Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Sustainable development the real challenge for NGOs

Sustainable development the real challenge for NGOs

Sustainable development the real challenge for NGOs


In remote northeastern Cambodia, NGOs can provide a critical link to needed development

services. Stephen O'Connell visited Kratie and Stung Treng, and observed Partners

for Development and their approach to community involvement.

PFD team heading to work on the Mekong, an important transport link for the project.


here are a variety of ways to judge the success of a development program, but for

many rural villagers it is the number of their children who remain alive and healthy

that is the best measure.

Say Thong Hai is a 33-year-old farmer and father of five in Ban Bong village. Located

on the Sekong River in remote Steung Treng Province, Ban Bong had never been visited

by an NGO or government development agency prior to 1997.

Until then, four or five children died every year in this small village of only 35

families. All the villagers were plagued by gastrointestinal diseases and fevers.

"We felt forgotten. We didn't know how to contact the government for help,"

said Thong Hai.

Then in 1997 a field team from the American-based NGO Partners For Development visited

Ban Bong.

"We were surprised that there were people like PFD who wanted to help. Since

they came no more children have died.

"Before PFD came we felt like we lived in a pond, but now we have a better understanding

of the outside world and know how to contact the provincial government for help.

"My children's life will be better than mine," Thong Hai said with confidence.

The transformation of Ban Bong didn't happen overnight. It is still an ongoing process

combining village organization, education, and perhaps most importantly, a partnership

between PFD and the people of Ban Bong.

Partners For Development, with core funding from USAID, began work in northeast Cambodia

in 1992 when they established a development program in Kratie Province. Two years

later they opened another office further up the Mekong, in Steung Treng.

The provinces of northeast Cambodia have some of the grimmest health and economic

statistics in Asia. Per capita GNP is less than $200 a year. Many villagers carry

crushing debts when bad harvests force them to borrow rice - at an interest rate

that reaches as high as 300 per cent.

Disease and poor nutrition are rampant. WHO estimates that under five mortality is

in excess of 200 per 1,000 live births. Forty per cent of those deaths are linked

to water-born diseases.

PFD's primary mission is to bring clean water, as well as sanitation and community

health education, to as many villages as they can physically reach. Since 1992 they've

brought safe water to more than 120,000 villagers.

They have also distributed more than 90,000 mosquito nets, constructed 115 classrooms,

and established 15 community rice banks. PFD is a relatively small NGO, but the intensity

and effectiveness of their efforts have earned them great respect.

A member of another NGO operating in Kratie said, "PFD are considered heroes

by the villagers here."

PFD's provincial coordinator for Kratie, Richard Schroeder, said the first step before

field work is the establishment of Village Development Committees and the use of

Participatory Rural Appraisals in every village where they plan to operate.

"PFD was among the first to use these organizational tools in Cambodia,"

said Schroeder.

Community health officer for Kratie, Carla Melvin, said: "It sounds simplistic,

but one of the things that PFD does that stands out is our insistence to do community

organization. It is a requirement of every intervention we have in a community.

"The Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) is a three to five day visit. During

the PRA we conduct a number of exercises within the community dealing with things

like mapping out the village and getting the history of their village from their

perspective. The activities culminate in the community listing what they consider

to be their priority issues.

Melvin said they almost always find securing an adequate supply of water is high

on the list of village priorities. What development activities PFD conduct are based

on the list compiled during the PRA.

"A lot of NGOs are using the PRA technique now, using our manuals. The more

NGOs learn about a community, the better they are able to serve them," she said.

But organizing and providing PFD with a wish-list of projects is not all the villagers

are expected to do. Key to the success of PFD projects is the participation and contributions

the communities make towards the projects.

Schroeder said, "We require community participation. They are more than willing

to provide it because it is their village and they definitely have a vested interest.

We want their ideas, we want their information and feedback.

"We also require a community contribution. For well projects it would be sand,

gravel, rocks and labor, as well as time. We ask that they do this in order for them

to be owners of whatever it is we do"

Melvin acknowledged that the time and effort the villagers are asked to give is a

burden for them. "It is not easy for people to give up three to five days of

their week. In these communities life is lived from day to day.

"But for the sustainability of the program, and for them to have ownership in

the project, it is required. If they do not want to do it, we can go to another village

where people are interested."

Half the battle in doing development work in northeast Cambodia is simply getting

to the villages. About 80 per cent of the 260,000 people in Kratie Province live

along the Mekong. But PFD is determined to reach the villagers living deeper in the

forest, off the river and roads.

"You really have to want to do development in those areas, I mean you really

have to want to work in these communities, because that is the only way you're going

to get there," said Schroeder, shaking his head in dismay at the memory of rough

journeys into the forest.

Security is always a great concern, but the reputation that PFD has established in

the villages affords them some protection. "When the KR [in the past] and bandits

are in the way, they let us pass through," said Schroeder.

PFD goes out to those remote communities because the needs of those villagers are

so dire.

Melvin described the situation in one village before PFD's intervention. "In

Krasang they had two hand-dug well sites that were simply small puddles of muddy

water during the dry season.

"The village organized itself for 24-hour access [to the water]. Families had

to be there at 10:00 pm, 12:00 am, 2:00 am, and so on, in order to scoop one small

pail of water. The puddles would take two hours to recharge.

"They had a rule in the village of no baths. This water was much too precious.

People had to use a cloth to wipe away each day's dirt and sweat.

"And then PFD came in and put in two to three pumps. Imagine how life changed,"

she said.

The PFD programs owe much of their success to the freedom their field staff has to

experiment and to innovate. Schroeder said it is important for PFD to be continually

revising their program, to change things if they don't seem to be working, or if

something better comes along.

Some of their latest innovations have come from the PFD staff in Steung Treng.

In December 1998 they began to experiment with water filtration systems for home

use. PFD's program coordinator in Steung Treng, David Wright, said, "It has

taken us a while, but we now have a system that is very effective in taking the chloriforms

[disease causing agents] from water that causes diarrhea.

"Sand filters have been around for a long, long time, but what we've tried to

do here is to make something that was small enough where they could be used by individual

families and that was easy enough to use so that it would be no more difficult than

going to the river, or pump and bringing the water home.

"We want to make it so that it did not add extra work. And we wanted it to be

simple enough to make with materials available in the village, and at a cost they

could afford."

Now, in places where giving villagers convenient access to pumps is difficult, or

impossible, the filters - each costing only $6 in materials - can provide individual

families with safe drinking water.

In the past, about 75 per cent of the wells PFD drilled produced an adequate flow

of 1,000 liters per hour. Steung Treng's program officer, Simon Thorpe, has been

busy developing drilling methods which dramatically improve the odds - and if adopted

by other development programs, could save donors millions of dollars.

"Drilling a well is one thing, but you have to 'caress' it, as we say, to get

more water out of it," said Thorpe.

"You will find from many programs drilling wells in Cambodia that one or two

years after the wells were drilled, they wont pump anymore. People blamed this on

the hand pumps, but really it is the well that is the problem.

"It wasn't drilled properly and it wasn't developed. That leads to sand and

rock coming into the well and any pump will breakdown.

"It is important to do 'well development,' that is to clean the well and allow

as much water as possible into it."

After the pipe has been sunk, PFD teams place in it a tight-fitting plug of wood

which is plunged rapidly up and down. It pulls the water up, then forces it back

into cracks in the earth around the well.

This action cleans out the cracks and if the earth is unstable, or if there isn't

a good seal around the pipe, the well will break.

"Better to break it at this stage, before you get the pump attached, because

it will break later," said Thorpe.

"Out of the last 19 wells, seven would have been unsuccessful without 'well

development,' and only one remained unusable."

"Wells are very expensive [up to $3,000 per well] and if you improve the success

ratio by about 30 per cent, then the donors would be saved millions of dollars,"

Wright added.

PFD encourages other well-drilling programs in Cambodia to come and watch the PFD

teams use 'well development' in the field.

But all the innovations and hard work will come to nothing if there is not good communication

and cooperation between the villagers, provincial governments and the development


"We are listening before we are telling. A big downfall of a lot of programs

is that they go in with an idea of what the problems are and how they are going to

be solved. But these projects wont work unless the people of the village want them,

and they understand the problems and what can be done to fix them," said Thorpe.

Wright agreed, saying, "The more NGOs respond to the community's needs and less

to their own agenda, the more success their programs will have."

All the PFD expatriate staff acknowledge that at the end of the day it is the quality

of their Cambodian staff which will be the critical factor in the long-term success

of their development work.

"They love their work, they live for their work. And it is nice to know that

their skills will remain here after the program leaves Cambodia," said Thorpe.


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