Posts Tagged ‘Phnom Penh’

What has been/What will be–Hagar Update

December 11, 2008

Without burdening you with too many details, I do want to offer you a picture of what my work life has been like these past 12 weeks or so.  I’ve learned a lot so far and have much more to go! So perhaps we can learn together.

My life as the “Social Programs Officer” at Hagar has been a bit of whirl.  Within my first week, after a thorough briefing by my supervisor, she headed back to the states where doctoral applications called her back home. So, I found myself the sole guardian of the institutional knowledge of an international social program on the verge of implementation in three countries. But not abandoned! While this may sound overwhelming, I do have remote support from my physically absent supervisor and the wisdom of my cohorts here at Hagar International. Our office relatively small, close-knit bunch composed of a few Swiss-Italians, a German, a Malaysian and a Cambodian.  Makes for entertaining lunches 🙂

Right now, our office is gearing up for the promising start of operations in India, Vietnam and Laos. What’s keeping us, you ask?  Good ole HR and a world-wide funding crisis.  We are in the midst of vetting applications and hoping for the right leader for the job, as well as raising funds for the new projects.  So…if you know any one with experience in management and gender/trafficking/vulnerable women and children issues, do tell.  Seriously.

But this waiting (for money, for leaders) could be, in all actuality, a good thing.  This period of time is helping the organization to catch its breath after over a year of intense grant seeking, research, travel, and partnership building in the new countries. Strategy is important, and ALL of Hagar is trying to cast a realistic vision for this next year.

Hagar International (not to be confused with Hagar Cambodia, which has been around for over 15 years) was formed in 2006 in hopes to implement the social and economic empowerment models Hagar Cambodia made so successful. Hagar Cambodia’s programs are vast in breadth and depth—spanning from catch up schools for young children, water filter’s for rural communities, foster care, women’s social program’s for domestic violence, career mentoring, farm communities, and even a soy milk factory for one of our three social enterprise businesses…

Hagar International is trying to keep things a bit more focused at this point. Through our research, we discovered that reintegration of survivors is very difficult, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone working in social services. Reintegration is basically the transition from the supportive environment (the shelters, social programs) into an independent, self-sustainable life (a job, a home).

Our target populations, those at risk of domestic violence, sex trafficking, rape or sexual exploitation, have gone through incredibly traumatic experiences that have shaped their emotional and physical well being forever.  Simply climbing up and out of this sort of nightmare is difficult without reliable support over time.  Therefore, when it comes to leaving the place you’ve come to trust and thrive in, maybe for the first time in your life, the “real world” becomes very scary.

Throughout its 15 years in Cambodia, Hagar has developed a program that has successfully reintegrated 80% of its beneficiaries.  Our model of social programs + social enterprise has been a huge part of that success.

Therefore, for the expansion projects that I am working on, we are aiming to combine our strengths with the strengths of already established NGOS and set up partnerships with them.  We don’t want to reinvent the wheel, we want to complete it and strengthen it.

Round Up
While I’ve found my sea legs and begun to learn how to navigate Hagar internally, I’ve had a crash course in exploring the possibilities present within my role here.

Right now, I find myself in the midst of challenging learning opportunities that can be both invigorating and taxing. In the past 3 weeks, two of my colleagues from our small office have transitioned out, for various reasons, leaving me with quite a lot of responsibility. Now, I am not only in charge of social programming and partnerships, but also development and fundraising (i.e. grant writing, proposals, research etc).

It’s not easy jumping straight into an organization in the midst of huge transitions, growth and re-prioritization.  Not easy, but a great chance to learn about organizational evolution, structure, leadership, professionalism and how the internal clock ticks inside this NGO. I feel I have gained an incredible breadth of perspective in the relatively small amount of time I have been here so far.  An organization is like a living, breathing thing that must be cared for properly in order to fulfill its mission. I happily admit that there have been many times where I’ve felt stumped for sure. But as much collaboration and partnering as there is to do on the OUTSIDE of Hagar, I find just as necessary to do on the INSIDE. And there are many intelligent, interesting individuals for me to learn from within Hagar. So I welcome the challenge and look forward to looking back in a few months to see what sort of pattern is taking shape beneath my very eyes.

Hagar in Cambodia, Afghanistan, India, Vietnam and Laos

Hagar in Cambodia, Afghanistan, India, Vietnam and Laos

Here are some brief updates on the expansion countries:

Afghanistan- We have a Country Director that is working diligently on researching plans for a social enterprise appropriate to the culture and security situation. Operations are projected to begin in Summer 2009.  Afghanistan is rather self-sufficient at the moment, due to its particularly sensitive security status, so my personal work doesn’t touch this office really at all.

India- During my first week at Hagar, I had the pleasure of meeting and touring Hagar facilities with two of our partners from the organization Oasis India.  Oasis, along with IJM (International Justice Mission)are our social program partners in Mumbai. It is possible that I could be traveling to Mumbai in the near future for capacity building (i.e. training social workers) but this is still pending. Either way, the social programs are being strengthened in Mumbai in preparation for Operations to begin, hopefully in early 2009. Our social enterprise for Mumbai is a catering business, but it will not start operations until we have hired our Country Director.

As many of you have probably heard on the news, Mumbai has faced some very real, very frightening terrorist attacks this past month.  I have been keeping up with our partners and am relieved to report that they are all safe and well. However, please do keep them in your thoughts, as you can imagine that they are quite shaken.  If there is one thing I am learning these days, it is that our world is so small.

Vietnam and Laos- Right now these expansion efforts are developing organically.  We have identified potential government partners for these projects and have just finished up hosting two government delegations from both countries for a week long

Women's Union Study Tour- Government Delegates from Vietnam and Laos

Women's Union Study Tour- Government Delegates from Vietnam and Laos

educational site visit. These representatives met with our program directors and staff, toured our facilities, and asked great questions which all solidified the partnership we’ve already been fostering with them. They are so eager to learn about Hagar’s model, as both countries are further behind in their capacity to really care for and empower these vulnerable populations.
Both Vietnam and Lao have very similar Communist government structures, and similar capacity building and partnership needs that Hagar can help meet. Because business is so highly regulated, we cannot do any work in these countries without government sponsors and partners. Plus, both parties are eager to learn how to better care for the women fleeing to their shelters.

The social enterprise component of the Vietnam/Laos partnerships will be with a café/bakery franchise that has had great success in Laos.  Hopefully, we will begin operations for these in early-mid 2009 as well.

As you can see, there is much to do, but we are excited and hoping for all the right leadership and funding to come through soon.  Once we have these things in place, we’ll be ready to get things moving.  And I’ll also be traveling to the offices in Vietnam, Laos and India to help oversee and organize capacity building efforts.

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Befriending Monks

December 11, 2008


I befriended a monk in the tea isle.  Yes, it’s true.

He was trying to find Colombian Coffee but couldn’t read the label without his glasses. And so marks the beginning of my first real encounter with a monk.  His name was John Smith.  Yes, RATHER unexpected, as you can imagine that there are probably countless John Smith’s running around the world without any idea that their namesake is a Cambodian Buddhist monk.  He had a sturdy, grandfatherly air about him and had lived much of his life in the US, arriving after the Khmer Rouge and civil war in Cambodia.

I was delighted to have this chance to talk with him, as I’ve been kind of fascinated with monks since I arrived in Cambodia.  Their lives seem mysterious and yet ordinary- like the social fabric of a bygone day inserted into a city teeming with odd mixtures of its “Indo-Chinese”/Western identities.

So we struck up a conversation and before I knew it, accepted his invitation to come meet his English students he’d been teaching.  Ironically, this man’s English wasn’t so good himself—and I found myself often piecing together truncated bits of sentences to try to get his stories straight (which is sometimes difficult with an older person whose been speaking English all their life).  So I hopped on my bike and followed this friendly monk in his rusty-orange monk regalia on his motodup taxi as I quietly laughed to myself at the supreme obsurdity of the situation. While I am eager to trust people, I’m also not stupid. Working on human trafficking makes one a bit more aware and suspicious of inviting strangers, unfortunately. But I also don’t want to be paranoid and miss out on small adventures.  So there I was, on my bike, calculating streets, exit plans, feeling for my mace (which I absently mindedly put in my purse the night before) and thinking of excuses to leave, should I decide I need them later. What a mess of contradictions I am some days.  But I know monks are people too—they make mistakes.  Some visit prostitutes, they ride tuk tuks, they shop at the supermarket and are picky about their coffee.  They’re people.

We arrive at the guesthouse where he stays and teaches his students.  We get to the room and I begin to piece together his history.  He lived in California (he even showed me his drivers license, where he is of course wearing his bright monk sash) and New York and, to my great surprise, Witchita, Kansas! He has even frequented the Buddhist temple in Kansas City, MO (where I went to college). Talk about a small world. He’s been building Buddhist temples in the US as well as in Cambodia, like a regular Evangelical Christian church planter— except Buddhist ☺.  But before his monkhood (you’ll never guess) he made doughnuts for a living in the US. And his mother was Catholic.

Monk John and his ESL Posse

Monk John and his ESL Posse

Eventually, the English students arrived.  There were five of them, all in their late teens and apparently mortified by the presence of a native English speaking foreigner (me).  Still trying to figure out exactly why I am there, I try to initiate some basic conversation and inquiries.  Everyone seems rather nervous and awkward standing stick straight against the wall.  Apparently underperforming, my friendly monk begins sighing loudly and snapping at them in Khmer, sometimes switching to English to fill me in.  I keep trying to think of scenarios and basics to coax out their English, but Monk John just gets angrier, muttering about how 4 months of training has been wasted.  Needless to say, I was beginning to feel uncomfortable, and a bit defensive for the poor students whose stammering increased with the deflation of their self-esteem.  I suddenly had visions of miffed nuns in Catholic Schools, rapping rulers on tables in a huff. I throw out questions about time, school, food, family, anything to give them a chance to redeem themselves.  Monk John continues to sulk in disapproval.  I ask if we should go over anything—alphabet? Numbers?   Then he lights ups, and proudly prompts the wide-eyed students to sing a song.  Then, to my dismay and utter surprise, Monk John directs the timid chorus in a round of “I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus, No turning back, no turning back.”

I this point, I think to myself, this entire evening has turned into farce.  With delight, confusion and surprise I clap at the end of the tune and confirm that yes, indeed, Monk John did teach them this song himself. And it’s also quite obvious that students had not real understanding of the words coming from their mouths.  The glory of contradictions. You just can’t make this stuff up.

After a few more strained tries at conversation, I can see that my new students are beginning to wane.  I begin to make my exit, we take a few pictures and I keep flashing my sweating students encouraging smiles as I try to convince Monk John that all is not lost for is ESL bunch—they just need a little practice.

He escorts me out the door, I hop on my bike, take a deep breath, chuckle to myself and wonder what just happened.

Conclusion:
Monks are people too
Never judge a book by its cover
Practice! Practice! Practice!

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Gettin’ Out the Vote- Elections in Cambodia vs the US

December 10, 2008
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Cambodian American? 🙂

Upon arriving here in Cambodia in mid-September until the elections November 4th , I’d been spending the bulk of my sunny Saturday afternoons and scattered weeknights helping Americans of various political leanings register and mail in their absentee ballots.  It was a great way to engage in this very important election and fulfill my grassrootsy cravings I can’t seem to shake.  It has been great fun— I met all sorts of interesting people- from lawyers on the Khmer Rouge Tribunal to backpackers, to English teachers to Fulbright scholars, Cambodian Americans who escaped the wars, the young, old, and even a few shabby, lone wonderers (not to mention both republicans and democrats—the republicans do not have an organization assisting their overseas voters).

We also screened the debates, showed political films and stirred up the crowds— many of which weren’t actually American—just interested foreigners from all over the world.  Everyone’s got an opinion about this election, it seems, and watching it all unfold from afar is just another reminder of how the US has an incredible stake and responsibility to the rest of the world.  It is a small world —indeed— and living in Cambodia where democracy sometimes plays out like a political farce clarifies this incredible responsibility we Americans have.

While Cambodia is technically a constitutional monarchy, it struggles with political integrity.  Corruption here is basically built into the system. It is commonplace, expected, and an understood part of life and work here, stemming into all parts of ordinary living.  It is rare to see the police or an ambulance, hospitals sometimes deny patients who don’t lay their money out on the table first, if price is right you can even pay for your college diploma, and though public school is technically free, the teachers are paid so little that students can only attend class if they bring some money each day to contribute to the salary (this is similar to other civil servants who are inadequately paid)… Corruption itself has a crippling effect on the growth of a country, it’s ability to serve the people efficiently and make decisions with much long-term vision or strategy.  So while Cambodia is a democracy, so long as corruption abounds, politicians and government workers will continue to (and in some cases must) place higher value on the dollar and power than the vote or the greater good.

Cambodia had its own elections this past summer, though it was not a surprise when the current ruling party struck home yet again. It was interesting hearing a few of my Cambodian friends compare their election experience to ours. A few of them came to the debates between Obama and McCain and were more engaged in it than some Americans.  They loved the idea of the two opponents laying out their ideas on the table, hashing out political arguments and taking questions from audience members. This is quite a contrast from the typical election scene of their country where the weight of your vote is commonly seen as useless against the powers that be. The collective power of voting often fades when the chances of political power changing hands is low. It isn’t necessarily straight out force or fraud that keeps these people in power.  Driving through the countryside, you see that almost every small and large town has Party’s offices and hubs.  Come election time, representatives set up shop to give out free rice, reminding uneducated farmers who they should be grateful to come election time. Typically, most of the supporters of the party come more from the populations in the provinces, not the cities.  But the members of the ruling elite do sometimes retain a mofia-like presence in Phnom Penh due to their depth of power, money, influence and, sometimes lack of consequence for breaking the law.  They drive around in huge black SUVs sans license plates, their teenagers go clubbing at the bars with a constant cloud of bodyguards closed in around them, their kindergarteners know that mommy usually keeps a gun in the trunk of the car.  They live in a world of incredible privilege, wealth and isolation. It’s a fascinating (and tragic) dichotomy to unravel.

So…while we American’s may complain about our system of government, our political leaders decisions, vetos and appointees, we ought to take a step back.  Our system isn’t perfect, and I’ve definitely done my fair share of criticizing (and will continue to).  But the beauty is that we CAN criticize. We can challenge our government and when it doesn’t work for us, we CAN use our votes and voices as leverage.  Our system allows for evolution.  Our elections CAN change things.  Our leaders CAN be held accountable, IF we hold them to their deeds.  It’s possible so long as we don’t get complacent and take our privileges for granted.

Cambodian Man who helped with Democrats Abroad and his kids on election day

Cambodian Man who helped with Democrats Abroad and his kids on election day