Longtime participant Bill Herod tells Stuart Alan Becker how Cambodia NGOs evolved
A retired Christian minister who came to Cambodia in 1980 just as the country was first opening to NGOs says Hun Sen and his government, whatever mistakes they’ve made, have done an admirable job of fostering the Kingdom’s development.
American Bill Herod, 65, first came to Cambodia with Church World Service from the Washington office and helped get things rolling – when the population was desperate for just about everything.
“We’d all been trying to get in during the Khmer Rouge time,” Herod said. “We put letters under the door of the embassy in Beijing, but there was no response.”
Earlier, starting in 1966, Herod had worked in Vietnam during the American War, supporting development projects but he always opposed the war for humanitarian reasons.
From Washington, he paid attention to what was happening in Cambodia.
“After the Khmer Rouge got thrown out we went to the Cambodian Embassy in Hanoi and said we’d like to come in and help the Cambodians rebuild,” Herod said. “So, they agreed to allow various groups to send representatives in to have a look around.
“The first impression was that everybody in Cambodia needed everything. I was based in Washington at this time and I was getting the reports sent back to me. The situation was catastrophic. Mass starvation was just ahead, people had eaten their seed rice. There was no medicine, no food, no transportation and no communications.
“So, for example, the first shipment of food we were able to get into the country we sent in by air and when the aircraft landed there was no equipment to offload the stuff. No conveyor belts, no fork lifts, so it all had to be done by hand.”
The same thing happened when ships full of necessary food were sent into Sihanoukville. People had had to carry sacks of rice down from the boat.
“There were no trucks to move the supplies from the port or the airport so we had to send in trucks and nobody knew how to drive them or repair them,” he said.
“So we had to send in drivers and mechanics. The bridges were destroyed so we had to send the trucks half full because they had to go across makeshift bridges. Local communications were military. When I came in November 1980, we couldn’t travel without military escorts outside of Phnom Penh.”
As an NGO worker, Herod has seen Cambodia evolve. “I’m amazed at how dramatic the development has been since 1980,” he said.
“We’ve seen what Cambodian people have done – and it is very impressive. You have a lot of capacity, skill, talent, determination – and for all its faults – you have a stable, functioning leadership.
“I’ve watched Hun Sen and his inner circle evolve over the last 30 years and I’m very very impressed – people like Sok An, Cham Prasidh, Hor Namhong, Khieu Khanharith, Kong Som Ol, Long Visalo, Uch Kiman, Dr My Samady and So Khun among many others.
“They have provided competent leadership through very difficult times.
“I have great confidence in the ability of these guys to provide leadership in the future – and I see no alternative.
“During my first visits here in the 1980s, it was common for experienced development workers to predict the complete collapse of Cambodia by the end of the century. The damage and destruction of the Khmer Rouge period had just been too great, recovery was said to be impossible. But Cambodian leaders did not agree and through their heroic efforts forged the way forward. All development work accomplished since 1979 is built on the foundation they established and maintain.”
Herod met Minister of Finance Keat Chon in 1996 at a social function.
“When he learned I was trying to get the internet established in Cambodia he said he had used the internet in France and understood how important it would be for Cambodia,” Herod said. “He said if I ever needed help in dealing with any bureaucratic difficulties I should give him a call. We did indeed run into some problems which seemed insurmountable and Keat Chon helped as promised.”
Herod served as consultant to CamNet, Cambodia’s first Internet Service Provider (a cooperative venture between IDRC and the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications) and as information technology teacher and adviser at Lidee Khmer’s Public Internet Center - Cambodia’s first internet café.
Herod first arrived in Southeast Asia in 1966 – working in Vietnam on a community development project.
“The first thing we did was go out and look at the situation and there were refugees who didn’t have adequate food, shelter, water or medicine,”” he said. “We started making lists of things people needed so we could formulate a program. We decided to ask them what they needed. We did seven interviews. The priority thing they needed was white cloth.
“I said ‘why do you need white cloth’? They said ‘so we can bury our dead with dignity’.
“We made white cloth a priority.”
The NGOs that came into Cambodia all through the 80s, Herod said, saw that everybody needed everything.
“Where you start is by asking people what they need most, immediately,” he said. “Now, years later, we have hundreds of NGOs, and this is where you get into donor-diven development. ”What you have now is primarily donor-driven development not client-driven development, so they are not asking people what they want any more.”
Donors specify things like “I want to give money to indigenous females who are land mine victims and have HIV”.
The NGOs, Herod says, are made up of administrators, accountants and field people.
“The field staff know what people need and what the problems are. The administrators are dealing with the donors, who are saying ‘we will give you this money if you do this work’. “So the administrators are saying to the people in the field, this is how we want you to spend this money, because the donors insist. And the field people say, ‘we have other priorities, we should be spending in a different way’.
That’s the enigma that NGOs face. You’ve got field staff who say we need this priority. The donors say we want it spent this way. And the administrators are in the middle.”
Herod says that over his 20 years with Church World Service and other NGOs he’s played all three roles “and I’m terrible at the middle role”. “Administrators need to understand that their role is to support field staff, not to impose the donors will at the field staff,” he said. “In the NGO community in Cambodia, that’s the crux of it. You’ve got administrators giving into the demands of the donors.”
Herod thinks the NGOs should look seriously at the new proposed NGO law and work hard with the government to come up best legislation possible.
“I think the NGOs need to clean up their act, and they should embrace the new law,” he said. “The government has a right to know where the money comes from and what their goals are.
“The western restaurants all have expensive NGO cars parked outside of them. How does that help people? Cambodia survived the Khmer Rouge abyss because of the leadership of the current government, not because of the NGOs.
“The government has also managed the economy and the development, and of course they have made terrible mistakes, haven’t we all, also they defeated the Khmer Rouge – when the UN and international community gave the Khmer Rouge support and legitimacy.
“This government under Hun Sen defeated the Khmer Rouge and then in negotiations for the trials of Khmer Rouge leaders this government out-manoeuvred, out-negotiated the UN in terms of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.
“The survivors of the Khmer Rouge survived by lying, cheating and stealing. If they didn’t, they were killed. They learned those survival skills.”
Herod prevented a suicide by intervening as a man tried to drink drain cleaner and lost sight in one eye as the chemicals splashed and burned off his cornea.
That’s the kind of life Herod lives, working with the most difficult cases of Cambodians with severe problems on a humanitarian basis – such as those who had lived in the United States, got into trouble with the law and were deported back to Cambodia.
“The problems they face are a result of their experience in the US,” Herod said.
The Church World Service is a relief and development agency of the National Council of Churches.
Herod’s adopted Afro-Amerasian daughter, Coretta, 40, is a graphic artist in Atlanta.
His daughter Kyla, 35, is a social worker in Baltimore.
These days Herod spends his time working with the Bunong people in Mondulkiri, where he takes care of his adopted long-tailed macaque Memong and makes regular trips to Phnom Penh.