A Discussion With Patricia DeBoer, Regional Director, Asia for American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)
July 29, 2010
Background: This exchange reflects two separate discussions, the first in September 2009 with Augustina Delaney, and the second in July 2010 with Katherine Marshall and Ethan Carroll, both in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The context was primarily WFDD's review of development and religion in Cambodia, but the aim was also a broader exploration of issues of peacebuilding and women, peace, and development, and the evolution of the unique role of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). Ms. DeBoer describes both the history and the spirit of AFSC's Cambodia programs, current challenges and strategic directions, and how AFSC works to support emerging Cambodian organizations. AFSC’s work, she emphasizes, differs markedly from that of traditional human rights organizations. The latter come into conflict situations after crises as a response mechanism, but AFSC works over the long term to organize communities and strengthen them to build lasting peace. She reflects on how religion is part of both peace and development challenges for contemporary Cambodia. Buddhism is a central part of Cambodian life and should be leveraged as a tool for building and developing effective peacebuilding programs She also describes AFSC's approach and future direction in Asia, notably its focus on China.
The fields of peace and conflict and of development were quite distinct at one time, but boundaries seem to be blurring. How does AFSC approach the two issues?
Peacebuilding and development are one. That said, as a Quaker organization, AFSC is a peace organization, and that is the main purpose, what defines the organization. But our work has always been conceived on the understanding that peace leads to development and development to peace.
That was the genesis and origin, but for the past ten years, we had drifted somewhat from that core, and became less focused on peace and on the links between peace and other topics. We had become in many respects a development organization, though a tiny one at that. We had begun to lose the sense of why we were who we were, why we were here. So we have been engaged over the past five years in an effort to re-center, recover the core purpose, which is to be a catalyst, a bridge-builder, and to re-knit relationships. We have tried to move back to our roots as a peace organization.
As a peace organization, a basic principle of Quakerism is that of reaching out, not believing anyone is the enemy. It is grounded in a belief in the power of transformation. In hotter conflict areas, we look for ways in which we can work with military or armed actors. It is a challenge for ourselves: how do we reach out to the ones everyone views as the enemy?
How have you seen religion come into the picture?
You simply cannot avoid the role of religion in looking to any of these issues. It is so important as a central piece of the cultural and social context, and a necessary part of the development of our methodology. If projects cannot link at a religious/cultural level, then they will only be shallowly accepted for the short time that you put in your money, and then the efforts will be gone. It is in many respects a funder thing; many of those who support programs may feel that they are part of a living process, but in reality what they do is fragile and shallow.
Buddhism is a central feature of Cambodian life and it could be a powerful part of change. However, that depends on leadership and especially charismatic leadership. Many of the senior leaders have been co-opted by the political structure or have taken a very passive view of religion’s role in society. So today we do not really see the kind of catalyst who could bring change.
How have you seen these issues in practice and especially the part of religion in Cambodia?
The importance of religion was especially evident here in the late 1990s, before and after the 1997 coup. That was a time when people were deeply concerned that things could fall apart, after the hopes that had been raised in the 1991 Peace Agreement. People were on the edges of their seats. They did not really believe in peace, could not hope. Then there was the crisis of 1996, with fighting in the streets again in 1997.
After the coup, we began working with a group of our own staff, in the Koh Kong province. It had been a Khmer Rouge stronghold, and still was in 1996. No other organizations were working there when we started, and security was difficult. We began as an overall, integrated rural development project; the program still has that element, though the main focus and the main achievements have been in the areas of community forestry and community fisheries.
Our staff members who went there saw a very different Cambodia from the one they knew, and it was very scary to them. Our team came back with the comment that this was not the normal Cambodia. They found a very divided society there, with different stories of what was happening and what was wrong told by different groups. The area was called a village, but the different groups who lived there did not mix. And there was violence and bloodshed. One group was a small number of elderly people who had lived through it all and survived; others had resettled from other regions, and yet another group consisted of former Khmer Rouge soldiers. Huge numbers of migrants, from all over Cambodia, were arriving in the area, drawn by the logging that was booming in that region at the time. Anyone with a strong back could make money. It was truly the Wild West.
We began to work to find and build local capacities for non-violence, an approach inspired by Mary Anderson, and above all the idea to do no harm. The team worked to find the connectors and the dividers. One of the connectors that they were able to find, as they approached the challenge of rebuilding the village or community, was a common wish to rebuild or revive community traditions. These were traditions from that area, or what people remembered from their home village or even what they had heard about the way things were in the past. Religion clearly took an important place here.
One of these traditions was the community house, of sala bon, where ceremonies were held, where monks came and met with people in seven day ceremonies. People had clubs, like a pots and pans club (purchasing pots that people could use for weddings and celebrations) and funeral associations. Our staff team began to encourage and help in organizing something along these lines. We will and do not do the whole job for people. So we said that they had to put up the building, the foundation and pillars, and then we would help with the roof. Not everyone contributed, but many did. Then we began training sessions.
This training combined Buddhist teachings with “development 101.” It began with the question: “What is peace?” We focused on communication skills, using for example role play. It lasted for two and a half days. And then people were able to begin to talk about the community and about how it worked internally and externally. A topic was how to value people. Including the Buddhist perspective gave a sense of how this valuing of people was different among the groups. They discussed how to talk to people who were more powerful, in a good Buddhist way. The result was to weave advocacy, in the sense of advocating basic individual rights, with religion, and thus to allow the people to feel that they had some power. It worked because it was rooted in things they were familiar with: for example old stories, music, even radio programs from the 1960s that they remembered.
Thus our approach is to ground everything in the cultural and religious environment. That village and program is one of the best support works we have done and it is still visited by people from many places. The success lay in the ability to connect the cultural framework and community problem-solving. That made it possible to avoid some of the pitfalls that many community programs fall into, for example cooperatives that fall apart.
The program now takes the form of a Cambodian organization, Khmer Ahimsa, which is a spin-off or an evolution of the original approach. In 2003 the project's name was changed to Khmer Ahimsa and it was formally registered as a Cambodian NGO in January, 2003. The organization now works in livelihoods as well. That takes them into many development areas: fishing, forestry, land groups. There are many issues around a new road going into the area, bringing intensive pressures from business and speculators.
How does AFSC carry out its programs?
AFSC implements some programs directly, but our general approach is to work through partners. The Koh Kong province project that I described earlier was managed directly, and in fact represents two thirds of our budget, with 20 staff members. It has run for a little more than 10 years.
A different program is implemented through partners, and focuses on nationalism and identity. We launched it in coordination with a local Cambodian organization, the Alliance for Conflict Transformation (ACT). Looking at the issues that surfaced around the elections and the anti-Thai riots in 2003, we agreed with ACT to explore what we might do together. Slowly and carefully we developed a program that initially targeted Cambodian peace organizations. There is quite a strong network of organizations in Cambodia that in one way or another have said, “We are committed to peacebuilding.” There is also a very good training program called Working for Peace and Training for Peace, at the Cambodia Development Institute; ACT actually grew out of that training course and, through the course, has networks to other organizations.
The new program started out quietly, simply as workshops for people from these organizations that basically asked the question, “What should peace groups do about this phenomenon, whereby a rumor can spark such violent reactions?” Then we did some research, notably a nationwide survey on attitudes towards ethnicity. We asked about people’s attitudes towards people of other ethnicities and how they described the kind of country they wanted Cambodia to be. We tried to make the research forward-looking, for example asking: “How do you think different ethnic groups should get along?”
How do you work with other groups that focus on peace here, for example Initiatives of Change (IofC)?
Several groups, including AFSC and IofC, are focusing increasingly now on the ethnic tensions we see in Cambodia. These became evident after 2003 riots and the burning of the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh and are apparent in the harsh hatred of the Vietnamese. There are various puzzles and ironies here. It is striking that the current generation of IofC leaders, who are working with the Vietnamese, who of course are communists, have no awareness of the rather extreme anti-communist, right wing, evangelical strands in the earlier years of Moral Rearmament (now IofC). There is no awareness of the history.
Ethnic tensions and nationalism are very difficult topics to work on at present. The environment is very charged, with strong senses of grievance, on all sides. It is visceral, a hatred that has been fed from generation to generation. Young people are taught that this is their history: a history of loss, and shame, that it is because of their neighbors, who have stolen what is rightfully theirs. These young people often cannot explain why they hate, and are quite unaware of the painful history of the communist era that all countries in the region experienced together.
IofC came into this environment in 2004 and organized a conference in Siem Reap, with the aim of bringing together Cambodians and Vietnamese. The conference was not easy; I gather there were times when people almost came to blows. Cambodians felt insulted by the Vietnamese and when there was laughter it was like rubbing salt into wounds. People separated into different houses. But an elderly woman helped calm the situation, by stating publicly that a lot of what was said (about the sufferings of the Vietnamese, for example) was true. She apologized for the part of her people. It was a transformational moment.
For the next meeting in Cambodia, we provided some support, and it involved some of the same people. But the reconciliation effort was premature. There were some 200 angry Cambodians, and perhaps 35 rather clueless Vietnamese. It was a deeply emotional event, very raw.
A core group stuck to it, however, and tried again, next taking a group to Vietnam. In short, the Cambodia Vietnam dialogues continue, albeit with difficulty. I am particularly impressed by the young Cambodians who are willing to engage in this process even though they are well aware of the depth of hatred they encounter and the skepticism that will greet their efforts in their communities. They have decided to do it even though they know they may lose friends. Their conviction that personal change makes them completely different allows them to do things that are different.
Son Soubert has an excellent sense of the history here, including the strand of IofC that today (with Sam Rainsy) is involved internationally, for example at Caux [IofC’s meeting place in Switzerland]. I personally find the roles of some of the politicians in IofC rather puzzling, since in their speeches opposition politicians often capitalize on prejudice and hatred against the Vietnamese.
We work then with IofC on the Cambodia-Vietnam and Cambodia-Thailand youth exchanges and have supported them in that process. Khmer Community Development works with Khmer communities on the border. We have also done some smaller scale work with Youth for Peace and YRDP.
What is the nature of the partnerships?
We provide training and mentoring, depending on where the partner is. Some groups are very new, so some of the mentoring we have been doing is organizational. The groups doing the Cambodia-Vietnam friendship dialogues seemed to have a crisis about once a year. One or both of the partners would say they had had enough and then they would come talk to us. Together with them, last year we did an assessment of the work. It was an assessment of ourselves, but we couldn’t assess ourselves if we didn’t look at what our partners were doing. It was both an assessment and training, where we introduced the assessment tool we were using on ourselves to the partners. The relationships have tended to be quite close because this is work that nobody else wants to do. The partners who are trying to do it are really on the cutting edge. They face some real social and political risks. They face social risks just from their peers. Through supporting activities that bring partners together and through reflection processes, we have been able to help them work through some of the difficulties that they have in doing this unusual work.
Do you measure success through such internal assessments?
We had an external evaluator come in. The evaluation was a process. It was not a team of evaluators coming in, asking a bunch of questions and writing a report. The evaluator made it very clear it would not be that. All of us, including myself and the director of the ACT, were involved from the very beginning. For the livelihoods work, we have outside evaluations every three years. The most recent one was more participatory because Russell, the country director, wanted the staff to define themselves and define the program. It was a longer process that was more iterative.
Going back to how AFSC works with local organizations, what are the main issues here today?
There has been from the 1990s strong pressure from the donors to localize programs, that is, to see leadership from Cambodian NGOs rather than international partners. This was particularly strong in the 1990s, and especially among the European donors. They wanted to support local NGOs and civil society. In response to these pressures, a lot of new NGOs were formed. Some of them had a year or two of good luck, but then financing fell off. NGOs began failing all over.
AFSC has always worked through local partners but also has felt this pressure. We are downsizing substantially. We had 65 staff when I came in 2001, and today there are 30, with 20 of them about to move to a new NGO that is a result of a program we supported.
But more recently the donors have begun to feel some push-back from Cambodian NGOs. Some Cambodians argued that the pressure to operate as independent NGOs was coming too soon and too fast, that they were not prepared, and that they could and should not be pushed in that direction. Khmer Ahimsa was an exception. We had planned its independence over a five year period.
Is that a vision of AFSC? “Hatching” or building NGOs?
To some extent yes, but we are also looking for ways to work with and support the smaller organizations that have appeared. They lack the language skills, organizational structures, and capacities to seek and obtain funds from the donor organizations. But many of them have interesting ideas. We want to help in strengthening the community roots and help bring the ideas into the larger framework.
How does the approach you follow differ from those of human rights advocates working here?
The human rights groups often come in when a crisis has already taken place. They respond to crisis and that is their role. But they do not do community organizing. Khmer Ahimsa is a pure community group, and the community is their objective.
How is AFSC funded?
AFSC as a whole receives money from individual Friends and Friends meetings and also from a wide variety of individual donors and small foundations. For the work in Cambodia a lot of our funding has come from the European Protestant Church agencies, so EED, ICCO, DIAKONIA, and DanchurchAid at one point. Those agencies funded a great deal of what AFSC did in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
How has Cambodia changed since you started working here?
One important change is that local development organizations have become so much stronger and confident. I arrived in the middle of the European donor agency inspired push towards localization. At that point, the term localization filled Cambodians with horror; they really saw it as being tossed out the door. NGOs are a very new thing in Cambodia. The donors were under tremendous pressure to work through local agencies, and to work through international groups as little as possible. Local groups and staff often felt, however, that it was abandonment, not empowerment. They felt that they were being set up to fail, because a lot of groups did fail. The European agencies have since realized that they had pushed a little too hard, too fast. Some of the most aggressive backed off a bit. They have realized that if groups are going to be localized, it will not be a one year process; it will be a three-year or a five-year process. There is more confidence because there are so many examples of really good, solid, strong, vibrant Cambodian NGOs.
The other huge change, which is still happening, is the decreasing influence of the Western donors, the World Bank and ADB (Asian Development Bank) especially. As the Cambodian government becomes less dependent on aid, with new aid coming in, especially from China, but also from other places, and as the CPP has cemented its hold on power, they have become more confident and thus more assertive. The government’s attitude towards NGOs used to be one of grudging acceptance, but that is increasingly not true. I believe the environment that NGOs work in is going to become more hostile, though I hope it does not become relentlessly hostile.
NGOs experienced a very rare level of influence and freedom in Cambodia that you would not find in any other Asian country or in most European countries and the U.S. NGO jobs are some of the best jobs in the country. Regulation (a normal fact of life, together with tax forms etc. in Europe or the U.S.) has been quite lenient. NGOs, in the past, could have very significant influence by going around the government to the donors. That doesn’t work anymore, because the government is not listening to the donors. The donors increasingly have to shift their policies and attitudes if they want to stay engaged and relevant. If they want to maintain some kind of influence in Cambodia, for whatever reasons, they can no longer take the hard-line attitudes that they had through most of the 1990s. You see it most clearly in what the U.S. did. About the same time that China started becoming a big player on the scene, the U.S. decided that things had suddenly improved so much in Cambodia that direct government aid was justified, and that the first topic of aid would be counter-terrorism and military assistance. It is quite obvious that the U.S. was worried about China’s increasing influence and about the U.S. losing influence. Other donors have experienced the same thing.
The government approach to the NGOs is changing, tightening up. In many respects they have been waiting for this point, when they could say, we don’t need to listen to you; where they can act on their view that stability is the top priority. They are likely to be less accepting of things like proselytizing. In the last three years, in the lead up to the large donor meetings, the key advocacy groups had their greatest openings. Now, with China giving more aid, there is far less impact of their long lists of demands.
From the donor perspective, Cambodia is not as high a priority as it was a decade ago. Further, the awareness that organizations are working in an environment where there is a deepening of control and a strengthening of an authoritarian government discourages some who have supported organizations in Cambodia for some time. Funding is more difficult, especially since the financial crisis; this is very apparent today as the effects of the crisis work through especially for the European donors. We are seeing more triangulation of the donors.
I see some hard times ahead for Cambodian organizations, national and international. We are facing major budget cuts, and I have heard from European organizations that they are going to be facing similar cuts in the near future. That combined with a stricter regulatory environment that the government is putting into place will narrow the space for NGOs and force NGOs to operate using different strategies.
Some organizations see the coming trend. We will see which groups are really committed to their work. A lot of groups closed down quickly, especially the cookie cutter NGOs. Those that could find funding have often moved on. Only about a fifth of the nominally registered NGOs are really active.
So the honeymoon for NGOs is over?
Groups need to negotiate in the world they are in. The direction and momentum are clear. They will need to put pressure on their own governments, not on the World Bank, in the future. The advocacy and human rights groups are especially challenged. Only the stronger ones are likely to persist, organizations like CLEC, ADHOC, Licado.
Does the government speak openly against NGOs?
This is probably happening. It does not go as far as “propaganda”, which, to me, implies a concerted campaign; I do not think that is the case. But the government is being more open about their disdain for NGOs and much more critical about NGOs, in part, because it sees NGOs as having a political agenda. The government is now in a position where it can thumb its nose at the donors. They have become more outspoken.
How would you characterize the NGO and donor worlds in Cambodia today?
It’s been the Wild West!
How has AFSC responded to the endemic culture of corruption here in Cambodia?
It’s always a challenge. Did you notice our six motorbikes downstairs? They have been sitting down there for three months because we are trying to get license plates for them. We need another letter and then we get the other letter and then it is not filled out correctly. The quick way to get such things sorted is to pay ‘tea money,’ but we don’t do that and so we have to be very patient. It is difficult. Has it gotten worse? I don’t know. We do not have that much direct interaction with the government and where we do, we have established a pretty good working relationship. They appreciate what we do. There are exceptions: in an early government meeting here there was a not-too-subtle attempt to get salary supports for at least four or five people in the ministry. They do not do that to us anymore. But I have heard from Cambodians that in general the pay out for ordinary things has increased.
Are there any specific challenges in development that are unique to working in Cambodia?
Cambodia is still struggling hard with a really weak education system and the fact that an entire generation basically lost any opportunity for education. All those people are now in their forties and their education levels are much worse than people in their twenties. They struggle just to find their niche in international arenas or development work. That will take another generation to correct. A small population, a weak education system, and an entire generation lost to education means that there is not the creativity you would normally expect given the number of groups and NGOs here; instead, you find more of a cut-and-paste mentality. That translates into a lack of real ownership of development in Cambodia. It happens, but only in pockets. It is not the mentality in the development community. Development still feels imported in a lot of what you read, see, and hear. That again, makes development very vulnerable to government criticism.
AFSC always from the very beginning has made sure to include the government in whatever process was happening. It comes out of the fundamental Quaker principle: No one is the enemy. We have included government at the local level, though sometimes we have lost touch at the national level. In Koh Kong especially a goal from the start was to get communities and government working together, because that was not happening. Most government officials did not come from there: they were outsiders who had no relationships with the community; they had heard only stories that villages were full of pirates and bandits. Much of the work we had to do around community forestry and community fisheries involved bringing the local officials along: getting them to see that what we do actually does fit with Cambodian law, it is happening in other parts of Cambodia, and it is a good thing for your relationship with the community. That has been our philosophy and strategy. I hear that many other NGOs work completely separately from the government, with little reference to it or dealing with it as little as they can possibly get away with. Our approach is different; we hope it is to our benefit.
What exactly is the Koh Kong approach?
We tend to break it down into community fisheries, community forestry, and some land rights. We did some land mapping at one point. We try to support development with the standard livelihood projects like rice banks, microcredit, buffalo banks, and some agriculture work, though the latter has never been very successful. Even though everyone will say they are a farmer they don’t actually pay that much attention to the farming because the natural resources are so rich. They plow the rice field, plant the rice, and then they go off and fish because that is where the money is. Despite the limited success of the agriculture projects, people continue to ask for them, so we do continue to provide such support to the extent we can.
We started initially with a very broad approach, doing pretty much everything: health, literacy classes, upland farming, and veterinarian services. That responded to community requests, which were for pretty much everything. But we just couldn’t do everything, especially not in every place. With the community fisheries project, we were trying to catch up with the community. Once they heard it was a possibility, their attitude was, “We want to do that.” We were trying to keep up as they were trying to get organized. Do I think the microcredit and the rice banks are things that the community really wanted? Those were probably our idea, but the community wasn’t about to say no, and in some cases, they worked out beautifully. Some communities have really thrived.
A lot of what we do is to bring community members to see what’s happening in other parts of the country, or to show them something we think might be relevant. Otherwise, how are communities ever supposed to know what is possible. People in Koh Kong used to say when we first started working there, “We are frogs in the bottom of a well; we are so completely cut off that no information gets to us; we have no idea what is going on.” A lot of our work has been exposure work.
We had to drive an agenda ourselves in one case. In one community fishery project, we were very successful in our part of the bay, to the extent that there were cooperative agreements between the community and the local fishery officials on how they would manage arrests. The only way that they could really control their area was to arrest and confine the trawlers that were coming in and that was what they were doing. The fishery resources rebounded amazingly fast, and the end result was that the communities that were nearby hated our community fisheries group. There was even an attack from a mob from another community because some trawlers were impounded. This said to us that we could not continue to support only our little communities. The only way it could work was to extend the network to the other communities in the area, to get them to work with us. Our staff found it very difficult because there was such an “us and them” mentality and it was difficult also for the community members. They came into it with the attitude that “We are protecting the environment and we have the government on our side.” But we realized that it was either network or die; no matter how hard, it was what we had to do.
Where do you see Cambodia in the next 10 years?
One of the big questions for Cambodia is: how far will development be rural? Is the development going to be real development in rural areas, or are you going to see an increasing number of homeless people? Is Cambodia going to go the way of India, where we see massive slums ringing the cities? Will we see large numbers of people pushed off their land, people who feel that there is just no future in the countryside? That may be the biggest question. Will there be any equity in the development, or a widening gap, with wealthy and middle class people who tend not to identify with rural or poor people? Will Cambodia go the way of Latin America with its distinct class system?
What changes have you seen as you focus on peace and national identity? Where do you see this going?
When the tensions at Preah Vihear arose last year [disputed temple on Thai Cambodia border], you saw the beginnings of the same dynamics that you saw around the anti-Thai riots in 2003. But Cambodia turned away from violence, not just at the political level, but at the civil society level. That is a real step forward; it took a level of self-awareness, maturity, and self-confidence for people not to get as caught up in their emotions. The civil society groups came together (ACT was one of the leaders) to decide how civil society should react. They brought over a hundred groups together and put out a statement calling on ASEAN and the UN Security Council to assist, stating that the issue should be dealt with through international law and that civil society’s role was to help the population to remain calm. Now that is very different from what we have seen in the past, and I see it as evidence of a maturing of civil society.
AFSC is the regional hub. How does AFSC work at the Asia regional level?
The Cambodia office is AFSC’s Asia regional office. AFSC is moving to a new phase in the region. This is partly the result of a strategic re-centering and partly due to a drying up of finance: both strategic and pragmatic.
AFSC is experiencing severe cuts in our budgets: 50 percent for the Asia region, and Asia is lucky relative to other regions of the world, which have seen deeper cuts. The economic crisis is the main reason, and it is only now showing its effects on funding. We expect to close several country offices. That includes Cambodia where we plan to phase out over the next few years (by 2013). We are scaling back in Myanmar also. Our Indonesia program is active, in part because the tsunami opened doors to new possibilities, and we were able then to overcome some barriers that had blocked us before. We also work on economic issues facing the region overall, more than individual countries and support a regional network of peace builders.
Our work and our presence came out of and are linked to the U.S. presence in the region. It began with the U.S. embargo and the war in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. We closed down our work in Vietnam in 2006, and also in Laos. Cambodia is in some respects a remnant of that era, and we have stayed on because we are doing interesting things here. We also have strong supporters, mostly from Europe (EED from Germany, ICCO Netherlands, Diaconia).
But the aim is to shift to issues that are burning now, and to areas where the U.S. has particular influence. Our main focus today and in the future will be China and North Korea. We want to be working on the main conflict issues, the ones that seem most strategic for us, as a U.S. organization. And we are not really big enough to have much impact at the country level.
The growing presence and role of China in the region and especially in the poorest countries is one such issue. They are making massive investments. We see their involvement in organizations we work with. Many other organizations know how advocacy works with the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank. But if we want to help the poor in Asia the real focus needs to be on China.
What can and does AFSC do with respect to China’s role in Southeast Asia? What is possible?
There is a lot we can do and we are pursuing the issues actively. We have a person in China, who knows the environment well, with access to policy advisory levels. The government is not unfriendly to AFSC, and we have a long history of engagement.
As an example, last year we brought a group of key policy advisors from the think tanks that advise the policy makers, from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and from the development banks to visit different projects, both those where China is engaged and projects from Vietnam or Australia. There was a focus on environmental impact. They may hear criticisms of their projects but tend to dismiss them as coming from western sympathizers. Because we are seen as a balanced, fair, and neutral party, we could organize the visit. They saw us as helping them, without an element of jealousy. They visited Laos and Cambodia, a rubber plantation and an ambitious mining company. We took them to dam sites.
In Laos we visited an Australian company in a joint partnership with a Chinese company that proudly cited their social responsibility focus. We spent a full day there, listening to the official story. When we spoke to the local people they had many complaints. Water was the main issue. They said they could not use their water sources because they were stinky and slimy. Their buffalos were dying and their children were sick. We asked them to take us to see the water source, and indeed it was slimy and stinky, contrary to what the company leaders has said about pure drinking water. The Chinese team was able to see the hypocrisy for themselves.
The Chinese have a reputation for not caring about the local level, generally seeing NGOs as troublemakers. But in fact they follow the local very, very closely and care deeply about it. They heard from communities that feel there is nothing they can do about the problems they face, that no matter what they say or do, no one listens or acts to solve the problems. There is no way to lobby those who hold power.
Thus the Chinese got a good sense of the problems and weaknesses of governance.
We are hoping to grow this work. So far it has been saved from the budget cuts. But our resources are very thin, with only one person based in China. We need to find ways to leverage our resources.
And on women’s roles in peace (a topic that WFDD is especially interested in)?
Women can and do play vital roles but in peacebuilding especially, let’s not lose the main threads. There is a tendency to want to work with women on all issues, even to the exclusion of working with men. But we can’t let men off the hook; they are the ones with the guns. Especially on peacebuilding, if you are not working with the men then you are not going to change the situation.
What brought you to Cambodia?
Pure chance! Going back, I originally came to Southeast Asia after doing graduate school research, with gender and international education as my focus. Once I realized that academic research was not the path for me, I looked for a plan B. I ended up in Laos on a volunteer program and was supposed to be working on women’s non-formal education, but that fell through and I ended up teaching English for ASEAN preparation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I was cheap local help at the time! I then worked for UNDP as a program officer, for a year and a half, then as gender technical advisor/consultant for three years.
I came to Cambodia in 2001 to work with AFSC. My job in Laos was coming to an end and I wanted to stay in the region. I was looking for consultancies in both Cambodia and Laos. I came initially to Cambodia on a consultancy. This job was advertised, and with encouragement from some friends I applied, and ended up here.
Did you join because you were a Quaker?
No, I was not and am not a Quaker, and indeed at first knew little beyond Junior High reading about Quaker history. I have learned a lot since! When I was interviewed I was concerned that AFSC was going to have a missionary aspect and so I told the person I was meeting “I don’t pray and I don’t testify so if that is part of this job I am not the person for you.” The person who interviewed me made clear that there were no requirements. The only thing was that meetings might begin with a moment of silence. I am fine with that. I am a Buddhist and the Quaker approach is comfortable to me.
A final question that we ask many we speak to: what does development mean for you?
To me it means that ordinary people have more options and better basic living conditions for their lives. So it is about opportunities; it also means the core conditions under which everyone’s lives are decent and improve from generation to generation.