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The myth of the heroic expat leader

Disability worker Phearom helps perform basic speech therapy. Hugo Sharp
Disability worker Phearom helps perform basic speech therapy. Hugo Sharp

The myth of the heroic expat leader

By Weh Yeoh, founder and departing managing director of OIC Cambodia, which aims to establish speech therapy in Cambodia for those with communication and swallowing disorders.

On a plane from China to Australia, I had a thought that made me ashamed. After studying physiotherapy and international development, I had finished working with some of the most impoverished people in China – those with disabilities.

I had landed my dream job, working with an organisation that helped children with disabilities. I had a driver, a translator and was referred to in meetings as “one of the finest physiotherapists in the world under the age of 30”.

The reality was I hadn’t practised for the better part of a decade.

As I was flying back home to Sydney, I wondered how I would explain what I had spent the last year of my life doing to others?

“I am an expat aid worker empowering kids with disabilities in the poorest parts of China.”

I imagined the reaction that I would get after saying this. The breathless pause and the ensuing words of admiration.

“You must find your work so fulfilling.”

“How do you go over and there and teach locals who don’t understand the basics of what we know?”

As I predicted these reactions, I started to feel nauseated (and no, this had nothing to do with the “meal” the airline had just served me). I realised, with a sense of shame, that I had fallen into the trap of believing in a myth: The myth of the heroic expat leader.

After China, I came to Cambodia to work with a local Cambodian organisation named Cabdico. With 14 staff, this organisation sent community workers to villages without health centres or hospitals.

They would ride motorbikes along dusty roads, for up to 70 kilometres a day, to help children with disabilities live more independent lives.

One of my colleagues, Phearom, had decades of experience working with children with disabilities in Cambodia. Though she hadn’t had the benefit of a university education like I had, her understanding of disability, especially in the Cambodian context, was far superior to mine.

That year, I worked with Phearom and Cabdico to improve boring but necessary things like human resources, referral systems and assessment forms.

Though I could add some value, I was certainly not the expert in their work. I had just arrived in Cambodia; my language skills were subpar. I wasn’t physically doing the heavy lifting – they were.

My previously held myth of the heroic expat leader was crumbling.

One year later, I realised that hundreds and thousands of Cambodian people were lacking access to a basic health service – speech therapy, and began establishing the team behind OIC Cambodia.

From one person, the team grew to 11 staff and over 50 volunteers. Without any institutional or government backing to get it started, we’ve had to create everything from scratch.

Without downplaying the support from people from outside Cambodia, I’ve been incredibly humbled working alongside our local Cambodian staff, board and volunteers.

And now, four years after starting OIC, I’m handing over leadership to a Cambodian woman, Chenda Net.

Local, and not foreign, leadership is vital for two reasons.

First, from a moral point of view – it’s far better for a Cambodian leader to lead a Cambodian solution to a local problem. In my home country of Australia, we couldn’t even accept a non-Australian person to coach the national cricket and rugby teams – and OIC’s work is much more meaningful than that.

Second, from a pragmatic view, as we move from building the foundations of the organisation to implementation, I’m increasingly unqualified to navigate the OIC ship. Despite living in Cambodia for five years and having a working knowledge of Khmer, I don’t understand the country at all. Only someone who has grown up here could have that kind of deep contextual knowledge.

OIC’s new leader not only has a wealth of experience in the NGO sector, but has studied internationally and is now able to bring that knowledge back to Cambodia for good. Like Phearom, Net is far more qualified to lead OIC.

Four years after starting OIC, it is clear to me that the myth of the heroic expat leader has well and truly crumbled.So, if there are people better qualified to lead OIC in country, what role can I play to support them?

In a month’s time, I’ll step onto the board of the organisation and support from afar. I’ll help give the local staff the resources necessary to do the job, in the way they see fit.

Dispelling the myth of the heroic expat leader has come with uncomfortable realisations. There’s no doubt that promotional images of myself interacting with children in Cambodia promote the organisation well overseas. They are effective fundraising tools, ones that we have definitely used – simply because they work.

But they are also highly inaccurate. Most of my time spent with OIC has been in our office, setting up structure and strategy, policies and procedures, and building the team from scratch. Photos of me behind a desk at my computer wouldn’t have the same effect.

The real heroes in Cambodia’s development, and those best suited to lead, are already here. And yet, the myth that the heroic expat leader is the architect of change pervades. If five years here have taught something, it’s that nothing could be further from the truth.

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