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Australian finds fulfilment in This Life

Billy Gorter, founder and director of This Life Cambodia would sooner consider his role as more representative than managerial.  It’s really not me who should be taking credit for TLC, it’s the communities I’m fortunate enough to work with,” he says.

“I’m the lucky person who is able to liaise between the donors and the communities.”

The story of the organisation’s beginning explains everything. In September 2007, while working for a large charity in Siem Reap, Gorter was approached by members of a local community who wanted to start an extracurricular school in their village. Gorter told them to return when they had something to show for it. The community did so one month later – with two classrooms built out of thatching, 200 students enrolled to study and classes underway.

Gorter’s initial thoughts were positive and he planned to write a project proposal for the organisation which would open up further prospects for the development centre. However, it soon became apparent that communities and small grassroots organisations such as these needed more than just a project proposal. This is when Gorter decided to form TLC.

“The organisation formed organically through the community knowing what it needed, but not having the resources to secure what they needed,” he says.

It is within this absence that TLC functions, acting as the facilitating element by giving the community the means to achieve its necessary ends. As declared in its mission statement: “This Life Cambodia works to improve the quality of and access to education in Cambodia by listening to, engaging with and advocating alongside communities.”

It is this community-oriented practice which sets TLC apart from other NGOs, according to Gorter.  “These are the people who will get themselves out of their problems,” he says, so TLC aims to help people help themselves, with operations active in Siem Reap and Oddar Meanchey provinces.

It achieves this through a range of programs, every one developed by the community, with a focus on education. Before a program is implemented, its potential is heavily researched through participatory rural appraisals. This is a process which relies on students, parents, teachers and community leaders to identify the source of the problem at hand, conduct an appraisal and determine a solution. The process is very thorough.

Once communities get behind education, there is a dramatic reduction in

drop-out rates

“We were researching our recent prison program for more than a year before it became a reality,” he says, but it is thanks to this fastidiousness that its programs meet success.
The prison program, This Life Beyond Bars, promotes and defends the educational rights of children affected by the legal justice system in Siem Reap and Oddar Meanchey. In Cambodia, children aged 14-18 are tried in the adult criminal justice system, and detained and imprisoned in adult prisons. About 90 children are incarcerated in Siem Reap. Furthermore, the 1,350 adults imprisoned there leave an untold number of children facing social stigma, financial instability and threats to their education in the absence of a care-giver.

“Once you take away the care-giver in the family, you take away 50 percent of support,” Gorter says.

The program bids to increase access to education for children in prison and to children whose parents are imprisoned, as well as increase knowledge of and access to children’s rights.

In order to achieve this, the program offers vocational training in motor mechanics and electronics repair to incarcerated minors, as well as incorporating personal development and strengthening of family and community ties to encourage positive change upon their release.

Additionally, family capacity building enables children with imprisoned parents to remain in school by assisting their care-givers to cope financially through sustainable development activities. This Life Beyond Bars comes under one of six areas that TLC is conducting: addressing school development and capacity building, providing student assistance and technical advice for community groups, orchestrating a solar energy integration scheme and a construction program for rural communities.

All this is made possible through the funding TLC receives in the form of government grants and donations from international foundations and individual donors.

“A lot of individual donors form the backbone of our organisation. Without these donors we couldn’t function,” says Gorter. TLC recently received a grant from the Australian government for the This Life Beyond Bars program.

The Lower Secondary School Development Program, one of TLC’s core projects, began as a means to create solutions for educational needs in economically disadvantaged and under-served communities.

Under the Khmer Rouge, the education system in Cambodia was destroyed. Only 30 percent of the adult population has completed some level of schooling, and of those who now begin schooling in any form, only 52 percent complete basic education.

To combat this, TLC provides scholarships to lower and upper secondary students in rural communities who have either dropped out or would not have continued to the next grade due to the associated expenses. In this way, it supports and reintegrates students back into the public education system by alleviating the financial burden associated with schooling.

“Once communities get behind education, there is a dramatic reduction in drop-out rates,” Gorter says.

TLC also has a strict set of criteria, guidelines, monitoring and support programs to ensure scholarships are being used effectively and students are supported throughout their schooling. It has a policy that a minimum of 50 percent of the students must be female to bridge the gender inequality gap in education.

“If the community is invested in education, enrolment numbers will rise accordingly,” Gorter says.

He says the program follows state educational policies, which work in theory. The problem, however, is that the practice of such policies disappears by the time they reach ground level because there simply is not enough support. Similarly, while the government has a life-skills program built into the curriculum, in reality, at grassroots level, not every school participates, purely because teachers are not trained in these skills. Smaller schools do not have the budget to accommodate the class, and therefore choose to focus on core subjects instead. To bridge this gap, communities must work towards a higher standard of education, and administrations must focus their efforts on improving the lower strata of the educational system.

“That’s the ultimate goal of all NGOs, that the government will be able to take over the service offered by the NGO,” Gorter says. “NGOs should be working themselves out of the job.”

“Every NGO should work towards sustainability with a clear exit strategy where communities and government take over their own responsibility… governments need to be accountable for their people.”

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