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A Discussion with Helen Sworn, Founder and Director, Chab Dai Network

With: Helen Sworn

August 21, 2009

Background: Helen Sworn is director and founder of the Chab Dai Coalition in Cambodia and has been working in the field of counter-trafficking and abuse since 1999. Her training was in business administration and communication before entering the corporate sector, where she worked in various management positions for eight years before attending Bible college to study theology, anthropology, and basic counseling. When she arrived in Cambodia over 10 years ago, she first assisted with the development of an aftercare and reintegration program for trafficked children and also worked among the street children of Phnom Penh. She then helped to develop an organizational development and capacity building tool; has written proposals and research on trafficking and child labour issues; and has served in organizational development and field project support roles. She is responsible for the overall focus and planning for Chab Dai; facilitation and communication between coalition members, external organizations, UN agencies, and government ministries; developing strategy and activities for future years such as advocacy, research, and capacity building opportunities; regional and global partnerships and strategies, including providing support to those carrying out planned working group activities; and monitoring and evaluating the successes of Chab Dai along with her great team. In this interview, she explains how Chab Dai works, sharing how she is able to incorporate faith into her work in Cambodia.
You founded what seems to be one of the most effective and innovative networks of nongovernmental organizations, in Cambodia and well beyond. Can you tell us about Chab Dai?

Chab Dai means “joining hands,” and it is a network for Christian stakeholders. Chab Dai’s aim is to help end sexual abuse and trafficking in Cambodia and the Mekong region, working both on prevention and on the effects of trafficking (for example shelters). It has 44 member organizations as of today. We are a resource for all who are working in this area, and our library, with over 2,000 items, is open to all.

We operate as a network whose aim is to help all members to operate more strategically and thus more effectively. The core nature of our work is strategy: we sit together around a table and push each other to look at issues and opportunities. We look at what we are doing, individually and collectively, at the issues that are arising, and changes that are taking place. We are proactive, trying to anticipate problems and to find solutions.

One of the greatest gaps is in safety nets, so Chab Dai does some planning around that theme. And the place where work is most needed is in the communities; Chab Dai does some research along these lines. Chab Dai works to support capacity building for our member organizations, for example through many workshops and training sessions on project cycle management.

Much of Chab Dai’s work supports the whole network, but it is tailored to and responds to what is needed. For example, there are various individual networks within the larger group, and these have a special focus. For example, groups that work with shelters form a network.

In many ways, the kind of mapping that WFDD and the Berkley Center do (taking stock of organizations, trends, and issues) is just what we do.

What is the broad picture you see in Cambodia and the region?

The setting for the issues that concern us is the large changes taking place in the region - the GMS, Greater Mekong Sub-Region. There are nine economic corridors being developed, many of them new, and naturally that potentially can result in an increase in trafficking. The donors, the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and others, are looking at many development schemes, and many of them will come into being soon (2012).

Do you get involved in evaluation and assessment?

Absolutely. Peer review is the essence of what we do, and our goal is to raise the standard of care. Tomorrow, for example, the topic of a session here is reintegration. There are 10 groups that work in that specific area. The purpose of the network is to allow all of us together, and each group within it, to see the bigger picture. That applies for Christians and for our partners, which includes government departments, UN agencies, donors, and secular organizations.

The approach to assessment is largely in the context of global standards and national standards. We assess whether work conforms to child protection protocols. Five years ago few if any members had any real awareness of them, but now it is around 95 percent.

Many Christian organizations have quality programs. We look at best practice in the relevant areas, for example in the Philippines (there seem to be excellent programs there) and Europe.

Do you look at cost effectiveness or areas of evaluation such as quality of management?

No, that is not our focus. We do look at how a program contributes to the broader objective, but in a pragmatic sense. For example, we ask when a new player comes into the picture, does their proposal make sense? Does it fill a gap or does it contribute to duplication? And we would try to encourage or nudge the idea and organization into directions where we see needs and gaps. We also assist our members with capacity building in the area of project cycle management.

How did you get started?

I saw the need during my early work here, a crying need, and I also saw that many organizations were working in isolation, though on the same or related problems. We did preparatory research in 2004 and then began operations in 2005. This happened at the same time as a surge in media interest in trafficking. NBC did a special documentary that aroused a lot of interest.

At the time there was very little to guide well-intentioned people or groups who came wanting to help. Some funds were misused. Thus Chab Dai was created with the idea of bringing knowledge and coordination to bear. We encouraged organizations to fill gaps. Today, there are some donors that will tell an organization they have to join Chab Dai. It’s a network around accountability for standards and results.

Today there is an extraordinary focus on trafficking issues, and it is of course part of many foreign agendas. One of our important challenges is donor education, which is a long process. The risk is that programs will be donor driven. We have amazing donors, though.

How far does Chab Dai do research?

Our research capacity is just being developed. We have researched issues regarding the ethnic Vietnamese, and around vulnerable communities concentrated in the northeast of Cambodia. Dr. Glenn Miles who worked with me at the beginning of Chab Dai has just moved back here, three weeks ago. He is very knowledgeable, has testified on [Capitol] Hill on these issues, and will oversee this work. There are some huge gaps in knowledge, especially around prevention, and around demand. We are also currently planning to do carry out a study with a 10-year horizon to establish the challenges and best practices of reintegration of women and girls who have been in a shelter program following their abuse.

How do you see religion and Christianity as part of your work?

Our workshops bring together Christian pastors, Buddhist monks, school teachers, village chiefs, and government social workers. The workshops do talk about the spiritual dimensions of people’s lives and needs. This is not, however, evangelism; it is about caring for the vulnerable. I realize that this would not be very [politically correct] in Europe or America, but there are different approaches in Asia, and it is natural and often necessary to bring in the spiritual side of life.

Perhaps our common denominator as Christians is our belief about justice for the oppressed, which is often what motivate us and our partners to do what we are doing especially when things get tough.

Most important, we work with the community to try to bring about solutions. And we work within the legal framework. Our intervention department follows up cases, and there is a 24/7 number that people can call. There are many teachers (including monks) who are doing a great job.

How often do you work with Buddhist organizations?

Although we work with people of all faiths or none, Chab Dai is a network of Christian organizations. We are not currently aware of any specifically Buddhist organizations focusing on this issue. One of the other local networks may include some Buddhist groups, but the majority of their activity is at community level only.

How do you deal with the tension around cooperating with the authorities and confronting any shortcomings you see?

Our approach is one of respectful advocacy. I have been here for 10 years, and I want to continue to help. We don’t want to be closed down. We have good relationships with the government.

Are you optimistic?

Yes, in general I am optimistic that progress is being made and that we can contribute. There are excellent opportunities for partnership. There are, of course, always roadblocks.

We work with many other agencies—also the UN, especially the International Office of Migration (IOM). We also work with UNIAP and UNICEF, and collaborate on a UNDP project which is doing a mapping exercise of all the agencies involved in trafficking.

In our experience it tends to be Westerners rather than Asians who are initially suspicious or skeptical about our work as Christians, but our doors are always open and we are open to scrutiny. We want to encourage people to see and read what we are doing and decide for themselves, rather than base their prejudice on hearsay and gossip.

You distinguish members and partners. What is your partnership approach?

Partners are across all sectors. We count 30 partnerships. That is an important part of our work, joining forces with all who can contribute as long as we have a common goal of ending sexual abuse and trafficking with one another.

Chab Dai has been elected (by other NGOs) to serve on one of the high-level working groups. There are three international NGOs, and we are one. The other two are World Vision and ChildFund.

Do you consider trafficking a development issue?

Absolutely. Every sector and issue is relevant for trafficking. For many, it has been delineated as an island, more relevant for human rights than for development programs. But the rapid rate of unchecked development increases trafficking in many ways, and it undermines and shapes it. So isolating...it is very damaging. The issues are all cross-cutting.

Some of the major donors that exercise great influence, like the World Bank and the ADB, may not see trafficking as a development issue. But if they do not recognize the problem, and if they do not see how programs, like transport corridors, accelerate trafficking, and therefore take steps to address it, we will see trafficking in this region on a scale that we have never seen before. Roads, communications, HIV/AIDS, education, forced migration and settlement, all are directly related to trafficking.

Is there much interfaith work in this area?

Not much. Some of the mainstream Christian organizations engaged in this area tend to feel threatened by interfaith work. They fear that it will undermine the integrity of their faith, water it down or compromise it. This is especially true for some of the smaller organizations that are financed directly by U.S. or other overseas churches. In the United Kingdom, Rowan Williams has come in for considerable criticism for his interfaith work.

While we are not overtly evangelical, we remain open to different Christian denominations, so we are not specific about what particular doctrine we adhere to. We are simply concerned with bringing God’s justice to the oppressed. We respect the fact that this is a Buddhist country. Our purpose is to keep children safe. We will do whatever it takes to keep a child safe. That kind of approach is not true for all that are here, some whose approach is more exclusive. But our ethos is to focus on child safety and to work with those who share our objective.

For myself, my faith is central to all I do and what motivates me to seek justice in a holistic manner without being confined to one theological viewpoint.

Have you seen any changes in approach since the Obama administration took office, either in the churches or the U.S. government?

Not yet from my perspective in Asia, but I my hope is that mutual trust and respect will be built to bring greater understanding and cooperation for both.

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