Background: This conversation between Ethan Carroll, Prom Pauv and Pich Sovann took place at TASK's office in Mean Chey District, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. David Crooks, Tearfund International's Cambodia Country Representative, was also present. In this interview Prom, TASK Executive Director, and Pich, the Self-Reliance & Community Mobilization Program Coordinator, discuss the development of TASK's AIDS Homecare and orphan programs. Emphasizing the importance of partnership and building local capacity, they describe TASK's transition from a foreigner-run NGO to an entirely local organization. They also provide insight into the role their faith plays in both TASK's core mission of helping the poorest of the poor and in cultivating participatory relationships with local government.
Would you mind telling us about TASK's history in Cambodia?
It started as Servants to Asia's Urban Poor, an organization from New Zealand. Beginning in 1993 Servants was doing 100 percent relief work. I started working with TASK in 1994, about nine months after Servants arrived. I had been working in the hospitals before that. Most of TASK's staff then were doctors and nurses.
We grew little by little, taking on more Cambodian staff in leadership positions, until by 2004 we had an all-Cambodian staff. Servants now plays an advisory role; they now come mainly to maintain the relationship between our two organizations. Our entire board is Cambodian.
TASK is constantly changing to respond to new community needs and challenges. In that regard we have learned a lot from Tearfund. In over 15 years of service we have tried to develop a community development and counterpart approach to our work. For example, the people we work with are not “beneficiaries,” they are our “partners.” We work with them, not for them. We are currently trying to map all of our partners. The Urban Resource Centre (URC) received a USAID grant to establish the Health Equity Fund, which provides free health care for 700 families (approximately 3,000 people); all they have to do is show an identification card that URC provides. USAID has provided money for the initiative, but the Ministry of Health needs help locating and tracking the people.
Our HALO program (Hope Assistance and Love for Orphans) serves children and teenagers, many of whom have been orphaned once or twice because of HIV. It was truly a pandemic, with its peak around 2003, so there are still a number of children in the program. Our program has changed considerably since 2000, before we were localized. Back then, our AIDS Homecare program was essentially palliative care. People prepared to die. So we had the AIDS Homecare program for parents and HALO for their children, which allowed us to put them in foster care and do follow up support with volunteer social workers. Now, however, since ARVs have become so much more accessible, our AIDS program provides livelihood support and vocational training. Instead of preparing people to die, we are preparing them to go back to what they used to be before they contracted the virus.
HIV/AIDS patients now know where to go to get health services and train each other through self-help groups. More and more they are preparing to live longer, so the self-help groups are good ways for them to learn business skills from each other. We are now doing more HIV awareness-building. There is still a lot of discrimination despite radio and TV advertisements, but the situation has improved a lot, especially amongst the youth. Now they will touch, hug, and play with HIV-positive people.
Do you think Cambodia will continue to make progress toward eliminating HIV/AIDS?
While we have made a lot of progress on HIV/AIDS, we are still concerned with the government’s anti-human trafficking efforts because they are related to HIV/AIDS. It is very good to try to put an end to prostitution and trafficking, but the new law has some potentially harmful secondary effects because the same activity is still going on in secret. For example, if you go to a karaoke bar you can still find prostitutes, but you will not find condoms there because then the police would have cause to say “This is a brothel.” You see the same with drug users as a result of anti-drug laws, where organizations have a more difficult time giving out clean needles now; however, it is becoming much easier to provide detoxification programs.
What is TASK’s approach to working with orphans?
The main focus of the HALO project is on education and social development, including the mental and spiritual aspects of individuals; people need that kind of support because of the amount of trauma they have been through. We are getting to a point where some can now take care of their own families. Overall, we are investing more in education; not just for individuals, but for whole families. HALO families and our impoverished clients can now go to any hospital where URC partners, so it frees up a lot of money for education. TASK is also working to set up a series of preschools, as well as working with the Ministry of Social Affairs, and with Education and Planning to set up daycare centers. I talk with the District Education Director on a daily basis, and TASK works with the Ministry of Education to make sure that programs at schools are actually being implemented as they should be under the 2007 Education Law.
We conducted a program evaluation three months ago, and are in the process of planning actions on the basis of the recommendations we received. HALO recently updated its logistical framework activities, and we are working through evaluations to consider recommendations and indicators. We want to make sure the staff understands the lessons learned. One recommendation was to give more responsibilities to communities and to the government, so we are trying to do that. And some families can now help themselves, so it is time to discharge them. When working with orphans and other vulnerable children we do our best to discharge (or graduate) them from the project when they are self-sufficient; fourteen families with 30 children will be discharged beginning next year.
The Director of Education, at a meeting with NGOs that were all asking for more funding for classrooms, pointed to me and said “Pauv, you are very smart. TASK is very smart. You want to use government facilities to be sustainable.” We are strong at connecting to networks. I would say we are stronger because of God. Without God it is sometimes hard to get people to work together. But I thank God that we have a good relationship with the government, both local and national, and that we are able to work with them on shared responsibilities.
While we advocate and lobby with the Education Department, we are also working with schools and principals to end the culture of children having to pay their teachers to learn. Children should be able to go to school for free. When this happens, they can use these resources for other needs, such as food. We’re talking with the District Director about this and seeing some success. There is the Anti-Corruption Law, but if no one implements it than it’s just a law. We try to contribute to its implementation. I am concerned that young children are learning this culture of paying bribes. We need to break the cycle with students today. If nobody talks, nobody listens.
Could you tell us about the Little Conquerors?
We run another program for the Little Conquerors, who are disabled children. We provide support to families with children with disabilities so that they have access to physiotherapy and training. Right now we are contracting with the local hospital while following-up with individual clients. Soon, these children and their families will have even better access to care with Mean Chey Municipal Hospital opening. We do not provide just therapists and stimulation, but we do capacity-building, too. This is especially true in the school systems, where these children would often be segregated into a separate room or even separate schools. Now, disabled children have better access to public schools. Where they used to be isolated and hidden, now parents are much more involved in their education. We are trying to provide a documentation of how the process has worked so we can pass it on to the government to build their capacity.
How does TASK ensure sustainability and accountability to its partners?
Our AIDS Homecare program has done less relief work and more training to eventually link our partners with AMK (Angkor Mikroheranhvatho Kampuchea, a Cambodian microfinance institution). We also link them to Sovann Phoum’s microcredit program. Likewise, we network to hospitals. Within TASK there are no more “TASK Communities.” Our volunteers are still in communities, but they don’t provide the same help. Instead, self-help groups are doing the work. We provide capacity building and will introduce communities and groups to the government. We create linkages to the church, including HIV/AIDS mainstreaming efforts in 12 churches. Our AIDS Home Care program has discharged some families. We want to work with the poorest of the poor.
There are still a lot of migrants into this area. Thirty communes were recently cut out from Kandal Province, so Mean Chey District has become larger. The city government is now trying to evict people back to the rural area, though not as fast as they would like. There were slum houses painted with X’s for demolition a year ago that are still standing now. However, there is no Master Plan before moving people. Oftentimes, there is a government plan and there is our plan, and they are not always the same. We try as hard as possible to figure out how they can match up. It is a huge waste of energy and resources to work with people through a community-building program, only to see that community be relocated. We try to develop in communities, so we need to know government plans. If the plan is to move a community, we won’t invest there.
A lot of opportunities and resources are lost when we don’t work with the Ministry of Social Affairs. If you have society on one hand and government on the other, the NGOs in the community should try our best to not overlap with what the government is doing. If we avoid duplication we can serve more people. There are 100 plus NGOs working in Mean Chey, though only a few are very active. The head of Khang Mean Chey has a good heart, and he supports development without discrimination.
We conducted two surveys recently with the Ministry of Planning to identify the poorest of the poor in Mean Chey for inclusion in URC’s identification card project. We want other NGOs and stakeholders to get involved in the third round, though, so we have been approaching potential partners. For the third round of the survey we are doing our best to make sure that there is one person from each party on board. I try to pitch this to the political party people: I tell them “Give people incentives to vote for you. If you provide them services, they will love you more!” The commune elections are coming up soon. If we are not vigilant, we will succumb to temptation. Police trust TASK. I am worried that we will be perceived as not neutral.
Government officials have been pushing for a “Poor People Registration Committee,” and would prefer to set up an entire system instead of providing ID cards to as many people as we can now. Voter registration in communes is a good idea but it is not time for it yet. I tell them: “Don’t read my words, read my heart.” If we delay ID cards, we don’t suffer. TASK staff members won’t suffer. Government officials won’t suffer. It’s the poor who will lose their home or their motorbike because they have to sell them to pay for medical care. Yet officials still want to have the system in place first. TASK can’t stay here forever. There is huge need in other provinces, and we want to see sustainability. People here are migrants from rural areas. People want to go back but there are no opportunities for them in the provinces. They need to build those opportunities. There is so much injustice there.
Does TASK’s being a Christian organization influence your relations at the community level or with the government?
A commune leader once said to me: “You are Christian, so you must only serve Christians.” I tell everyone that we are Christians but that we serve all. If you don’t believe it, come see for yourself. We work with other villagers. While a significant portion of our community volunteers are Christians and we try to build up the capacity of local churches, we do not discriminate in who we work with. We have stakeholders with diverse religious backgrounds. That commune leader is now very much impressed with our work, where in the past they were suspicious.
Some churches are more active than others, but we work to connect them with existing community structures. We support a holistic approach. When we engage a community we will meet with the local churches in that target area and work on mainstreaming them into the community, as well as inspiring them to work with the community. This is all part of church capacity-building, trying to link the church to government and other resources. Many communities where we work expect that we get all our resources from outside, from international churches, but truly local resources are important! We tell them “You have your own resources, you can inspire change. Pick issues that matter and take charge.” We are teaching communities, not giving handouts. We carry only books and pens, not rice. Empowering churches to do community development takes a long time, but we make progress step by step. I love Cambodia so much. If don’t see change this generation, I’ll see it next generation.