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A Discussion with Agneta Dau Valler, Country Representative for Cambodia, Church World Service

With: Agneta Dau Valler Berkley Center Profile

July 30, 2010

Background:This discussion between Agneta Dau Valler, Katherine Marshall, Augustina Delaney, and Ethan Carroll took place on July 30, 2010 in Phnom Penh. The interview highlights the work and role of Church World Service, Cambodia, on a wide range of issues: capacity building of local partner organizations; village-level development in Cambodia's poorest regions; disaster risk reduction; and work to support peace and reconciliation. Ms. Dau Valler explains how CWS puts programs together and invests in monitoring and evaluation. Comparing programs in Vietnam, where most of her experience has centered, Ms. Dau Valler highlights the vital importance of education for Cambodia and the relatively light role of effective coordination. She also highlights growing difficulties in funding for CWS and other organizations in the wake of the global financial crisis.

CWS is a veteran in Cambodia, now celebrating over 30 years working here. Can you describe how CWS works in Cambodia? How did it get started and what is the approach and philosophy?

CWS Cambodia has several different component programs, which vary from those programs in Vietnam. Under our Partnership Program, our primary means and goal is to support local Cambodian NGOs, essentially in management and in helping them program their services. Our Direct Services program works with villages, both the leaders and the population, with the goal of raising the level of living conditions and addressing villagers’ needs. We are also involved in disaster reduction, which means that we get involved swiftly in emergency situations, like recent flooding here.

A focus on peace and reconciliation is streamlined through everything we do. We were one of the first international groups that began to work in Cambodia, right after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

Today, we are looking at conflict in the society and strands from the past, with both the Khmer Rouge and tensions in relationships with the Vietnamese and the Thais. The nature of conflicts is complex, even as it is very much present. The question is what we, from our vantage point, can do to help solve it. We address everything from peace in families to violence against women to conflict within and among communities.

CWS has a quite large and established office here, with some 50 staff; only one is an expatriate. We have several regional offices at the province level. The office here is substantially larger than the Vietnam office, which has only seven staff.

How does CWS work in terms of its regional organization? There is a “hub” office in Bangkok. Does it exercise oversight over Cambodia’s programs, and if so, how?

The Bangkok office has a broad responsibility for all CWS offices in the Asia region: Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. But each office is still very independent. There are no specialized staff or services from the Bangkok office. They do provide some help with fund-raising, but they are there to support, but not to supervise. And that is appropriate given the very different programs and circumstances in each country.

The CWS focus varies considerably by country. In Pakistan and Indonesia, the two largest programs, much of the work centers on emergencies (the earthquake in Pakistan and tsunami in Indonesia), while in Vietnam, education is a central focus. In Cambodia, capacity building and support to self-help groups have particular importance; we are also involved in mother-child nutrition, working with the World Food Program.

The Cambodia program has several funders, but the EED* in Germany, has particular importance. We have also received substantial support from CWS New Zealand and Action for Peace (Australia) as well as ICCO. A number of other largely European organizations support the work in various ways, including DanChurch Aid, and various U.S. organizations, including the Lutheran Church.

Does CWS have a special focus on gender or women?

Yes we do. We are trying to promote gender equity and encourage women to take part in programs and in leadership. We do gender training, and in particular, are trying to address the problem of gender violence, which is very widespread. We support white ribbon events, and work in many ways to raise awareness.

But it is important to remember that it works both ways: women here can also be very violent. I saw a woman recently, in a restaurant, who was screaming at someone, on and on, so much so that a pack of dogs was disturbed and began barking at her and chasing her. We are very much aware of trafficking, the more so as we are working near the border areas, and that may be a future component of our work. But it is a complicated question, down to the very definitions: what is the line between going to work somewhere and being deceived into accepting pitifully low salaries, and being trafficked? It can be hard to draw.

What is your working methodology in the area of peace and conflict resolution?

Workshops. We support a range of different kinds, working with village leaders. The underlying goal is building capacity.

CWS is obviously a faith-inspired group, a fact that is clear in the title “church.” How do you work with local churches and other religious bodies?

Our work is in Cambodia is not tied in any systematic or direct way to religious organizations or churches. We do make some efforts to promote ecumenical or interfaith engagement, but they are fairly limited at present.

The church link comes more directly in the way we relate to our funders and constituents. They are, for the most part, church linked, whether ecumenical or tied to a specific denomination. That colors to a degree the way we present issues and the criteria we might use in judging programs. But the core development focus is clear.

What is CWS’ approach to “spreading the Gospel” or evangelizing? And how do you see the proper boundaries from a personal standpoint?

CWS does not proselytize. That is quite clear in our policies and mandates. We do work with faith-based groups, regardless of their faith. They can be Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, or non-religious groups. There is a lot more awareness among our staff than there might be in other organizations as to the role of religion in the society. We are attuned and sensitive to it because of our ethos and background. We are also very much alive to the history, the destruction of religion here, and its gradual rebuilding. We are likely to be sensitive to problems and tensions around religion.

A number of faith-inspired groups work in Vietnam but their focus should, according to the rules, be entirely on development. The government sees the groups simply and purely as development organizations. The church link is, of course, open and known, but there is care in how it is handled. There are, however, a few faith-based groups working on faith and with interfaith groups on HIV/AIDS, and so far that is working well.

Here in Cambodia, with a much freer atmosphere, the situation can be somewhat more nuanced. There are sensitivities but not rules. There is a willingness to work with whoever is able to offer help.

I came to CWS not because of the church or faith links but because I was offered a job, a temporary one at first. I admit that at first I was a bit suspicious of that dimension. I was concerned about what I had heard and understood about proselytizing. I feel that we have no such right, no business to impose our beliefs on people. We can and should reflect our beliefs and values by example. The work we do for the poor is much more important than promoting our own faith, whatever that may be. Today, I feel quite proud to work for CWS. Its true and deep focus is on people at the grassroots level and on the poor. There is a lot of hands-on, creative work, and we can see results. That is not always true in the bigger organizations.

How does CWS measure those results? Your reports are dense and impressive! What are the main criteria and techniques that to your mind are meaningful?

We measure results in great detail and with great care, with both internal and external assessments, on a regular basis! Our recent semi-annual report is an example. The call to evaluation is both internal (using our own methodology) and linked to what our various donors require. But the cost is very high, in time, other resources, and attention. We have one person working full time on evaluation, and many others are brought into the process. It causes considerable stress. My view is that it is a bit over the top; we need to have a leaner, more focused effort.

One meaningful measure, I believe, are the “significant change stories” that we do. These focus on specific people whose lives have been changed by the work that we do. This, of course, is the “softer” part of the evaluation work. We also do quantitative, “harder” assessments and respond to the formats of each donor.

You talk of partnership, as an approach and a technique. What does that involve? How do you find organizations?

Ours truly is a partnership program, and it involves working with small Cambodian organizations. Many have no competency for finding funding or designing programs, and leaders’ education levels are low. They identify the gaps—for example, that a village has no teacher because no one wants to go there, and no books, especially in remote areas—but don’t know how to fill them. There are a host of such organizations either trying to work or waiting to be built.

Generally the organizations find us or we find them: it works both ways. We focus on certain areas where there is the worst poverty (right now we are present in Battambang, Kampong Thom and Preah Vihear). There is usually one leading person, who has an idea and some skills and connections. That is both a strength and a problem, because the small organizations tend to be so focused around one person, and if that person leaves, they fall apart. But we can help the organizations to apply best practices, and help them in their application for certification from the NGO forum.

Our roles in program development vary, but a major function we can and do play is to help in putting together funding proposals.

Do you work much with local churches and congregations?

Sometimes, when they are present in the area, but that is not the general rule. It also depends on the local leadership capacity of the church and their interest in addressing development needs. In short, it depends.

How do you deal with the pervasive pressures for corruption that are so widely discussed?

Our policy is zero tolerance. We never make payments. That comes to be known and understood, whether at the village or district level or in the center. Sometimes it means waiting for a long time, and sometimes we have had to close down activities where we have discovered problems. The problem is difficult everywhere, including in Vietnam, but with low capacity it is especially serious here.

How does CWS decide what programs to do and how?

Four years ago we went through a major strategic planning exercise, and we are now in the throes of another one. This one is in-house, and specific to Cambodia. We’re using no outside consultants, though obviously we are reaching out to partners and other actors. The effort has the classic elements of strategic planning: a review of external and internal factors, the roles of the government and donors, needs, etc. We are focusing on several sectors, but above all on the central question of how to reach the poorest Cambodians in the remotest areas, the truly poorest of the poor. The need there is great, in part because it is not financially efficient for groups to work there.

What has brought you to Cambodia and to CWS?

I have only recently started to work on Cambodia (since January) and am also quite new to Church World Service (three years). I am the country representative now for both Cambodia and Vietnam, spending about half my time in each place. I have worked in Vietnam for far longer, and there are important differences in the two programs.

You cite differences between working in Vietnam and here in Cambodia. What is their nature?

I have spent the past 22 years in Vietnam. I came there from Sweden, interested in cultures and these countries. I first worked within a Swedish aid project and later on with a British volunteer coordinating body (VSO). That experience suggested to me that there was a need for some coordination among all these well-intentioned efforts, and for some kind of structure. That led me to a more grounded organization.

In Vietnam, the work is purely and directly focused on development, for all actors, and there is a real alignment of the funders. The way different constituents work is quite well structured. In Cambodia, most groups are more free to do what they want.

There is far less coordination here in Cambodia, and it is more like a “Wild West” situation, a jungle, where everyone does pretty much what they like. It is hard to know where to go to discuss, much less to set priorities. In some respects, the situation is quite easy, because there are problems everywhere. But the problems are increasingly evident now, with the effects of the financial crisis so evident. Many are forced to cut sharply, most recently the Australians. And the priorities of donors change, and it is often difficult to discern why.

The agendas are also different. Here in Cambodia, peace and reconciliation are more central issues, and we try to promote interfaith work. We look at the conflict in general in society—not just healing after the Khmer Rouge, but current conflict with the Vietnamese and Thais, and even violence at the family level. But education is a critical issue for both countries. To my mind, that is the most important issue for Cambodia today.