Category Archives: Cambodian commentary

Writings and reflections on the intriguing country of Cambodia.

Roles for foreign funding

Back at the Alliance Breakfast Club for the March 2013 issue of the magazine, the discussion of philanthropy in emerging market economies included comments on areas where there is still a role for foreign funding. Supporting social justice initiatives was one of the examples given, as was developing infrastructure and capacity. Many attendees acknowledged that a large amount of wealth in a particular country does not necessarily equate to a large amount of effective, or even ethical, giving.

Cambodia is a country that illustrates the challenges which may be faced by organizations attempting to source funding from the emerging wealth within the kingdom. A nation where a small number of wealthy elite is contrasted with large-scale poverty in many rural areas, Cambodia has an abundance of civil society organizations all clamouring for support.

One such charity is the Khmer Cultural Development Institute (KCDI) – a charity aiming to preserve and develop Cambodian traditional arts for future generations through training for vulnerable children. One of their main activities is running the Kampot Traditional Music School. On the surface, this would seem to be an ideal area for the involvement of donors from within the country – even for cautious funders, encouraging children to sing and dance is hardly viewed as threatening and has few political connotations.

However, as a smaller charity outside the capital, the organization struggles to attract the attention of wealthier Cambodians, who tend to prefer to be associated with high-profile charitable giving. Many of those who have acquired wealth are reluctant to give it away without an element of recognition or benefit.

This desire for some form of recompense from donations can prove problematic. It is common for dance schools to stage concerts and performances, showcasing the achievements of their students, to help raise funds. However, this can lead wealthy donors in the area to view the students as a commodity available for their entertainment, raising dangerous questions about the potential for exploitation. A member of the organization’s board of trustees says they have had to deal with demands to have the children perform for benefactors with total disregard for their education. In addition to this indifference to the students’ right to attend school on a daily basis, many locations – such as casinos – are highly unsuitable for children. Continuing down the route of allowing children to perform for a fee when they should be at school would essentially amount to child labour. This is not something many foreign funders would wish to be associated with, but those within the country often have fewer qualms.

Organizations that adhere to internationally recognised standards, such as KCDI’s protection of the rights of the children in their care, can actually end up facing derision from local donors. Staff at the school were put under considerable pressure to send children to perform for a wealthy local during the country’s new year celebrations. Upon being told that the children would all be returning home to spend the holiday with their families, staff were angrily told that it was no wonder the children were poor if they passed up this generous offer of employment. These social attitudes, which completely disregard the rights of beneficiaries, can lead some of the more privileged within countries such as Cambodia to believe the poor should be grateful for the meagre dollars they may throw their way.

While funding infrastructure projects and social justice initiatives is undoubtedly important at any stage of a country’s development, perhaps there is also a role for looking at ingrained cultural attitudes and the effect these may have on the activities of local donors.

This post was originally published on the Latest from Alliance blog from Alliance magazine. View the original post at


How do you measure the impact of music?

Cambodia has a very high concentration of civil society organisations requiring funding. Worthy causes address issues ranging from basic health and livelihoods initiatives to combating human trafficking and establishing vocational training. In the face of such competition, arts charities can have a hard task meeting their funding needs. Organisations are increasingly challenged to measure their impact against specific outcomes – but how easy is it to measure the effect of music on a child’s life?

Khmer Cultural Develoment Institute (KCDI) is a small arts charity in Cambodia, which runs the Kampot Traditional Music School. While its work is mainly focused in the local area, the organization still manages to demonstrate how funding for the arts can have a positive impact on the lives of many.

How do you measure the impact of music?

Photo courtesy of KCDI

The school has a residential programme for up to 35 children from difficult backgrounds, providing music and dance training alongside their primary school education traditional schooling to complement their growth and development. The organisation also runs an extra-curricular programme for local children aiming to reduce their risk of becoming involved with child labour or delinquency. With initiatives such as free meals and healthcare support encouraging them to attend classes, the school is able to monitor the well-being of some of the most disadvantaged children in the area. Many of those who graduate from the school form groups to perform at weddings and festivals – a valuable source of additional income. Through its activities, KCDI is able to address many common funding objectives such as health, education, child rights and sustainable livelihoods initiatives – simply by using music and dance as a focal point.

Photo courtesy of KCDI

Photo courtesy of KCDI

Looking at the track record of former residential students, the impact of this musical training on their lives is difficult to dispute. Many have gone on to pursue careers as professional dancers and musicians, with some even receiving scholarships to perform overseas – an opportunity that would not have otherwise been open to them. A number have become teachers themselves, passing on their skills to a new generation of children while earning a good income. One girl’s skill in music notation even gained her a highly-regarded job at the Ministry of Culture, following which she went on to open her own business.

These far-reaching consequences occurred years after funding for the school started these students’ journeys. Their achievements will not be measured in terms of indicators and project outcomes; no donor will use their stories as evidence to extend a project. However, it seems very clear that their arts training has had a profound influence on their lives. 

Election reflections: do we take ‘free’ and ‘fair’ too much for granted?

Democracy is something that those in the West view as integral to their way of living. Often held up as the epitome of ‘civilisation’, it is something that is urged on all countries around the globe by governments and human rights groups alike. Countries that do not hold elections or are accused of tampering with the democratic process can face international condemnation.

Speaking as part of a generation that seems increasingly disillusioned with what any political party has to offer, political sentiment in the UK can often appear mired in apathy. Party campaigns are met with cynicism, the days leading up to the election with increased frustration and a sense of disillusionment. Generally, at least in my limited experience, unless voters have a particular affiliation or specific interest they choose the candidate they feel is the best of a bad bunch.

Yet, despite all this, everyone I know is adamant that we should vote, even if just to exercise our ‘democratic right’. We all have a hazy understanding of the fact that in some way we are privileged to have this right and we feel obliged to act upon this. However, alongside this acknowledged right is another privilege that we appear to take for granted: the fact that our vote will be counted as part of a free and fair election.

Will one individual vote make a difference? In many instances, possibly not; but we accept our vote as free from manipulation and corruption as an inherent part of the process. Of course, this is as it should be, but I feel this weakens our appreciation for what others have to go through in their efforts to become a true democracy.

Deserted streets in Phnom Penh on the morning of the election

Deserted streets in Phnom Penh on the morning of the election

My experience of elections in the UK has been characterised if not by apathy, at least by the feeling of it bring somewhat routine. Work continues as normal, with each person’s visit to the polling station being approached in much the same manner as a trip to the dentist, fitted in around other commitments that day. Not so in Cambodia. The morning of Cambodia’s national election, I awoke to a quiet that was almost eerie. There was no bustling traffic or busy construction in the surrounding streets at 7am; instead, the area seemed deserted as everyone queued at the polls.

Indeed, the election has been the focus of the entire weekend, with many of Phnom Penh’s businesses closing so people can take off the three days many need to travel to their home province, vote, and return to the capital. What business in the UK would voluntarily shut up shop in order for staff to exercise their democratic right? Democracy is accepted as part of our way of life, but is this only because it does not inconvenience us?

Rallies in central Phnom Penh the week before the election

Rallies in central Phnom Penh the week before the election

The weeks leading up to Cambodia’s national election have been characterised by an energy rarely seen in European political campaigns. Daily political rallies in Phnom Penh clogged the streets with flag-weilding supporters on motorbikes. Loud music and flashing lights greet any passing Wat Botum Park in the evenings. When opposition leader Sam Rainsy returned from almost 4 years of self-imposed exile, he was greeted by crowds which were reportedly as large as 100,000. It is hard to imagine this many people celebrating the return of Labour Party leader Ed Miliband to the UK so jubilantly.

Whether they understand each party’s ideologies or not, there has at least been a feeling that people care about this election. Individual people, who are excited about the election for what it intrinsically represents. They care about their ability to vote.

A tuk-tuk drives past a polling station on the day of the election

A moto drives past a polling station on the day of the election

However, simply being able to vote is just the beginning, something that my previous automatic acceptance of what it takes to be democracy failed to fully appreciate. Behind the scenes in Cambodia, there are numerous reasons to question how free and how fair this election really is. In the weeks preceding the vote, there were allegations of villagers being coerced into declaring they will vote for the ruling party; reports of intimidation by police, commune chiefs and other powerful figures; and tales of students paid to attend political rallies. Most local media is controlled by the government, limiting the opportunities for opposition parties to share their messages with the country. Statistics published in the Phnom Penh Post showed that in many districts, there were more people registered to vote than were resident there, while on election day a number of people reported that they could not find their names on the voter list, despite having registered, or that others had already voted in their name. Just a day or so before the polls opened, there were fears that the ‘indelible’ ink used to identify those who have already cast their vote could be easily removed. There was also the vexed question of whether opposition leader Sam Rainsy should have been allowed to run as a candidate, having received a royal pardon at the 11th hour for a conviction that allegedly was politically motivated.

Reiterating that those in Cambodia face different challenges to those in countries such as the UK, one of the more sobering tales was of former garment factory workers who feared they would be unable to vote as they were still waiting to be paid the wages they were owed. As many had to travel back to their home province to vote, this would have been something they simply could not afford. They eventually received their wages just days before the election, but given the timing of such a payout, financed by the ruling party, the political motivations of this could feasibly be called into question.

While these are such vitally important details for those voting in Cambodia, none of these are issues that it would ever occur to me to question during an election in the UK, which leads me to wonder if our apathy towards politics has extended towards elements of human rights as well. Have we all forgotten the importance of an election being free and fair? Do we take our democracy – and all that democracy entails – too much for granted?

As the opposition now contest the outcome of the voting, witnessing the elections in Cambodia unfold has given me a newfound appreciation for the relative freedom I have enjoyed for most of my life. I am sure that many could enlighten me as to the ways in which those in Europe are still bound by constraints of one form or another. However, as I sat reading reports of angry voters torching cars on the evening of the election, I realised how grateful I am for the fact that in my home country I am free from the fear of coercion, manipulation or violence when I choose to cast my vote.