A Discussion with Phil Bowden, Director, International Cooperation Cambodia
November 18, 2009
Background:This discussion took place as part of preparations for a consultation on faith and development in Southeast Asia, held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia December 14-15, 2009. The consultation, an endeavor of the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD) and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, with support from the Luce Foundation and the University of Cambodia, took stock of the wide range of ongoing work by different organizations that are, in varying ways, inspired by religious faith. It also explored policy implications that emerged from their interactions with development organizations. The interview was conducted by telephone between Phil Bowden and Michael Bodakowski.
How did you come to be in Cambodia, working on the challenges of Christian networking for development?
I was interested in development work from a Christian point of view of justice as I came to see these challenges through my church life while I was growing up. As I became more aware of the concept of justice and its realities in society, I started to contribute to the cause. I suppose it came through a Christian calling to help in the Third World. I then made a decision to explore avenues that offered a Christian emphasis on development. This brought me down a path of exploring what development work is, what development really means, and how I could contribute to it. I approached a few agencies in Australia, and looked at my different options. One avenue had an emphasis on the spiritual side of development, but I have more interest in the physical side. We came across one agency in 2003 that places individuals by their professional skills in appropriate development agencies. My skills at that time included business, and I also have a university degree in commerce. In 2004 the agency approached us with an opportunity to work in Cambodia, which we accepted enthusiastically. It was an opportunity in a Christian development agency doing some financial work. It happens to be the group I am with now, International Cooperation Cambodia, or ICC.
We picked up and left Australia in 2004, and spent 2005-2006 in Cambodia with ICC doing primarily development work. I spent two years in their finance department, dealing with donors and their funds. In 2007, after those two years, we packed up and decided to return to Australia. Once back in Australia, I found out that ICC was looking for an executive director. I applied for the position, and that is how I arrived at the position I am in today.
Can you give us a brief overview of the work that you do with ICC, and why you focus on those specific areas of work within the Cambodian context?
First, briefly about ICC operationally, we do have substantial external funds that allows us to do our work, which is quite diverse. There is also the spiritual component to our work. We are Christians, and we are all working together for a common cause. We have about 15 different nationalities working for us, and we have about 45 expatriate staff who contribute in a multitude of ways, from capacity building, to advisors and national project managers, to a holistic idea of development.
Our work is quite diverse. Probably the best component of our work at ICC is the work we do with minority groups in Cambodia. We see these groups as the least served sections of society in Cambodia. To this end, one of our member agencies (ICC is made up of six), SIL, is an expert in language research and education. We do a lot of language development through non-formal education (NFE) with minority local languages (many of which are at risk of dying out), to preserve their local cultures and way of life, and also to serve as a spring board for minority groups to learn the national language, Khmer. If they can learn Khmer, their opportunities within the country will expand exponentially. ICC has also engaged in advocacy work with the government to support bilingual education. The government recognizes all of the languages that we work with, thanks in part to our advocacy work. In addition, we also work on education with youth, health care, food security, agriculture, income generation, and leadership development. As you can see, we are a very broad and diverse organization.
How has faith inspired your work?
I am a Christian, and we are a Christian NGO. How my faith plays into that is directly because of the Bible, and directly because of what the Bible says. Specifically, my faith inspires me to work with the poor, and to help eliminate injustice. Also, the way in which Jesus interacted with his disciples regarding the poor, inspired me to want to help the poor as well, playing a big part in my faith. So, regarding faith and my work, it was a personal desire to do the work I am doing, but also a religious desire as well as a faith desire to help the poor.
Is it challenging working in Cambodia as a Christian organization in a majority Buddhist society?
As a Christian organization, we do respect Buddhism as the main religion of Cambodia. We are committed to serve the people of Cambodia, regardless of gender, age, ethnic background, political affiliation, or their religious beliefs, and that is something that we hold to. We do interact with the Buddhists professionally. For example, we have worked with them on orphanage projects at temples. We do have a different belief than Buddhism, but there are also different theological perspectives within our organizations. Though we are all from the same religion (Christianity), how I view a certain issue may not be how my colleagues view the same issue. Some of us are more progressive Christians, while some are more conservative. Our primary focus, however, is development work, regardless of some people’s theological views.
What is the composition of ICC?
We have six member agencies, one American, one from the UK, and the remainder northern European. These agencies have come together under an umbrella which we call ICC. The six organizations speak as one voice under this umbrella, but they also speak as individuals from their own individual agencies. Generally, what all these agencies do is to bring different skills and expertise to the table. For instance, one of our members, DANmission, has extensive management experience, and brings in expatriates to build management capacity around our work. Other agencies may bring expertise in areas such as language development or children’s rights. ICC is a collective of partners using their resources together under one umbrella.
How do you see the role of NGOs in Cambodian society going into the future? Does religion play a growing role?
I think there will be an eventual shift towards greater importance of NGOs once donors see the country developing; it has been developing very rapidly in the Phnom Penh area. It is quite amazing to see the money coming into the city. There will be a shift to local NGOs and strengthening civil society to stand on their own. When exactly this will happen I am not sure, but we are seeing the process to some degree now, and I think we will start to see a shift over the next five to 10 years.
With regards to religion and faith plays, the church in Cambodia is growing, and it will definitely have a role. However, how exactly that will play out is hard to say at this time. Civil society is likely to have a role, especially in how they stand up against social issues.
What do you see as a primary lasting legacy of the Khmer Rouge on Cambodian society, and how has that been taken into account by the work you do?
That is a very good question. I think with the older generation, especially those in their 40s and 50s, it has had a big impact. In the younger age group, specifically those in their late teens and early 20s, there has been less of an impact. This group was either very young during the worst violence, or was born after it had all ended. I think that it has had definite psychological effects on the older age group. Whether it has been addressed, or how it has been addressed is a difficult question. ICC is not involved in psychological counseling, so it would be hard for me to answer that question. I would say, however, that we probably do not recognize the lasting legacy as much as we should in our work.
Faith is often a topic that is not on the official agenda of development organizations, yet it is a crucial factor that should be given ample consideration, especially in Asia. What, from your view, is missing on the development agenda with regards to faith, and what should be added?
I think there is a tension between development and what we call mission. We receive a lot of funds from government donors, but I think these government agencies think that faith inspired organizations want the funds for religions activities, and therefore put a lot of restrictions on how those funds can be used. For example, we are not allowed to proselytize nor openly share our faiths.
I do not think these restrictions are good, but have had to operate within them. Governments must see that we are a faith based organization and we see a person as a whole person. Material aid alone is not sufficient to achieve development. There are articles that discuss the tension between religious organizations and development work.
I noticed on your website that the ICC both carries out development work, but also is involved in developing churches. Can you discuss the ICC mission statement with regards to the tensions between faith and development?
We are actually going though a new strategy plan at the moment. I suppose we see capacity building within the church as leadership building. However, we are actually not very active in this. We are looking at the possibility of building better connections with the Church, and there is the desire to do so. However, at the moment our efforts are concentrated on our development work.
Where do you see Cambodia in the next 20 years? What do you envision as the role for ICC?
I think with ICC it is difficult to envisage in 20 years time, where we will be. Our role may change with the trends in donor aid and development in the country. There are many external factors that make it difficult to look into a crystal ball at the moment.
I would hope that in 20 years our development work in Cambodia may be complete, particularly in the areas we have been concentrating in. I also envisage a strengthening of local NGOs and local partners. However, that also depends on the political climate, which can change very rapidly.