An Article from the KHMER TIMES Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Students in a classroom at the Choice Center in a squatter village in Kandal Province, south of Phnom Penh. (KT Photo: Billy Otter)
Back to Basics: An NGO That Works
KANDAL PROVINCE (Khmer Times) – Good intentions are getting bad reputations in the often opaque world of Cambodia’s 4,000 NGOs.
Reports abound of inflated salaries to directors like Somaly Mam, orphanages where most “orphans” have a parent, and “voluntourism” where well-meaning foreigners pay exorbitant rates to work at charities. These problems fuel a website: “Scambodia.”
NGOs are under increasing pressure for transparency, starting with posting their accounts online. In response, NGO fundraising appeals increasingly state what percent of funds go for programs, and what percent go for fundraising.
Despite bad publicity, Cambodia is expected to enjoy its favored status as “the world’s cause.” In that light, the Khmer Times highlights one NGO that channels a maximum amount of donations to helping poor Cambodians.
Choice is a small grassroots aid group, operated since 2006 by expatriates in Phnom Penh. Its full name is: Charitable Humanitarian Organization In Cambodia by Expats.
One minute of tapping on a computer keyboard, and Choice’s accounts appear on a computer screen. Go to the website of the Charity Commission for England and Wales. Type “Choice Cambodia” into the site’s search engine. Up pops a one-page sheet detailing “Receipts” and “Payments.”
Elsewhere, a quick exploration of the Choice website yields a monthly list of donors, by names and amounts.
“The books are always honest, balanced and open,” said Srey Leak Kasna, the charity’s auditor, who donates her time. “The charity does good work for the poor people in the villages, so I am happy to help however I can.”
Judging by their website and by visits to their work site in Kandal province, Choice accomplished a lot last year with a total budget of $71,000.
Their secret? Real volunteerism. No expat is paid. Only the Khmer, with the exception of Ms. Kasna, receive salaries. Expats working with Choice include: a retired New York filmmaker, a retired British policeman, a Dutch cook, and a German internet entrepreneur.
Choice was started here by Ross Wright, a retired Australian telecommunications worker. Now 70 years old and the charity’s secretary. Mr. Wright says donors should ask tough questions of NGOs.
“People feel betrayed by these stories, but they haven’t done their homework either,” he said, referring to the bad publicity. “Before you donate, have a look to see if they are a fully and currently registered charity. Ask them questions. If they don’t give the answers you want, be wary. Very wary” Choice is secular.
“We do not want to change them, or convert them into anything else. All we want to do is improve the lives they have,” said Mr. Wright, a native of Geelong, Australia who favors broad brimmed hats in the tropical sun.
Wright’s group focuses on a poor village of squatters located one hour by car southeast of Phnom Penh. On arrival at the village eight years ago, Choice’s first step was to provide clean drinking water.
“We found that wells had been dug by NGOs for these villages of squatters, but no one had tested the water,” he recalled. “The residents were always ill. And through testing, high levels of arsenic were discovered.”
Choice installed water filters and cisterns for safe storage of water.
“Once they had access to clean water for drinking and cooking, the symptoms we’d been seeing began to disappear,” Mr. Wright said.
By collecting donations from friends overseas, expat volunteers were able to create the Choice Center. Now two adjacent rented buildings, this center has classrooms, a computer lab, a sewing room, a hair salon, and a dental facility donated by a Malaysian supporter. Support groups have been formed in Singapore, Germany and Australia.
The German group donated money for the purchase of a 3-ton truck. It serves a dual purpose – water truck for water deliveries and school bus to take village children to a state school.
Foreign donations pay for scholarships – for auto mechanics, hair styling, university, and even for one village youth who is at medical school.
Two young women who studied hair styling in Phnom Penh, decided to take jobs there, delaying opening of the village hair salon.
“What are you going to do?” asked Mr. Wright. “You can’t stand in the way of their opportunities.”
Choice is negotiating to sew uniforms for school children in Manchester, England.
“The girls in the sewing center are paid a wage, and it gives them training in a marketable skill,” Wright said, referring to the Cambodia’s garment factories which employ 750,000 workers.
Twice a month, a medical-dental day is held at the Choice Center. Villagers are transported by truck to the Center. There, they receive attention from a volunteer dentist and a paramedic.
“Most dental programs focus on children only, and stop at 18 years of age,” Mr. Wright said. “Some of these villagers have suffered with poor dental health for many, many years. So we offer the service to anyone from within the villages we serve.”
Serious medical cases are forwarded to hospitals and funded by Choice. They have paid for: a heart operation on a boy, facial reconstruction for a baby born with no palate, and on-going care for a man suffering from leprosy.
Mr. Wright said of hospital costs in Cambodia: “Here you have to provide your own nursing care and your own food. We also give them money to get back to their village.”