Connect : Connect November 2011
17 Opposite page: A Cambodian child climbs a tree Opposite bottom left: A Carpets for Communities family Opposite bottom right: Stock piling crickets Having been involved with the Empowering Communities organisation in Australia for the last six years, I really appreciated the opportunity to live in Cambodia and work on the project on the ground. It's been a journey of learning and an intense time of transition for the organisation and the families with which it works. Empowering Communities' major project is an employment- based social enterprise, Carpets for Communities. It aims to help children from poor families attend school by employing their mothers to make eco-friendly, fair-trade carpets from home. The project aims to break the cycle of poverty for the younger generation, helping them to avoid the dangers of human traffcking and other forms of exploitation, and in the short term, have freer, happier childhoods. The most exciting part of my assignment was to contribute to the organisation's development and see recommendations and proposals adopted. My role was largely to support the organisation's management and staff through a growth phase and to do research and program development in the areas of empowerment, education and participation. However, this changed to incorporate making changes to how the organisation works and its future plans. Firstly, we changed the Carpets for Communities' business model to one which is more empowering and sustainable for the families involved. Now instead of being employed indefnitely, families make carpets for a limited time while they stabilise their fnancial situations and start planning for their futures. They can then apply for multiple loans and advances against their work to address health or other issues and fnally take a loan to transition from production into their own local livelihood and income generation activities. Excitingly, we will be pitching for capital to grow the social enterprise arm of the organisation, which has been separated from the development arm to allow for an equal focus on both parts. We'll be looking for a total of $500,000 to start with to enable us to market and ship the carpets to countries other than Australia, but more importantly, to give us the resources to develop, trial and scale up new and better products. This way we can take on more families at any given time. Finally, Empowering Communities is now working with parents to help improve the quality of education their children receive from kindergarten through to university. This is what I'm most excited about. I was able to research a number of excellent, low cost, participatory programs that the organisation will educate parents about and encourage them to implement. For example, a kindergarten program costing about $50 a month can increase enrolment and retention signifcantly. These initiatives not only help these children escape the poverty the Khmer Rouge left their parents, but it can really help foster new leaders who go on to make a lifetime of difference to their own country. Surely this is what development is really about - enabling people to lead their own communities to brighter futures. While it was exciting to be part of the organisation's transition, the memories that are the most vivid are not from working in the head offce in Siem Reap, but from visiting the families in the villages around Poipet, a town on the Cambodia/Thailand border, where the really important stuff happens. As a part-time Masters student studying Development at ANU I have to admit that I'm much more interested in the lives of the people the organisation helps and their problems, solutions and potential, rather than things like governance structures, planning processes and research. I remember visiting one family's house with a group of Empowering Communities' supporters. We were all surprised and inspired by the older son of the household, Kimchhean, who had invented a cotton roller to help his mother and sister make carpets more effciently. He’d banged this contraption together from nothing more than what was lying around; scraps of wood, tin cans, an old paint roller and a strip of rubbery material from a sitting mat. It even has adjustable pressures to allow for tighter or looser rolling of the material and makes that part of the work of making carpets much, much faster. Kimchhean has been given a scholarship to study Electrical Engineering at the National Technical Training Institute in Phnom Penh through a new program that Empowering Communities started to inspire more kids to stay in school. If a youth fnishes high school, they are given a scholarship to a university in Phnom Penh. I decided to stay with Kimchhean's family for a few days after I realised that I needed a deeper level of insight into my proposal for how to combine good the development practices of empowerment, participation and capacity building with the employment social enterprise model that was being used, and how these things can actually apply in family situations. I stayed with Kimchhean's family for three nights and it rained almost the entire time, making the muddy ground and roads even harder to navigate. We ate under shelter at the front of the house and talked a little before turning in. I slept next to one of the sons under a mosquito net on the bamboo slat foor of their stilt house. Staying didn't change everything but it did give me a deeper appreciation of how their life is like. There were two surprising things that came out of my stay. The frst was meeting a man who was a mine victim and who had been to Darwin to compete in a wheelchair marathon. With the level of communication we had I couldn't get any more information than this but I found it hard to understand that someone who had represented their country in an international sporting event was making a living by renting a few sewing machines with his wife in the village we were working in. The second surprise was more to my liking. Talking one night with Kimchhean he showed me a book on Buddhist leadership that his grandfather had left him. We talked a little about leadership and he told me how he believes that service to others is what leadership is about. He then modestly told me about a free English class that he runs each week. After some prodding he told me the whole story. In 2006 he took a free English class in another village from a man who is now employed at a very good English school. Kimchhean then seemed to take on a 'pass it forward' approach and in 2007 started up his own free English class for children aged 12 and under. In 2008 he expanded to a second class of 'youth' and then in 2009 started a peer study group. The most impressive thing, however, is that each one of the study group also ran a free English class meaning that Kimchhean's one action was now reaching over 1000 children in the local area. This was all done off of his own back. The only potential contribution that Empowering Communities made was to provide the family with a little extra income that may have allowed him to stay in school and not need to work as much to support his family. What I think will be telling is if his sister, who is just starting Year 12, will be able to graduate and take on one of our scholarships to attend university. As I fnish writing this I’m in a taxi heading to the airport, about turn the page on what was one of the most eventful and enriching chapters of my life. I may be leaving Cambodia, but Cambodia will never leave me.
Connect March 2012