Background: This conversation between Phil Bowden and Sarah Chhin of International Cooperation Cambodia (ICC) and Katherine Marshall, Augustina Delaney, Michael Scharff, and Ethan Carroll of WFDD took place in August 2010 in Phnom Penh. The discussion focused on the legitimacy of and challenges facing orphanages in Cambodia, and on issues of donor coordination and roles of donors and NGOs. Both issues highlight the practical challenges in Cambodia today that surround the practice of proselytizing by some faith communities. There are probing comments about the faith motivation for development work and the changing scene for international assistance in Cambodia. The account of this discussion, which was updated in November 2010, supplements interviews with both Phil Bowden and Sarah Chhin in the WFDD/Berkley series.
What are highlights of how ICC is organized and what it does?
ICC is a partnership organization comprised of six agencies. The number is currently in flux. Dan Mission may soon drop out, as it wants to focus more on the local, working directly through the government. World Concern, which actually started ICC in the beginning, may rejoin.
ICC has 10 active projects, one of which is Project SKY, which Sarah Chhin oversees. Its purpose is building up the lives of young adults living in orphanages. The goals are promoting safe lives, independence, being included, a befriending program, life preparation, family reconnection, and providing support for individuals leaving care programs. The focus is on 15- to 25-year-olds, especially in the orphanages and shelters in Phnom Penh, as well as in Battambang, Svey Rieng, Kampong Cham, Kampong Chhnang, and Sihanoukville.
How many orphanages are there in Cambodia? Is this known?
The government data base lists 286 orphanages in Cambodia, but this number is most likely incomplete. In Phnom Penh alone, Project SKY works with more orphanages than are in the data base for the city. Orphanages are supposed to register with the Ministry of Social Affairs, which has set various minimum standards. But there are orphanages (saying they are schools) that register instead with the Ministry of Education, or with Women’s affairs (saying they work with trafficked women) or with the Ministry of Justice. There is often money involved in getting registered—officially and in some cases unofficially.
What about the Project SKY program?
Project SKY concentrates its efforts on 12 institutions which have agreed to commit to the core principle of reintegration as a process. Reintegration should start from the day a child arrives in institutionalized care, and should not end until that child is safely living in a community and, depending on age, fully independent. This means instilling critical thinking and analytical abilities in young people through self-help clubs, which threatens many orphanage directors. Getting to the current agreement among our partners has taken three years, but now we have 12 or 13 orphanages with these clubs of young people. In other orphanages, we are working towards an understanding of institutionalization and good reintegration practice through advocacy activities.
Are all the orphanages where Project SKY works Christian?
No, no, no. We work with anyone who will shake hands with us; anyone who will hear our input. We have very close relationships with the government and work with them. We actually find it more difficult to work with foreigners, many of whom come here out of the goodness of their hearts. They are often very difficult to work with precisely because they start with very good intentions.
Their intentions are right, their motivation is right, but they are often totally misguided. Many feel like they have sacrificed so much; they, however, cannot or will not see the negative aspects of the care they provide. And the negative effects are clear and horrible. One child spoke of his fears: “I feel like a duck being let out of a cage, afraid someone will cook it.” There are deep fears among many of the children for what is coming after they leave care.
But to raise these questions to some of the orphanage founders and leaders, to them seems as if it is calling into question their call from God. So, if they’ll talk to me, I challenge them, asking “Were you called to open an orphanage or to care for children?”
Is your view of orphanages that there is no good orphanage?
Institutionalization is almost always a problem and a poor solution. There is really no orphanage I like. The main problem is alienation from family and society. The young people lack even the most basic life skills, like knowing how to make friends, reading the faces of adults, shopping in the market, knowing prices of things.
There are some guidelines on best practice for orphanages. The main principle is that children should stay in orphanages only when there is no other choice for them, and that they should remain in residential care for as short a time as possible.
But what is the practical alternative, here and now in Cambodia?
Yes, the problem is that there are poor alternatives. Cambodia has no official, functioning foster care system. There are many who act as long term foster parents and many children are in fact cared for in larger extended families, but there are few systematic mechanisms to recognize or support them. There is already an alternative care policy in Cambodia, and the implementation plan for this policy includes outlines for systems to support families in crisis and monitor foster families.
The important thing is to recognize that not all children at risk are in immediate danger. We need more efforts to evaluate the support that could be given to families, so that children can stay with the families and in their communities, in safety.
Where there is immediate danger, then orphanages are an alternative, but they need to be regulated and children should not stay there for long. Orphanages are a short term, emergency solution.
The tragedy is that with the amounts of money thrown at orphanages, it should be possible to do far more with placing children in communities and helping their families.
The Stockholm Declaration on Residential Care and Children 2003, sets out agreed principles clearly, including the order of priority for who should care for children and where. The priority should go to kinship care or children should stay in the same community. If that is not possible, then a similar community. Residential care should be the last resort, with a maximum stay of five months, according to the Child Welfare Flowchart drafted by the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation.
Community care is what the Cambodian government is looking towards. The Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans, and Youth Rehabilitation strategy aims for a situation where in 10 years orphanages are no longer needed. The Minister has said that no new orphanages will be allowed to open and that current organizations with orphanages should be finding ways to support families. That would be a remarkable step.
Who runs the orphanages?
Thirty-seven percent of orphanages in Cambodia are run by one Christian organization which insists they are not orphanages at all but churches. This organization detests UNICEF unequivocally.
As part of our research, we have conducted focus discussion groups that have reached more than 600 young adults in orphanages. We ask them how they feel about leaving orphanages and living in the community, and so are well informed about what young people living in orphanages feel. In one Christian orphanage that I visited, I talked to a young man and asked him similar questions about what he expected when he left the orphanage. His answer was that he was afraid, and I expected him to list the fears that we have found everywhere else in our research. His answer was that here, in the orphanage, “we are all Christians.” He told me that he is afraid because when he leaves he will need to spend his whole life making the rest of the community people Christians, and it will be so hard. He did not even mention finding a place to live, learning how to make a living, becoming part of a new community, learning how to make friends, feeding himself as all the other young people do—skills he likely does not have.
We haven’t been able to involve this orphanage in our research, but the director has acknowledged that it would be a good idea to assess what training in life skills will be most helpful.
Where do most of the foreign groups that found orphanages come from?
Most are from “the West”—The United States, Australia. There are not so many Filipinos founding orphanages. We hear about Koreans running orphanages, but the ones we know about are not registered. Almost all the funding for all orphanages, whether run by local or international organizations, comes from abroad.
What about one orphanage we know, as an example: the Future Light Orphanage?
They are registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation; they have not been prepared to work with us, but have never given us the reasons. We hear worrying reports that they are trying to tap into the tourist market.
Orphan tourism. What is that about?
Some orphanages encourage tourist groups to visit, some offering short-term volunteer options, with the hope of procuring funds. There is a real risk involved in that, as none of the tourists are background checked and their presence among the children is mainly unsupervised. Very few orphanages have child protection policies which are properly understood and implemented, so orphanage tourism puts the children at great risk. In some cases, the children are being exploited for the money they bring in. Children are being rented out to dance at restaurants to raise funds for the orphanage, one orphanage houses children who are HIV+ as children with this status bring in more money. In Phnom Penh, everything you ever heard of happening in an orphanage, everything you can imagine happening, is happening now: violence, staff abusing children, children abusing staff, children abusing children, staff abusing staff, family members being denied access to their children, children not being allowed to visit home. The list is endless and tragic.
Who is starting the new orphanages?
In Phnom Penh, many of the new orphanages are started by local people. Many are run as businesses. They get sponsors for, say, 70 children, but months later there are only 40. Some are involved in orphan tourism, which can be profitable also.
What is the best approach to working with the orphanages?
We focus on the family reconnection program, especially working with 10- to 14-year-olds who have not been in care for long. They have the opportunity to stay connected with their families and with the communities they come from. We have done research on children 15 years and older. Most young people living in orphanages do have parents or close relatives, and when they go back to their village, they are completely alienated, and have no idea what to do. They talk and dress like Phnom Penh-ers and have a better education than others, but no rural life skills. We consistently hear feedback along the lines of “I love my family, but I don’t know how to connect with them. We no longer have anything in common.” Therefore we are trying to help families stay connected, to make the route to reintegration smoother.
How are the orphanages that draw people because of educational opportunities really different from boarding schools?
The real difference is the connection with family. Boarding schools actively encourage links with the family, whereas in many cases, the orphanages actually discourage links with families, arguing that it is not good for the children, that children cry when they come back from a visit or can’t be controlled by the rules on their return. I know of orphanages that make parents or relatives sign a contract promising that they won’t attempt to reclaim their children.
What about children in pagodas and Buddhist/wat traditions of orphan care?
We have looked at this situation under another project. Children do live in the pagodas; parents send children to live there for various reasons, but mostly so they can study. Education is everything, and parents think it is better for them to stay in the pagoda and it is cheaper. The older children in the pagodas are generally there because they are attending a school that is far away from home. Some younger children come from very poor families with many children. The families send a couple to the pagoda, believing they will be cared for. And a naughty child in a community may be sent to the pagoda to learn morals. You have to understand—many in the current generation grew up without parents, so they know a past where they grew up in some form of care or another—and now they are the parents sending their kids away.
In our research, we asked questions about the quality of care in pagodas. We found that the monks are not caring for these children. Monks are not trained as caregivers, and they do not care for the children who live there. If the children run away, no one cares. If they are sad, no one pays attention. There is no follow up. They just live there and run free. The Ministry of Cult and Religion and the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation have accepted that this is something they need to look at together.
The problem is that anyone can be a monk and a monk automatically becomes a caregiver. There is not even a form you need to fill out to become a monk, no requirements. It is the one place in the entire range of alternative care where there are absolutely no recruitment requirements.
We did a survey a few years ago in 22 temples. Out of the 163 children aged 4 to 17, 9 were girls. Something is going on there. We have done some work with training for monks: providing some training in parenting skills. We had a number of monks show up, both those who are interested in learning to be better father figures, but more often the monks want to pass the training onto their local communities.
Where is the orphan issue heading?
There are real and growing dangers as the orphanages numbers are expanding, exponentially expanding. In 2001, when we did our original survey, there were 21 in Phnom Penh; in 2007, there were over 40.
The main reason that people give for the demand on the side of parents and children is education, not poverty. There are better schools in the city, and better teachers. Orphanages offer free food, clothing, as well as computers and English lessons.
And what should be understood is that it is not an orphan issue, but an orphanage issue. The vast majority of children and young people living in orphanages are not even orphans, many have one or both parent and other close relatives who could be supported to keep children within a family setting.
The issue is difficult. Every child has an equal right both to education and family. How can there be a tradeoff?
Where does the largest Christian organization running orphanages come from?
I believe they are from the United States. And they are proud of what they do.
There is a view that some state openly, and I have actually heard this, that “The only way to Christianize Cambodia is to put all the children in orphanages and Christianize them.”
How does ICC, and you personally, deal with your Christian faith and the issue of proselytizing?
One of my favorite quotes, from Saint Francis of Assisi, is “Spread the gospel wherever you go and use words if you have to.” Our faith is our motivation for what we do, ‘doing good’ by contributing to good quality development. We do not hide our faith, we will tell people that we are Christians. But we do not seek converts as a part of our work, and feel that that goes over the line of what is moral and appropriate in these circumstances.
We hear a lot about proselytizing from donors. They are aware that there are tensions around proselytizing, and they do not want to see proselytization in development work. The issue is where the line lies.
There is freedom of worship in Cambodia, but not freedom to evangelize. It is illegal to stand in the street and say, ‘the Lord is coming.’ To my mind, if it is illegal we don’t do it. Friendship and relationship building underlies our approach, which is less in your face and more productive in terms of encouraging the respect it takes to have meaningful discussions, and encourages questions of faith which can be truthfully answered.
Groups that more actively proselytize include the Church of the Latter Day Saints who literally knock door-to-door. However, the young elders on bicycles going house to house are the ones who are visible, not those who stand behind them. You never see the long-term guys on bikes. The Jehovah’s Witnesses also are active.
How do partnerships work? Are you able to coordinate your activities with similar organizations?
There are lots of partnerships, hundreds of organizations, and many approaches to networking. But coordination is a very big issue. Tons of aid money is coming to Cambodia, but what is the strategy? What are we trying to accomplish? Where are we going? Are we making any impact on those who are least served?
And there has been lots of money but it is drying up. At the government level, things are beginning to tighten up as better educated young Cambodians come into positions of power. It will not be long before they are held accountable to the policies they are writing, and holding others accountable to them, too. Things are getting better, in many ways. However, we still want to see the government’s Non-Formal Education policy formalized and the Alternative Care Policy properly implemented.
There are expatriates who don’t give Cambodians their due. Some come as volunteers, expecting Cambodians to only do administrative work. That is really not how things work anymore. There are more and more qualified Cambodians and they have high expectations.
Many smaller organizations are missing the bigger picture. For example, centers may spend all their money working with 20 girls, and forget the 20,000 others being affected by the same issue. They could do so much more if they were working strategically, looking at the bigger pictures. And donor divisions and jargon do not help. Let’s be honest: we are all donor-driven to a certain extent. To correct these issues, we have to start selling the right messages and educate donors.