It is so great to catch up with young people as their careers and experience take off. Alissa Caron was part of our Hebrew school carpool almost 15 years ago. Now look:
Since last October, I have been the in-country coordinator of a new, integrated rural health and development program outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia. Our organization, named Population and Development International – Cambodia, has stemmed from the Population and Community Development Association (PDA), which is Thailand’s oldest and largest NGO and a pioneer for family planning, HIV prevention, and rural development services. I worked in the health department at PDA in Bangkok for 1 ½ years before moving here, where I discovered a whole new range of challenges and opportunities.
PDI-Cambodia is implementing a project called the Village Development Partnership (VDP), which strives to help rural communities improve their quality of life through community-led activities in health, agriculture, education, income generation, and social mobilization. The key element, which makes this project distinct from most NGO’s work in Cambodia, is that every element is community-directed.
After gaining the trust of the community – which took us 6 months of relationship-building the first time around! – the field staff facilitated a democratic election of a 30-member committee that is at least 50% female and that includes sub-groups for health, youth, and village bank programs. The committee will facilitate all future VDP activities in the villages, including an initial quality-of-life and needs assessment that will identify villagers’ priorities in various areas of development.
We are starting the project in one commune (sub-district with 9 villages) outside of Siem Reap. We work in an area that has no electricity, substantial maternal and child morbidity, and poor water and sanitation access (there is no water available for 5 dry months every year, and each village has only a handful of latrines). Most people are rice farmers but have not diversified their agricultural skills, mostly because of sparse water availability, so they are completely reliant on uncontrollable factors that determine annual rice yield. Average annual income is less than $200. Thus, the needs are great, and the stakes are high.
Although it took a long time to earn villagers’ trust and identify successful strategies for partnering with the rural communities, now excitement is building among the villagers (and consequently among the staff) about taking steps to promote their own well-being. At this time, each village committee has finalized its development plan and is ready to move forward with implementation, in partnership with PDI-C, whose role is to identify skills building opportunities and other required resources for each village.
It is truly humbling to watch as the villagers gain confidence, insight into new ideas, build new connections in their community, and initiate projects on their own. In a matter of weeks, the village committees have mobilized villagers to re-dig and dig new canals (critical preparation for the rainy season), installed trash bins in front of most houses, conducted village cleanings, made village boundary markers, and more. With our support to organize themselves and think through their own situation, the villagers have developed a reasonable action plan and are getting started in substantial ways.
This work is tremendously demanding and enlightening. I work with a great staff of dedicated Cambodians. Together we are adapting a complex model from Thailand to fit the unique Cambodian setting. This means that we have to consider whether or not every step of the Thai model will work here, and more often than not it cannot. I learn new things every day about village dynamics, all levels of government, Cambodian culture, and more – I could write a book!