This blog post is part of a two-part series sharing some perspectives and experiences of Dork Silong, a Cambodian who has grown up surrounded by NGO culture.
My name is Dork Silong, I am a Cambodian educator and tour guide with a passion for helping people. I was born in a rural area near the border with Thailand. My father was an intellectual who somehow survived the Khmer Rouge. In a different context he probably could have got a high-level job but because of the situation of those years he ended up as just a farmer. However he always instilled in me from a very young age that education is the solution to poverty. I knew that if I wanted to be anything other than a farmer then I had to study very hard – I did that and I did very well at school. I was taught English by monks and within a couple of years I was teaching English myself at the monks’ school.
However when it came to university my parents had no money to support me, so I moved to Siem Reap town where I could work and study at the same time. I chose Education as my major as I knew that education had already changed my life and I wanted to help ensure that everyone in Cambodia had the same kind of opportunity. I honestly believe it is the only way to help my country. People think that success means to have a lot of money or political power, but I feel at my most successful when I am in a classroom helping a kid to be a better critical thinker. Creating a new generation of bright and compassionate leaders is what success means to me.
I worked for one year in low-level tourism jobs, starting as a bellboy, but after that I went back to teaching. My degree was in “Education and Curriculum Writing” which not a lot of people studied, and I found that my skills were in high demand. As soon as I graduated there were many private schools and NGOs contacting me asking for my services, as they all wanted a cohesive English curriculum. Some of them offered to pay me but when it was just for my friends I wrote them curricula for free.
Many of my friends, who were my classmates at university, came from the eastern part of Siem Reap. What I have come to know is that in this area, everyone dreams of owning an NGO, because it is seen as the best way to get rich. So when they left university, many of these friends started their own NGO immediately – but as they had no idea about how to set up a school and write a curriculum and everything, they had to involve me. I was happy to help them as I thought children would benefit from it. Inevitably, after I had written a curriculum, I was asked to help with the marketing for the NGO too, as it was something else that my friends had no idea about and that required good English skills. So they all came back to me asking for my help again.
My friends said that we needed to do fundraising in order for the NGOs to start running. I had been on a training course run by an Australian mentoring program that walked us through how to write a convincing fundraising proposal, and again I was happy to use my skills to help my friends. I had thought I was doing it for the benefit of the community. But something that one of my friends said to me really challenged that idea. He basically said: “If you write this proposal for me I will give you 30 percent of the money.” I was shocked, and asked him: “Aren’t you helping people with this money?” and his response was: “Yes, but I am also helping myself. I will get rich from this.” I told him that I thought it was the wrong way to think, that if he wanted to get rich he should start a business not an NGO – NGO work should come from the heart! At that time I started to question myself and all these projects I had been involved in.
The more I learned about what was really going on with these projects the worse I found it to be. For example many of these English classes were run entirely with volunteers as teachers – they don’t get paid anything except for maybe some travel expenses. But in the budgets sent to donors they all have funded salaries! What is more, all the NGOs were desperate to propose some kind of building project – they wanted to build a school, a library, a toilet block. But the reason for that is just that you can get a lot of money for building projects and it is easy to keep most of that money in your pocket. For example, a local-style building in Cambodia costs about $5-6000 to build, but in the proposal they will write it in as at least $10,000. There is no kind of accountability at all. Many people say they are going to build a school but when I see the design it looks more like a house. When I ask them why it looks like that the answer is that the NGO will only last for a few years, and when it closes down they will have the land, they will have the building and they can use it as their house. Really it is just a way for those people to get someone else to build their house for them.
I honestly don’t know why donors agree to build buildings with their money. When I look back I wonder if one of the problems was that donors were actually interested in the curriculum I had written, and that kind of legitimised the whole thing and convinced them the project was worth it. I worry that I did the wrong thing, and supported something that was fake.
I can honestly tell you that in that area of east Siem Reap, all the parents are looking to marry their children to someone who owns an NGO. If you ask them why, they’ll say because it means they are a rich person. The parents won’t even know that the idea of an NGO is to help people, to them it is just code to mean someone who has money.
I am not trying to say that all NGOs are bad, not at all. I have worked with a lot of NGOs all around Cambodia – working to support the elections, working in human rights, working to stop domestic violence – and many of them do a good job and cooperate with the government. In fact I have only seen this kind of obsession with founding NGOs to make money in Siem Reap – and the big reason for that is that there are lots of tourists in Siem Reap, who can be easily convinced to part with money if it looks like a good cause.
The fake NGOs are very good at making statistics that seem to show they are doing good work. Like for example if they work in agriculture, they might have a nice glossy brochure showing the number of farmers that attended a training, the number of people that came to a meeting and the money that was spent – all the information clearly laid out. But I am always left asking: “What are the results?” These NGOs don’t do any kind of impact assessment. The NGOs will be able to tell you about a lot of input and a lot of processes, but if you ask about the impact it is basically zero.
It generally works out well for the volunteers that come to support these organisations. The NGO owners are happy because they make their money, the volunteers are happy because they have a nice experience and get some nice pictures for their Instagram. But no-one actually cares if any good was done as result. It is really sad because the victim in the story is the children in those schools. People who are involved in this are stealing my people’s future.
For example, if you are driving a motorbike and you don’t do it well you will fall down instantly and hurt yourself, and everyone will know about it because they can see with their eyes. But education is not like that. If you don’t care about the kids in your school you won’t see them get hurt on the day you teach them. But you are hurting their future – you cannot see it immediately but the effect is just as bad. That’s why I am so frustrated with people who start schools because it seems like easy money – they are slowly killing their students.
Most of the people involved in these schools are completely unqualified. They have no background in education, they treat it like a business. And the teachers that volunteer to run the classes are not qualified. So the teachers plays games with the students and have fun with them, but may not teach them anything. I saw one school near my house that was operating for three years with the same kids and they only ever taught them two books! It was like the children got to learn how to count from one to ten but never got to count beyond that. They must have been so bored and annoyed with those two books. I worry that this will kill the critical thinking capacity of the children and kill their passion for learning.
All the NGO schools teach only two subjects – English and Computing. This is partly because Siem Reap is a tourist hub and everyone thinks that these two subjects will get you a job. But also partly because there is a free supply of English teachers in the form of foreign volunteers. Nowadays some of them offer Chinese too for the same reasons. When an NGO school gets very successful with its fundraising it might start to give out more things for free, like clothes, food or school materials, and then the students prefer to go to that school and spend less time in the government school which teaches all their other subjects, like Maths or Khmer language.
This idea of getting handouts at school is influenced by tourism. Whenever I see tourists getting involved in these projects they ask the same question: “What can I bring?” And of course the owners ask for the same things – buy us books, buy us pens, donate computers, throw us a party. All the schools ask for the same things because they all copy each other.
This problem with handouts extends to other type of volunteer projects too, like house-building, which is a topic we will explore in the next blog post.
Dork Silong is an educator, tour guide and previous NGO worker who lives in Siem Reap, Cambodia. He is passionate about education as a force for social transformation and doing good effectively. He works as a freelance guide for educational travel company Ayana Journeys. In his free time he enjoys fishing, biking, reading, photography, and he is always up for learning a new skill. The featured image shows Silong in a rural village in Cambodia.