Cambodia calling

Srer Khmer staff member Pha Men (centre) and Jamie Quilliam with Preah Vihear villagers.

Column. Jamie and Deb Quilliam left Circular Head in May to embark on a year-long volunteering journey through Cambodia. The couple writes to the Chronicle from the Southeast Asian country, sharing their travels so far, most recently from Preah Vihear where they were involved in a search for new villages to conduct a pilot program.

Preah Vihear (PV) Province is located in the north of Cambodia and has a border with Thailand.

PV has the highest density of poor households in Cambodia according to the last government survey in 2013.

Caritas, a donor from Australia, commissioned Srer Khmer to implement a project in PV amongst the ‘poorest of the poor’ in the province. The project is called Asset Based Community Development (ABCD).

For the past 25 years the approach to development in Cambodia has been ‘needs’ based. External donors design projects that address perceived needs within a community like water infrastructure, houses, hygiene education, crop management and so on. These interventions ignored what already existed within the community.

The community would then see themselves as poor and missing out on what others had so would often wait for ‘experts’ to come and implement the next project.

This has developed the country in large part to a welfare society with little incentive for enterprise. ABCD is a paradigm shift away from the needs-based approach and focuses attention on the strengths and capacities that communities already have. This may include cultural assets, rights, natural resources, talents, networks, stories and many other physical and intellectual capacities. Development comes from within rather than from somewhere else.

For Srer Khmer to implement the project we had to find five villages in PV that were suitable for Srer Khmer staff to service.

Sokhen (my Srer Khmer counterpart) and I set off with our motorbikes on a five-day journey. Our bikes are small 125cc postie bikes, small enough to fit in a passenger bus storage space.

We did a six-hour trip in the bus to Tbaeng Meanchey. This northern border area of Cambodia is mainly controlled by the Cambodian army.

Preah Vihear Temple is right on the border with Thailand and has been a temple of contention between the armies of Thailand and Cambodia. Now there is peace. So there are a lot of army bases in this area.

This is also the area where the Khmer Rouge had its last stand. Pol Pot died in Anlong Veng in 1998. This is an area where a huge amount of land mines were planted by the Khmer Rouge to protect them from the Cambodian Army in later years.

We travelled over 300 kilometres around the border area on gravel road visiting 38 villages. Many of the villages were unreceptive of the assistance offered. This was because there is a lot of illegal activity occurring around the border, particularly human trafficking.

Authorities are very sensitive to foreigners implementing programs that may disrupt their trade so it can be very difficult to get approval from the district government and army generals.

So how do we know if a village is poor and would suit a project offered by a donor? It is not so easy for someone from the first world because all rural villages look relatively poor. However, a colleague recommended looking for indicators suggesting wealth like:

• Number of pigs, cows and buffalo (wealthy families have large animals)

• Number of toilets and latrines

• House construction materials

• Number of men in the village

• Size and abundance of vegetable gardens.

So when we go into a village and discover that there are only free ranging chickens around, toilets are scarce, houses are low-set with grass roofs and the men have gone to Thailand to work, it is a good indication that they need some help to improve the situation.

Ultimately we were unsuccessful in finding suitable villages in the area, however in the following weeks we discovered four villages in Srei Snam, north of Siem Reap.

The Quilliams will next move on to Srei Snam, where they will commence the ABCD program for Caritas. They will keep readers posted in an upcoming edition of the Chronicle.

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