Cambodia has no shortage of NGOs happy to take time and money from well-meaning foreigners, but, for the donors, choosing a worthwhile organisation to support can appear to present a challenge.
Two journalists and a teacher have published a book that highlights the work of dozens of Cambodia-based NGOs whose work is less well-known abroad.
Titled Unsung Heroes Cambodia, the book launched last night at Monument Books in Phnom Penh. The store was packed with NGO workers nibbling hors d’oeuvres and sipping red wine, with dozens of copies of the book passed around.
The title was created to pay tribute to positive grassroots development in the Kingdom, said co-author Lee Anderson, a retired journalist who has worked in Samoa.
She worked on the project – a mixture of profiles and analysis – with friend Kerryan Griffin and American journalist Shawna Hartley over a three-year period including multiple visits to Cambodia.
“We feel that quite often there are people working away in the background, and they quite often get overlooked,” said Anderson. “Yet they make extraordinary differences in the lives of Cambodians just by going about their jobs.”
Among the 40 NGOs featured are Friends International, Wildlife Alliance and Cambodia Living Arts as well as some lesser-known names and the unusual stories of employees.
When choosing which would feature, the most important requirement was transparency, said Griffin, who works as a special needs educator for adults in Sydney. “An NGO must be transparent at all times, and annual general reports must be available.” The organisations included tended to be small, with high levels of community input, she added.
“There are NGOs that have started in a community where there’s been a need, and they have grown up around that need with local input,” said Griffin.
“They’re not coming into the country, staying here for six months, starting a project, and leaving after doing what they think needs to be done but not what the Cambodian people think needs to be done.”
Furthermore, the authors said, they tend not have large overhead costs.
“They’re not paying for expensive cars and great big houses. They’re out there working quietly away,” said Anderson, who said the organisations she studied stand in contrast to large international NGOs like World Vision and Save the Children.
“They’re a really big business these days, even though they do good work,” said Anderson, who praised the big players for raising public awareness about the issues facing developing countries.
“Those sorts of organisations are doing quite a different job.”
Alan Cordory – whose Siem Reap-based NGO Grace House, which provides schooling and vocational training to poor families in three villages, was featured in Unsung Heroes – said his organisation was a good example of an NGO with a firm commitment to the grassroots.
“It’s run by a board of governors, and we work with the poor in the villages and the village elders providing education, health care and housing to the community,” said Cordory.
In addition to paying tribute to quality NGOs in the Kingdom, Anderson said she hopes the book can serve as a resource for wannabe volunteers.
“A lot of people come here and think, ‘I want to change things, I want to do something that’s good,’ and they give money to people in the streets, and there’s child exploitation because of that,” said Anderson.
“What we’re saying is that if you’ve got a talent, OK, but research your placement carefully. Be sure what your job is going to be and that you bring something to that volunteer position. If you don’t, you’re better off making a donation.”
Unsung Heroes is available at Monument Books.