Off the Beaten Path: A Former Prime Minister Explores Philanthropic Ventures in Cambodia

By: Katherine Marshall

May 1, 2017

John Key resigned last December as New Zealand’s well respected prime minister from 2008-16. He is now exploring new roles, outside of politics. Among his post politics activities, he serves as a patron of the many philanthropic activities of the estimable Dr. Haruhisa Handa. In that capacity Key spent three days in Cambodia in late April, visiting various projects in the cities of Phnom Penh and Battambang. We spoke there about his impressions and how he sees his new roles and priorities.

Key’s decision to leave his post as Prime Minister came as a surprise since his future in politics seemed assured. He described the decision to move on in straightforward terms: a finite term as a national leader makes eminent sense and it was time for him to look to new ventures. As to his future, he is taking time to reflect (in the interim spending some time playing golf, a passion and his initial introduction to Dr. Handa). He may well return to the private sector activities that dominated his early career. Write a book? Certainly not, at least for now.

Dr. Haruhisa Handa, who leads a Japanese Shinto/Buddhist movement, is also an entrepreneur and artist with a 23-year history of substantial and consistent support to wide-ranging projects in Cambodia. Thus Key visited the University of Cambodia (Dr. Handa is founder and chancellor), an orphanage in Phnom Penh, and various projects of The Handa Foundation (a medical center, trauma hospital, sports program for Cambodian youth, and model farm, all ventures that began and continue with Dr. Handa’s support. The Cambodia visit involved Key in a quite intensive introduction to the elaborate “world of Dr. Handa”, in all its variety.

It was set in the dynamic and complex setting of this ASEAN country, highlighting aspects of Cambodia’s painful legacy of war and the Khmer Rouge genocide even as today’s nation focuses on the road to peace and prosperity. Key’s visit included a discussion with Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen and social events with diplomats but it focused above all on Dr. Handa’s support for health and education.

Health care was the entry point for Dr. Handa’s first efforts in Cambodia in the mid 1990s, at a time when social services were decimated and a hospital that offered free health care was something of a miracle. Health was a centerpiece of the Key visit, in today’s setting where the health care system has evolved rapidly but still has many gaps that are painfully obvious for those who are poor and vulnerable. At the Handa Medical Center in Battambang, Key scrubbed in to observe a surgical operation and spoke with patients on the wards, focusing on children recovering, for the most part, from motorcycle accidents. He spoke with landmine victims returning for follow-up surgery to fix problems with their stumps. He focused on ambitious plans for an expanded medical center and witnessed a gift to the center of $700,000 from tournament proceeds of the International Federation of PGA Tours.

Key is savvy to the real challenges facing non-governmental organizations in a setting like Cambodia’s. These include tricky issues around sustainability and accountability, and fitting in respectful and sensible ways with evolving government policies. These are live issues both for the Handa Medical Center and for an orphanage that was established when many children had lost parents to war. Foundation projects are adapting to changing needs, for example with a sliding scale fee system that expects payment from those who can afford it but offers free service to those who cannot. The orphanage project continues its focus on the individual child but looks to a future where the family and community are at the fore. At the Handa Model Farm near Battambang, in partnership with USAID and the World Vegetable Center, Key mused about potential New Zealand support for agricultural innovation that would allow Cambodia to fulfill its rich potential.

John Key has many interests but stressed that young people are his particular passion. He joined young Cambodians in kicking goals at a new sports center that is the planned hub of a program that will support children and their families in the context of community.

In discussing the role and Dr. Handa’s ventures, both Key and The Handa Foundation directors stressed that the efforts are non-religious and non-political, attuned to opportunities and the many obvious needs of Cambodia’s most vulnerable populations. The goal is to ensure that the unique assets of a special philanthropic venture, that reflects the good will and generosity, primarily of people in Japan, supports demanding and innovative programs that draw on both the skills of those who implement them and the broad international experience that a team drawn from different countries, cultures, and disciplines has to offer.

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Off the Beaten Path: A Former Prime Minister Explores Philanthropic Ventures in Cambodia