McKenna Avery: “Sustainability: City to Countryside”
Compared to the outlandish amount of waste the US and China produce on a daily basis, Cambodia does not compare. However, judging by the constant mix of styrofoam containers, plastic bags, bottles, tires, boxes, etc. lining the streets, it would seem as though this country was right in line with them. It is common to see waterways hidden under layers of waste and people just dumping their household or business leftovers into the river. Little children and stray dogs can be seen playing with or trying to consume these thrown items on occasion as well. When I first saw and smelled the presence of utter disregard for disposal, I could not help but ask my internship placement about it. They explained to me how it was a combination between there being no waste management system and the people’s lack of care for this daily affair. It was too easy to say “why don’t people just throw it in a bin at least?”. As I have been here, I have realized that if I lived here, maybe I would not have too much concern for it either.
Although it is illegal for Cambodian people to mention it, the government is corrupt and inefficient. This explains the absence of trash bins, recycle, and dare I say something so extreme as compost. But, it also explains how people are more consumed with thoughts about how they are going to provide for the needs of themselves and their family without any governmental support rather than where their empty wrapper is going to end up. This is especially prevalent given that 35% of Cambodians live in poverty.
Poverty also details the other side of the problem: plastic at the source. We all know that plastic is cheap. Businesses do not think twice about double wrapping a packaged market good in plastic bags and giving you a straw with a soda can in another bag. The problem expands far beyond this. You may be asking yourself ‘Don’t people know that all this plastic never goes away?’. Well, the success of environmental education competes against the fact that going to school beyond second grade is rare here.
On the brighter side, there are aspects of the culture, movements, and non-governmental organizations (these pretty much do the government's job here) working on the issue. First, through the organization that I am fortunate to work with, I have been able to see the united effort to conserve the forest since so many people depend on it. Second, there is a surprising amount of solar use. Most fishing boats, many households, and the ecotourism site I have been working on use it for power. Third, transportation is used wisely here. There may not be ‘public transit’ but the vast majority of Cambodians just ride motorcycles and carpooling is a given(seeing 5 people on one bike is not an uncommon occurrence). Fourth, edible food waste is trivial compared to what we are used to because people here realize how that could be someone’s meal. Fifth, the NGOs that I have come across have been Rehash Trash (works with community women to hand make baskets and other items from used plastic bags), Friends International (makes gift shop items from recycled materials), Cleanbodia (makes and sells plant plastic), Husk Cambodia (building a school from plastic bottles), and still trying to discover more!
Yes, Cambodia does have a waste management problem among others. However, considering the Khmer Rouge Regime was only a few decades ago and the state of the government, it is obvious that the country is still recovering. With time and plenty of work from NGOs, improving the quality of life here is possible. If you want to help, you can email me at [email protected] and I can help you get involved!
Britney Budiman: “The West, Wealth, and Work: Foreign Staff in Local NGOs”
While I’m WhatsApp-ing my friends back home about how “cheap” everything is, I am also aware that my afternoon lattes cost twice as much as a full-on meal from a street vendor. Beyond the camaraderie of running into familiar faces at expat-geared events or the admittedly exciting ability to say that I’m interning at an NGO, there are a number of tricky implications of being a long-term tourist that I haven’t quite figured out how to navigate:
As a Southeast Asian woman myself, I am familiar with the cultural deference this region has towards whiteness and its ideals. Like many countries, there is an obsession with skin-bleaching and “sun protection.” Much of pop culture is modeled after trends that first take place in the West. Medical practices and infrastructure development plans are adopted from those in the Global North.
There is a certain recognition of disparity that is ever present. In my own experience, it is understood from a young age, upheld in educational systems, and manifested into the idea that Western methods are the most progressive, innovative, and best overall.
During my first week of work, my supervisor told me to be mindful that the local staff is predisposed to saying ‘yes’ to anything I suggest, and that I might have to press a little before they share their true thoughts. Though much of it is simple politeness and gracious faith in new employees, I also feel as if there is an added weight to the ideas of foreigners, if only to understand what makes the most sense in the eyes of donors with the same country of origin. Even though most NGOs are focused on local assistance, the West and its financial capacity is still a primary audience.
The differences in my work environment are sometimes delightful and sometimes irksome. To start, I have a two-hour lunch break! (I often see employees taking naps during this time). On Fridays, pretty much everyone works from home. We sit on floor cushions during staff meetings and eat lychee and mung bean snacks together afterward.
Beyond the small quirks, I think it is easy to become frustrated with more drastic differences. The wifi can cut in and out making sustained work impossible and occasionally there is no running water. The language barrier causes miscommunications (although the burden of learning a second language always falls on the locals). My second Friday here in a near-empty office, a European staff member broke into expletives shouting her annoyance: “Why do I literally have to tell everyone how to do everything step by step? Use your f****** common sense!” I think it is common to initially be in disbelief that the locals don’t know something (i.e. they don’t do it like I do). But it is a lot less acceptable to let that disbelief spiral into undue anger, self-superiority, or pity.
It is conflicting to understand my relative naivete and inexpertise compared to my colleagues who have been here for years, but still complete tasks that instruct their work. When I walk down the street, I pick up on the physical likeness between myself and those around me but also know that my wealth and privilege means we have entirely dissimilar lived experiences.
People who decide to work in other countries have a desire to help. Attached to that is also the subtext that they think they can and should. As a short-term visitor, I am thinking about the sustainability and capacity of my work. So far, my time at a Cambodian NGO has shown me that in many contexts, my biggest accolade is simply that I was born in America.
Sam Hagos: People Improvement Organization
Nothing I have ever accomplished can come close to the pride I felt working at the People Improvement Organization (PIO). To be a part of a successful enterprise in a developing country provides one with greater respect for the role of education and NGOs and other like-minded civil society groups. Despite the attractive qualities of the Cambodian landscape and people, there is a dire need of change. A constant push towards commercial development and bustling tourism industry are the apparent focus of the government. From conversations I have had, this corruption is especially evident in public schools. Students or their parents can often purchase answers to a test or a passing grade. PIO is a different type of school.
PIO is housed in two buildings in Stung Meanchey, an industrial neighborhood, nestled among landfills and factories. The government has not provided public works in recent years, so it is not uncommon for the dirt roads to flood when it rains. The landfills serve as a source of employment for a few locals who scavenge for recyclable items, sometimes working alongside their children. It is a severe health hazard, mainly because the trash is burned, and the smoke and stench would waft into the classroom.
In spite of these disadvantages, PIO serves as a pillar of strength for the neighborhood, its children are not only educated but fed, clothed, and occasionally housed. The local teachers are devoted to their students. More than a few attended PIO in the past and went on to attend college. Or in the cases of some of the younger teachers, the near past. PIO also sees the constant cycle of foreign volunteers such as myself from several countries, usually to teach English. Fluency in English would all but guarantee the students a career in the future. Mothers and grandmothers are even employed at the school to clean or cook for students and staff. This confluence of teachers, mentors, and volunteers establishes a community that is a product of the collectivistic ideas that are paramount in Cambodian society.
I am humbled to have played such a small part in the incredible work that done at the PIO. In a matter of weeks, my partner Grace and I had come to know and love our classroom of over sixty rambunctious 1st graders. By the end of our time with them, we were loathed to leave. Far be it for me to deny that I shed more than my fair share of tears. But no matter how difficult it to part, during our time with them, what was considered a failing class, had vastly improved their performance. The sentimental side of me wholeheartedly believes that the kids of the PIO will grow up and someday be in a position to improve the conditions of their communities. The practical side concurs because as Gandhi once said, “adversity is the mother of progress.” Cambodia is a place where the system is designed to benefit the few individuals at the top, and somehow, the PIO students thrive. These students have endured trials and tribulations and still find the strength to find joy. Showing up to class every day, in spite of many obstacles that deter them, they prove their determination and desire to improve their circumstances.
Maya McHale: “After effects of a Genocide”
Cambodia has a dark and tragic recent history. That was the one thing I was well aware of before going there. From 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge took control of the country and what ensued was a brutal genocide that would leave the country traumatized. Determined to transform Cambodia into a classless, Marxist society, the Khmer Rouge forced millions of people out of cities to the countryside to do forced agricultural work. Former government officials, intellectuals, and minorities were especially targeted. During this time, Cambodia lost nearly a quarter of its population from starvation, disease, or from being killed by the Khmer Rouge.
What I wasn’t aware of, was how the country has healed and developed since then. I was surprised to find that Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen is an ex-Khmer Rouge commander. And it’s not a secret, so why is he even allowed to be in power? That’s the thing about this genocide. Only two Khmer Rouge members were ever found guilty for their crimes. The rest of those who committed these horrible crimes are roaming free as if nothing ever happened. After finding this out, anytime I saw someone over the age of 50 walking on the street all I could do was wonder where they were during the genocide. What were they doing? Which side were they on?
A challenge that might be hindering Cambodia from healing from the genocide is the lack of education and desire to talk about what happened. When I asked one Khmer woman about why Cambodians don’t seem to hold any resentment towards Americans considering the U.S. was responsible for significant death and destruction before the Khmer Rouge, she said that Cambodians aren’t really taught about the war or the genocide in school. By not really acknowledging the tragedy, the country is moving on without healing first.
One visual reminder of the Khmer Rouge regime that you will see if you go to Cambodia are the victims of land mines. Millions of land mines were set up not only by the Khmer Rouge, but by other countries preceding the genocide as well. To this day land mines remain a danger to rural Cambodians. Where in the U.S. we might see homeless disabled veterans on the streets, I saw land mine victims with one or more missing limbs. Amputated and unable to work, many victims end up as beggars on the streets.
During the Khmer Rouge rule most of Cambodia’s educated population was wiped out, and much of the country was left poor and starving. A large portion of Cambodia’s population today remains in poverty. As a result, Cambodians seem to have a much deeper appreciation for food. One of the most important things I learned from this experience in Cambodia stemmed from this. I’ve been privileged enough to grow up in an environment where I always had enough food. In the U.S., we let so much food go to waste without a second thought. Yet in Cambodia, portions were always just enough so that no food would go to waste. On one field visit to a rural indigenous village in Stung Treng province, I watched as 5 or 6 men shared a bucket of rice and what in the U.S. we would consider one portion of meat as their lunch, after having worked outside all day. Since many people struggle to afford food, they are much more appreciative and less wasteful than we are.
From what I could see, it seemed as though this was a dark part of the country’s history that much of the country wants to forget, understandably. I could never begin to understand the pain and loss that these people experienced nearly 50 years ago. Pain that never really went away. Virtually everyone in the country lost a family member, a friend, or a neighbor. Despite any desire to forget, there are some Cambodians who are trying to not let people forget about what happened. Survivors from the Tuol Sleng prison returned to their former place of captivity years later to educate people on what life was like under the regime and to not let those who lost their lives be forgotten. Additionally, some amazing Cambodians are fighting to revive and preserve the aspects of Cambodian culture that were almost wiped out during the genocide such as at Cambodian Living Arts. Cambodia is on a long path towards healing, and although it may never heal completely, many are trying the best they can considering the circumstances.
Grace Megginson: People Improvement Organization
So much of what I have learned from working with children and studying Child Development in the U.S. had to be adjusted when I came to Cambodia. Promoting outdoor play, parent involvement, special education, daily observations and health checks are just a few things that are not realistic at the People Improvement Organization. There is no space for outdoor play, and there or no time or resources for the others.
As a relatively idealistic person, these are some of the realities I had to learn quickly. That said, I learned that not all these things are necessary to have an impact on students, but they are privileges. Furthermore, establishing routines, building respect and rapport with the students, and adjusting to the needs and interests of the children are teaching strategies that can be implemented anywhere. The staff and teachers at People Improvement Organization are so creative with the resources they have and go the extra mile for their children everyday, which is why they have had such a positive impact on the impoverished community they aim to help.
My teaching partner, Sam Hagos, and I taught a class of energetic first grade boys. With a class size of seventy, a language barrier, and a very wide range of ability and age, it took some time for us to find our ground. However, these universal strategies guided us through. We quickly got to know all of our students, and learned (with trial and error) what was possible for a days work, and what would challenge them without overwhelming them. While Sam and I often wished we had the time and resources to do more for our students, particularly those who could benefit from special education or counseling, we were forced to accept that we were limited. However, when the resources lack, the teachers and staff step up in any way they can. The students improved so much in their confidence and their English, and I am beyond proud of them and grateful to have been their teacher. They taught me so much about what is at the core of a good education -- teachers and students that care.
Bilal Mohamed: “Development in Phnom Penh”
I am finding it difficult to comprehend why there are so many high-class restaurants and cafes here in Phnom Penh. Taking into account its rapid development and investment opportunities, the lack of comprehension is mostly due to my never experiencing this first-hand. It’s something like gentrification on a country-wide scale. While development definitely has its benefits, it’s important to see it from both perspectives. Who will be on the receiving end? Who’s losing out? Who’s profiting? We’re well aware that it’s normally the locals and native people evicted and pushed into poverty, and that’s very prevalent here in the packed streets of Phnom Penh.
The impression it leaves on me is especially powerful as a foreigner who’s witnessed gentrification take place before my eyes. You may acknowledge the benefits, but the detriment causes greater damage in comparison. Especially here in Southeast Asia, it’s much harsher than where I am from. The contrast, however, is that the locals themselves have yet to mention any complaints. I have had conversations on development and Chinese presence here in Cambodia with locals, and while they acknowledge it, they don’t express any discontent. I only see smiles. Cambodians are always laughing, joking and outwardly happy people. This all despite their country being under foreign economic invasion.
I wouldn’t say it’s “interesting” or “thought-provoking” because in all honesty I fear for them. Foreign company owners have been placing or buying their establishments in Cambodia and that seems to be the only reason hospitality is a reliable field. The beaches have become privatized, buildings and hotels bought and renovated, and the streets foreigner filled. What I do express curiosity towards however, is what Cambodians are doing to stop this.
Before coming here, I recall watching a documentary that explained the state of Cambodians today. It claimed that they live in a state of denial and intentional ignorance of the Khmer Rouge, which is something I already begin to see. People refuse to express dissatisfaction towards their government. Photos of the King are in every building, corruption is tolerated and negative dialogue on governance is unacceptable. Seems to me that the Khmer people are holding themselves back from recovery. I’m definitely not the first to make that statement. The Khmer Rouge has left a shadow in their history and you can see the darkness looming over them today. I just have a lot of questions.
Gabriel Wahl: “The First Two Weeks”
Phnom Penh- One step out of the airport and BOOM! Totally smacked with a stinging heat, a wet sticky residue, and blaring horns. I had to change from shoes to sandals immediately ha-ha! We were quickly greeted by our in-country coordinator, Siyin Lay. In only two weeks, she has become a true friend and confidant to all nine of us. She goes above and beyond her job to make us all feel welcomed, informed, and comfortable while we work, live, and travel in Cambodia.
I have been to many tropical and subtropical places, but Cambodia’s climate seems to make me sweat like no other. It is really important to stay hydrated here. You can do this by putting hydration tablets in your water (I use NUUN), eating lots of fruits, and drinking a lot of water early in the morning. The weather can be quite nice sometimes, especially after a 10 minute-or-so rain. The clouds tend to part, the humidity is somewhat thwarted, and sometimes there’s a cool breeze. I have also adopted traditional Cambodian cotton shirts as my day to day shirt. It is the most professional and comfortable shirt to wear while working in Cambodia (for me). They sell them for men and women at most of the markets for $4-5.
Two weeks in at Legal Aid of Cambodia (LAC), and I feel truly welcomed. As the only one of our cohort to be working solo at an NGO, I was pleased to find out that I would be working alongside three law school interns: Cora from the United States (University of Michigan) and Lois and Joyce from a university in Toronto, Canada. Although my purpose for being at LAC is quite different from theirs, we are all working toward the same goal and have fostered great relationships with one another. My supervisor and the Executive Director of LAC, Run Sarey, has been instrumental in my internship. He identified the need for an up-to-date website, training videos for his community, and digital media training for his local staff so that they can continue these (my) projects after I’m gone. I have already made significant headway with these projects, and I am excited to see what I can do after the 8 weeks is up. Sarey also loves to play the guitar, as do I, so we play together during most lunch breaks!