Flak Jacket

I haven’t written very much about work stuff, perhaps because I’ve still been trying to process everything myself and get a handle on the best way to describe it all, but I guess here’s as good a time as any to make a go of it.

So here I am, working with a local education NGO here in Kampong Cham. The organization’s origins go back to April 1996, when USAID decided to halt funding for their Cambodia Assistance to Primary Education Project because of the political climate in Cambodia. A group of local staff from Kampong Cham province decided that it was unacceptable to suddenly drop aid and technical assistance to schools, and continued their efforts with their own personal resources. Eventually, with support from the local and national partners, the project was reborn into the organization it is today.

As I’ve described before, we’re your typical alphabet soup of projects funded by a myriad of donors from all over the place. We try to organize ourselves into sections and consolidate projects into longer term programs as much as possible. I work in the Girls’ Education Initiative (gei) section which currently includes two main programs: our Girls Secondary School Scholarship Program which includes a bunch of different activities including vocational training and “life skills” classes like computers, cooking, and hair-cutting, and the REACH project.

I was mostly hired to advise the REACH team, specifically to help them with research design and analysis, designing the new activities based on our research, and writing reports and proposals. I also act as advisor to the gei section in general, which currently means I’m sorting out a projected budget for the next 3 years, writing proposals to try to secure the money, and writing reports to current donors.

Unfortunately, day-to-day I feel like I’m buried in a mountain of bureaucracy. I thought I would be able to help this local NGO and learn a lot about development and I think I was right, but not in the way that I expected. Honestly, I’m most useful as a flak jacket to protect my team from the demands of donors so they can go ahead and get the actual work done. I guess someone needs to do it, but it’s not especially fulfilling. I’m trying as much as possible not to just do the work, but instead help the team learn skills themselves so that they can function more independently of an advisor in the future, but it’s tough to find the time and the patience. It’s a constant battle between just doing things myself because it’s faster and simpler, and trying to cajole the team into doing it themselves. So far, I’m teaching a weekly advanced English writing class (sparsely attended) and mentoring our team leader Rumdourl and temporary Program Manager, Rith, but it’s slow going.

I guess I live for trips out to the field which remind me of the children and communities that all this paperwork is meant to help. This past week, I went out to visit three groups of girls who received a small loan from our NGO to start a business after completed our vocational training programs in sewing / beautician skills. It was super to see what they had achieved in only a little over 2 months. One group of 5 girls was making over $150/week sewing clothes for people in their village, at least twice as much as they could make individually in the rice fields.

To mark the difference the loan actually made, we also visited some individual students who hadn’t received any credit assistance after finishing their training; 3 of 4 were out in the fields working, their sewing machines covered and unattended. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that we can make the program much bigger ourselves since our main focus is education and we don’t have the expertise nor the manpower nor the donor connections… so I’m going to try to look for a local microfinance partner who we can pass the groups off to instead.

I’m starting to see how education development can be a difficult field, given that the results are so vague… We assume that students who have more education are better off, but it’s not always the immediate reality. In the long term, there’s no doubt that a better educated populace is good for political stability and necessary for economic development, and it’s certainly worthy to give children at least the option of a quality education if they want it, but like the example of the vocational training/microfinance link, it seems like education may be necessary to a point, but is woefully insufficient without other programs.

Anyway, enough for now. Missing home lots, but still doing well.

2 comments

1 Charlotte { 06.24.08 at 9:43 pm }

Hey Jess, Sorry to hear (read) about your frustrations with the system. I think that all systems have these obstacles and flaws, and even as less fulfilling as it may be and seemingly without (immediate/concrete) results, what you’re doing is important because you’re able identify the flaws, and with that knowledge hopefully the system can be improved. I mean you’re already making improvements even in trying to teach your team leaders how to negotiate the demands of the donors.

2 jess { 06.29.08 at 6:18 am }

Muah, thanks for the encouragement love. I’m on an up and down roller coaster with regards to the work here, for sure. I did get some really good advice from a woman named Lisa who I’ve been emailing back and forth with:

“My advice to you is to make this experience work for you. No matter what you do, I am certain that you will be contributing, so become an advocate for yourself.[...] Maybe a little writing/talking/drawing…..reflection on the
purpose of you coming to Cambodia. What did you hope to gain? What did you hope to give? What lead you to make the decision to come? What have you learned? What do you still need to learn? Why this
particular NGO? What will make you leave? Is there another project that you could get involved with that would help you with your own goals? [...] So, maybe it’s time to be a little selfish and think
about your own goals…..like I said, I am certain that when you are doing what you want to be doing, you will probably be contributing even more.”

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