A Scottish MP and former teacher brings a new perspective to the challenge of improving education opportunities in Cambodia
Scottish MP Angus MacNeal in Cambodia as part of his two-week tour with VSO last week.
Meet mp angus macneal
British NGO Volunteer Service Overseas (VSO) invited Scottish MP Angus MacNeal, a former teacher, to volunteer in Cambodia in the education sector as part of its PolVol program from September 16-28. The PolVol project will see 11 United Kingdom MPs volunteer their skills in developing countries over the summer.
How did you get involved with this trip to Cambodia?
My life has been paved with good intentions and when VSO contacted me about volunteering, I felt I really couldn't say no. I was offered Cameroon or Cambodia, and I chose Cambodia. I am very glad I did.
Why did you choose Cambodia over Cameroon?
I chose Cambodia because I had no experience of Southeast Asia. I had heard of Cambodia a lot during my childhood when the war was happening and the Vietnamese came in ...but that was as far as my knowledge went.
I used to be a teacher in a former life, and one of the aspects I was aware of was the absolute decimation of the education system by Pol Pot and perhaps a loss of a continuing professional ethos that is passed down in any normal country from older teachers to younger teachers.
What do you hope to accomplish during your two-week visit?
It's not a case of coming to a country and saying, ‘You should be doing this and you should be doing that'. I think in Cambodia you can be of use by providing fresh eyes on the situation, as a politician from another country and also a former teacher from another country. I'll be meeting the minister of education on Friday.
What issues will you discuss?
I think we should take stock for a moment and realise the good things that have been happening in the Cambodian education sector. There have been great achievements made, but like every other country - certainly my own country - there are things that could be done differently, and perhaps better.
To the minister I will be expressing some of the views I have heard at the grassroots level.
What have you seen and done so far?
I have been looking at advocacy and how certain bodies can make a better case to government, especially in light of the difficulties government has. People can make demands without understanding the process [or] what constraints government is under. Most of my meetings have been to build a picture of the country, and the troubles it faces, but also the successes, and there are many of them.
I've got to say that I am quite surprised at all the good things that have happened. At the moment, Cambodia is at a crossroads where it could become a real beacon not just for Southeast Asia but Asia and, perhaps, even the world, of how you can absolutely turn a country around.
I had an opportunity [Monday] to go to Kampong Cham. One young girl I met there was attending school, and her older sister was working in a factory in Phnom Penh to pay for it. It was quite profound to look into a young person's eyes and see the worst poverty first-hand.
I guess you just hope that between politicians, NGOs and visiting MPs who come from foreign countries with ideas, that it is people like that you can ultimately help.
Had you ever seen poverty like this before?
I am afraid I hadn't seen poverty like that, and ... I was quite shocked by it. But at the same time, I was impressed with the dignity of the people. I noticed that with a group of teen school children I met - a willingness to learn, a keenness to learn, all of them wanting to be doctors and nurses and teachers, and all from very rural areas. They had ambitions and that is half the battle.
Why did you choose education as the focus of your trip?
I used to be a primary school teacher a long time ago. I know from Scotland how many unrealistic arguments come through the door. You've got to be aware of what a politician can deliver, wants to deliver and what they want help with.
It's not just the politicians, of course. Teachers, educational authorities, everyone has got a role to play. And perhaps Cambodia has developed to a stage now where the freedoms we take for granted, and the structures we take for granted from other countries, should be applied here.
Do you have any plans to return to Cambodia?
This has been a pilot project by VSO, and doubtless VSO will be assessing the effectiveness of what they have done. It's certainly an imaginative approach, because frankly, in politics the urgent is always getting in the way of the important. These two weeks have forced me to make time for the important. I would be glad to come back.