our latest trip in January, team members identified that preserving a relationship with our project partner and serving the needs of the community were mutually exclusive goals. This threw into question the foundations of what we were trying to achieve, and left us struggling to redefine our trip objectives.

#3: Defining the problem is the hardest part

Offering assistance is impossible without a clear idea of the problem. Yet attempting to define the problem, without extensive professional help, in a time-constrained program run by university students, was perhaps overly ambitious.

Team members raised concerns about the inaccuracy of research done and the prevalence of misinformation, due to intercultural barriers and miscommunication. During the last trip, local children were being taken out of school, where English was taught by qualified teachers, to attend English classes run by SEED. Relying on the information given to us by our project partner, we were unaware a new law had been passed in Cambodia, allowing primary school children to learn English.

Responding to perceived community needs without understanding the nuances, meant that positive social impact could no longer be the objective. In future, we hope to properly characterise tensions and conflict between project partners, Monash SEED, and the community, before taking action on what we perceive to be the problem.

#4: Continuity and focus is essential

In development, setting precedents and building upon previous work is essential to create tangible change. However, sending trip members twice a year without proper handover structures in place, along with the nature of working with university students, meant that overlap was inevitable and progress was stunted.

Should this project continue, we hope to establish clear objectives that flow from year to year. Focusing on solving a single problem well, however small, would likely be far more meaningful than solving none at all.

Helping people is complicated. But admitting that something doesn’t feel right or isn’t working, is part of learning how to make a difference. We have a responsibility to use the right vehicles to create social impact. At times, this means putting aside precedents and our own emotional investment to critically evaluate our actions.

So, we’ve brought our Cambodia trip to a halt. We have redirected our team members’ efforts into considering exit strategies, partnerships with NGOs or creating a research-focused trip with professional assistance. The foundations are there, and we’re working on it, but we’re still figuring it out.

It really comes down to this: Monash SEED aims to create social impact. And we are reassessing Cambodia, because we refuse to compromise on that.

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