Recently I got the opportunity to travel to Siem Reap and see the role social enterprise plays in rescuing, rebuilding and healing the socially and economically shattered nation.
Amanda Webb, CEO of Xplore for Success, develops and leads Purpose and Passion field trips that give travellers an opportunity to see how philanthropy and NGOs make a difference, and why there's still a need for them. On the trip to Siem Reap, Amanda created something quite extraordinary, which I was lucky enough to experience in the company of nine other quite wonderful women.
I'm not exaggerating to say that I found the experience culturally overwhelming, possibly life-changing. With all the newness (and goodness), judgment filters fell away, and my mind opened up to became a great big healthy sponge. Here's a little of what I found.
We began with a visit to ConCERT, an enterprise that guides volunteers towards programs that supplement efforts already underway. Here we got the intel on cultural do's and don'ts around behaviour, cash handouts and responsible volunteering. The big lesson was Siem Reap does not need well-intentioned volunteers duplicating, or worse attempting to take over established good work. It does require volunteers who can respect work in progress and contribute by thoughtfully supplying the necessary skills.
SCHOOL AGE EDUCATION
With adult literacy at just 50%, education is essential to Cambodia's independence and development.
Human and Hope is a disciplined, ambitious, industrious Khmer-led enterprise. The teaching style is super-engaged with many kids working at the boards, alongside their teachers. There are lots of teaching spaces, though not all have four walls. Education is language and literacy-focused along with computer training, art and life-skills. The playground, like playgrounds everywhere, was full of kids playing games (marbles, soccer and skippings); along with huddles of teenage girls engaged in a very important teenage-girl chat.
H&H also runs an outreach program, and when they notice problems with children, they will visit their homes to talk through what might be going on. Amongst any number of social problems, some parents do battle with their parents over their children's education. Having survived the political horrors of the 1970s and 80s, some fear that learning might place their grandchildren's lives at risk.
With more than 400 students, our visit to the second school at Treak Village Community presented a boisterous contrast. Loud and busy with plenty of adult presence around the classrooms and playgrounds. Volunteers support teachers aids, providing back up and helping with pronunciation. Outside, locals and volunteers were making mud-bricks, gardening and plumbing wells. Hygiene training is visible everywhere, and each child has a dental hygiene bag kept at the school, to monitor twice daily tooth brushing. Treak Village's fundraising efforts are focused on getting another school teacher and volunteers to c building walls.
Like Human and Hope, Treak Village Community students become advocates, who attract non-school kids to attend classes, because playtimes and games are a happy reward.
SALASUSU is a social enterprise that works to improve the lives of young Cambodians through ethical manufacturing and life skills training. They create beautiful handmade bags, shoes and homewares using canvas and woven rush. Like everywhere we visited, the leadership team was professional, friendly and respectful, and the interaction among employees is seen as necessary and therefore encouraged. (PS: I spend a modest fortune on their lovely bags).
Eco Soapbank is an initiative literally saving young lives. Started by Samir Lakhani, it collects used soap from local hotels (as well as international donors) then cleans, sanitises, chops, grinds, moulds, repackages and distributes freshly made soap bars to schools across Siem Reap. Local children hospitals report there's a significant decline in infection rates in areas where there are active school hygiene programs, that also provide soap to the children.
NB: If this initiative excites you, Australian organisation Soap Aid performs a similar function, distributing soap to remote Australia as well as international groups.
Day to day problems for villages include no piped water, no sewage system, gas or landlines, dirt roads: not enough food, no essential hygiene products such as soap and the real existence of a poverty cycle.
We were honoured to be invited by one of SUSU's employees to visit her home, where she lives with four sisters and extended family. Sleep is upstairs and all general living, including cooking, is done under the house. Her home forms part of a small neighbourhood, built along a dirt road and surrounded by rice fields where most of them work. The community shares a toilet, and water comes from a roadside well. It felt like a place where people were pleased to live, though we could see the immense difference a donation or one or two thousand dollars could make.
VOCATIONAL TRAINING/ADULT EDUCATION
Most of the enterprises we visited had mandated one-hour English classes for its employees (Mandarin is growing in popularity). Menial work is the gateway out of poor-poor poverty. For many, it's also the first step to enter more lucrative hospitality work; and for younger people, funding university education.
Spoons Cafe is an initiative started by Ben Justice, which is a training and internship facility. Students learn to cook Cambodian cuisine as well as develop the general service skills that build their employability in Cambodia's rapidly expanding hospitality industry (actually found one of the graduates working very professionally at our fantastic accommodation, Rambutan Resort).
Along with school education, Human and Hope run skills workshops for the community (domestic violence, child protection, road safety, life skills etc.). They have a small sewing school/factory to make craft gifts (which we found in stores right across Siem Reap). They also make microloans available to their community to support the set up of cottage industry (sewing, raising ducks, general repairs).
SO, WHERE DOES YOUR MONEY GO?
I was surprised by the impact a most modest donation can make. Two meals a day isn't uncommon for the kids (one of which is likely to be rice cooked in stock). Schools need money to fund what parents cannot afford, and the government doesn't subsidise. That is teachers, utilities, buildings, stationery, books, exams. A school teacher earns between US$200- $250/month. A semester at university costs $160. Soap into schools is free, but EcoBank needs to pay its staff, as well as office costs and transport. By way of contrast, tourists might pay $6 for a cold drink and salad; a 30-minute tuk-tuk ride is $3, lemonade and side-of-road sticky rice is just $1.
A NOTE ABOUT ENVIRONMENT AND SUSTAINABILITY
All the initiatives we saw were built around recycling and reuse first. For example, at Treak Village School, the buildings are made of recycled plastic bags. The plastic fibre binds the sand and cement mix used to make mud bricks. Not only is it a cheap and environmentally right-on option, but it also offers essential employment to the local community. Also, many beautiful products made of recycled goods (plastics, netting, ring pulls) are available across Siem Reap.
CULTURE AND ENTERTAINMENT
We visited many temples, which are truly spectacular, and there's probably nothing I can add to what you can easily find out. However, I sense that Siem Reap's culture of recycling and sustainable could be as much a drawcard as the temples.
In between our various explorations, we swam, shopped, ate (OMG the food, amazing!) and relaxed. Our accommodation was wonderful, we went to a terrific cooking class and entertained by the fabulous PHARE circus. If you're interested, let me know, and I'll be happy to specific travel details w with you.
We are creatures of private convention. But we are also the ways in which we enlarge our coasts Teju Cole
My point in sharing this experience is to confirm what you already know - travelling is a mind-expanding experience that impacts the professional as well as the personal. I've spent so much time in first-world countries, and this trip shocked me as I realised the extent of my ignorance and cynicism. Sharing the experience with women who brought their knowledge and impressions with them opened up even more conversations and perspectives. And they made the experience fun!
If you're interested to read another take on this trip, Di Ryall also wrote about it here.
Thank you Amanda, for your care, leadership and organisation. Thank you, fellow travellers, for filling my mind with new ways of thinking. Thank you Siem Reap for the gentle reminder that the worst in people can bring out the best in people.
Amanda will be leading another Purpose and Passion field trip to India in 2019 - if you're curious, visit Xplore for success as with only 12 travellers, it will fill up quickl