“From the beginning of my time as secretary-general, I have sought to advance a practical, action-oriented vision of the UN as the voice of the voiceless and the defender of the defenceless.” – Ban Ki-moon Today, two years of work will culminate in a 20 minute speech.
The United Nations Development Programme has invited me present to the Cambodian government and other UN agencies on the need to develop speech therapy as a profession in Cambodia.
This is a key moment that marks the opportunity for decision makers to take up this pressing challenge.
Three years ago, I started working with a local organisation, CABDICO, that sends community workers out to the poor villages in rural Cambodia to visit children with disabilities.
These people often spend hours riding motorbikes on dusty roads, through villages where there are no hospitals or health centres, to see children with all kinds of disabilities.
The vast majority of these children do not go to school, often because the teachers are not well equipped to take them, or because the child does not have the specialised care that is needed.
CABDICO staff have provided wheelchairs, helped children to walk and attend school for the first time.
I worked alongside one such outreach worker, Phearom.
Despite not finishing high school, Phearom has spent a decade working with children with disabilities and her understanding of disability, of what a child really needs, is beautiful to see in action.
Phearom told me that 70 per cent of the children she has worked with needed speech therapy, and yet, she did not have the skills to provide it.
After months of research, I realised that Phearom was not alone. In fact, even though one in 25 people needed it, the country did not have a single university-trained Cambodian speech therapist.
Why? How was it possible that approximately 600,000 people had been left behind?
How was it possible in a country that receives half a billion dollars in aid money every year, that has more than 3,500 NGOs working here, such a large population were unaccounted for?
The problem is that the top-down way we help poor people in countries like Cambodia creates gaps. Not all causes are created equal.
By comparing the cost of treatment with the productivity that these people could bring to the workforce, countries like Cambodia lose approximately 3 per cent of their gross national product yearly through not providing speech therapy.
In Cambodia, this accounts for $400 million in lost income every year.
And yet, these issues go largely unrecognised because of the way we deal with problems in the world.
At conferences in New York, and global summits in Geneva, the agenda for countries like Cambodia is determined.
Often this agenda is not in line with the reality on the ground.
Two years ago, when I recognised that 600,000 people were lacking access to speech therapy, I not only felt compelled to act, I realised that I simply could not afford not to act.
With the help of the Australian government and CABDICO staff, plus a small group of technical volunteers, we started the first pilot project in speech therapy in Cambodia.
We wanted to show that speech therapy could work in Cambodia, and have decision makers take up the challenge of developing it.
With the support of countless individual donors, the Australian Red Cross and Speech Pathology Australia, and with a small team of dedicated professionals, the majority of whom are Australian volunteers, we created OIC: The Cambodia Project.
OIC is the first dedicated initiative to address the yawning gap in speech therapy services in Cambodia; no longer are 600,000 people being forgotten.
But the journey is only just beginning.
The opportunity to speak in front of the United Nations and Cambodian government is a key moment in this journey.
Armed with evidence from our pilot project on the efficacy of speech therapy in Cambodia, we will introduce speech therapy as a new concept in Cambodia.
One that requires local champions, agreements to create a university course in Cambodia, and awareness both in the government and the community.
July 13 represents a key moment in Cambodia’s development, where one of the most under-represented and vulnerable populations will finally gain recognition.
We want to give people like Phearom the opportunity to provide speech therapy, for the one in 25 Cambodians who need it, and we need the support of the United Nations and government partners to reach every one of them.
Weh Yeoh is the founder of OIC: The Cambodia Project.